A three minute lecture – Absent Mothers and Bad Fathers: Silas Marner.

Text:

Bad Fathers and Absent Mothers

Silas Marner is a fairy tale, one in which Silas, the wounded, childless patriarch with no family, is restored to psychological and social health through the intervention of the matriarch-in-waiting, Eppie. Through Eppie Silas regains his lost kingdom, that is, both a place in society, and his faith in humankind. With the marriage of Eppie to Aaron and thus the expectation of children Silas acquires a family and a stake in the future.

A major theme of the novel is that of flawed patriarchs. The book is notable for its bad or useless fathers and fallible men. William Dane betrays Silas in Lantern Yard; Squire Cass is a careless and brutal father, Dunstan is a thief and a liar, while Godfrey is weak-willed, self-centred and a feckless father.

But if the tale is notable for its bad fathers and men then it is equally notable for its absent mothers or matriarchs. Silas at the beginning is without both father and mother, though it is only the latter he recalls (and his dead sister). The Cass boys are also motherless, and Eppie becomes motherless as a child.

It is the women, however, who facilitate the process of reintegrating Silas the outsider into village life and human community. Dolly Winthrop, having taken pity on Silas, visits him, bringing him cakes. The offering and sharing of food is a primal activity that establishes and strengthens the bonds between people.

Dolly also brings along her little son, Aaron, thereby signalling the importance of family within the community. And Aaron of course will eventually marry Eppie, thus sealing Silas’s integration into village life.

The female, matriarchal principle is the civilising, humanising force at work here, healing the rifts between people and helping to re-establish a benevolent patriarchy as a necessary part of a stable society. As in a fairy tale, Eppie is the pauper girl who starts out with nothing and ends up as a kind of princess with family, husband, and a stake in the community; while Silas, the disenfranchised exile, not only establishes a new home for himself but also finds a role as a patriarch in his own household and village.

© Michael Blackburn, 2017

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