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Modern parenting in Silas Marner

It does make a difference to re-read a book after 40 years, especially if you’ve become a parent in that time.

I was about 14 when I first read George Eliot’s “Silas Marner,” and I recall being moved or disturbed by many things in the story. But the mere fact that Silas raises a child as a single parent must not have struck me particularly; I have no memory of how it impressed me. During my lifetime, the idea of a man raising children by himself may have been statistically uncommon, but it’s not been regarded as inherently abnormal.

“Silas Marner” also has things to say about disciplining children, but again, I can’t recall any of that leaving an impression on my 14-year-old self.

But now, as the (married) father of two children aged 11 and 9, certain things in the novel hit me like bags of sand.

Silas, for example, is reluctant to punish his new daughter in any way. He tries half-heartedly to put her in a little coal-closet as a punishment for running out the front door one afternoon (she’s all of two years old, and merely wants to play outside). But Eppie takes the little closet-punishment as a fun game, and Silas never tries it again. He says to the kindly Mrs. Winthrop, who had advised him that children needed punishment —

“She’d take it all for fun, if I didn’t hurt her, and that I can’t do, Mrs. Winthrop. If she makes me a bit o’ trouble, I can bear it. And she’s got no tricks but what she’ll grow out of.”

So Eppie was reared without punishment, the burden of her misdeeds being borne vicariously by father Silas. The stone hut was made a soft nest for her, lined with downy patience: and also in the world that lay beyond the stone hut she knew nothing of frowns and denials.

Now, my wife and I are far from old-fashioned disciplinarians. But we are not indulgent enough to raise a child without ever saying no to him.

Perhaps Eliot is exaggerating when she says that Eppie knew “nothing” of frowns and denials. I suspect that what she really means here is uselessly angry scolding and irrational denials.

She does disapprove of the lazy indulgence with which Squire Cass raises his two sons (see particularly Godfrey’s reflections about this in chapter 9). So she must view Silas’ parenting as something else. If it’s an indulgence, it stems from involved love and not from the kind of indifference that characterizes the Cass household. Squire Cass, too, is a single parent (a widower), and he’s a pointed contrast to Silas.

I’ll note here that Eliot never raised young children herself; she was a stepmother to three adolescent boys. Maybe we should take that into account when she depicts Eppie’s childhood. What I knew about children before I had my own was, essentially, nothing.

Nevertheless, I find myself applauding what Eliot is doing here. Eppie becomes a mature, thoughtful and admired young woman, and though her character may be a little idealized, I can’t believe that Eliot doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing here, when she gives a Eppie a thoroughly unconventional rearing and then presents her as turning out just fine. I may quibble about exactly how much to say no to a child, as a purely practical question, yet agree with Eliot wholeheartedly that no child needs uselessly angry scolding. And I salute her presentation, in Silas, of a parent who recognizes his own limits in shaping his child’s behavior. Silas says that Eppie will grow out of her “tricks” by herself, and he’s not implying that he will raise her indifferently; he’s simply recognizing that in this other human being there’s a growth that’s independent of himself.

That’s a lesson I have forgotten countless times. And I will always need reminding.

Eliot also contrasts Silas implicitly with Godfrey Cass, who won’t acknowledge Eppie as his biological daughter and is happy to let Silas raise her, but is willing to send generous gifts of money her way, provided they don’t lead to suspicions about his secret past.

Godfrey decides that he will “not forget” his child: “he would see that it was well provided for. That was a father’s duty.”

Eliot seems to be saying that according to convention, a father’s duty was thought principally to be just that: providing for a child financially, even remotely.

The miserly, painfully introverted and unfriendly Silas proves to be by far the most emotionally accessible father in the story — though only after he loses his money, of course.

“The Cauld Blast” (1876), by Joshua Hargrave Mann
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