I’m coming back to this topic (from yesterday—two posts in a row! Hurray!) to fill in a bit more of the detail. My main point yesterday was that all this time I’ve assumed the who is a parent debate has really evolved over time. But here’s a book–over 150 years old–where the arguments seem to be just the same. I cannot say if it matters that there may indeed be nothing (essentially) new under the sun, but it is certainly surprising to me.
So here’s the quick plot set up: Godfrey is Eppie’s genetic father. Though he knew where Eppie was (and knew her mother had died) he chose to absent himself from her life for 18 years or so. In his place, Silas functioned as her only parent. He did so knowing only that the mother had died, with no information about the genetic father.
At the end of the novel, Godfrey and his wife (Nancy), who are childless, decide that they will claim Eppie. In their view this is perhaps magnanimous, as they are wealthy landholders while Silas is an aging weaver earning a meager living. It doesn’t seem they can imagine that either Silas or Eppie can resist the combined appeal of a genetic parent and a more materially comfortable life.
Originally, Godfrey doesn’t think to play the genetic connection card. He’d like that to be “reserved for the future” so that he can tell Eppie gradually. Thus, the initial offer to take Effie into their home isn’t premised on genetics, but simply on class privilege. He appeals to Silas’ interest in Effie’s well-being, to the comfort he (Silas) would derived from seeing her fortune made in this way. They don’t plan to cut Silas entirely out of Eppie’s life–she’d often come and see him.
(One thing striking here is the extent to which Godfrey seems to miss what is to me (and to Silas and Eppie) the essence of the parent/child relationship. For surely to them (and to me) it is about the depth and texture of their ongoing social relationship. I’ll come back to this momentarily.)
But Silas is a bit like the woman in the Solomon story. He will sacrifice himself for the good of his child. And so he says he will not stand in the way. Eppie, however, does not perceive that the material advantages being offered outweigh the emotional costs and so declines.
It’s at this point that Godfrey plays the genetic trump card. “I’ve a claim on you, Eppie–the strongest of all claims. It’s my duty . . . to own Eppie as my child, and provide for her. She is my own child–her mother was my wife. I’ve a natural claim on her that must stand before every other.”
Now you could see Godfrey as actually asserting two bases for his claim–one being genetics and the other being marriage–but I think it’s really the genetic claim he is asserting. And if anyone here can remember back as far as when I wrote regularly, you’ll perhaps recall that his point–that this is a natural claim that must stand before every other–is one that is commonly made today.
The immediate response is to discuss Godfrey’s conduct in failing to assert his claim 16 years earlier. This, Godfrey acknowledges, was wrong. But apparently he does not feel this makes the primacy of his natural claim any less.
In any event, Silas’ response pretty much tracks what I’ve said a dozen times here: “Your coming know and saying ‘I’m her father’ doesn’t alter the feelings inside us . It’s me she’s been calling her father ever since she could say the word.” As before, Godfrey offers what thinks is a compromise of sorts: “It isn’t as if she was to be taken quite away from you….She’ll be very near you and come to see you very often.”
This response seems to me to emphasize the difference in understanding between Godfrey and Silas, or between those who elevate the genetic connection and those, like me, who value the psychological role. In order for the genetic connection to be primary, the depth and complexity, the richness and texture, of the social/psychological connection must be diminished. Thus, the occasional–or perhaps the frequent–visit can be substituted for the day-to-day intimacy of common life. The very suggestion seems to me to reveal the failure to appreciate the importance of the social/psychological.
Again Silas stands aside and says that Eppie must do as she chooses. Eppie is unequivocal: “I should have no delight i’ life any more if I was forced to go away from my father…[h]e’s took care of me and loved me from the first, and I’ll cleave to him as long as he lives.” At this point Nancy makes a last appeal” “[T]here’s a duty you owe to your lawful father.” But again, Eppie is clear, replying “I can’t feel as I’ve got any father but one.” And thus the discussion is brought to a close.
I’m sure I’m quite biased, as the story ends as I think it should. And Elliot made herself an easier version of the story by having Godfrey stand idly by for 16 years. Yet for now my point is that the arguments embodied here are the same that were rehearsed on this blog in a dozen other far more modern contexts.