Silas Marner Day 18 : Acting on the Better Will

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Lilies golden light 19 June

Been reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog. Read the previous posts by typing Silas Marner into the search box.

I’m picking up in Chapter IX, and first notice how carefully I need to read this account of Squire Cass. It would be easy to read what you think is there rather than what George Eliot really wants us to see. The Squire is

a tall, stout man of sixty, with a face in which the knit brow and rather hard glance seemed contradicted by the slack and feeble mouth. His person showed marks of habitual neglect, his dress was slovenly; and yet there was something in the presence of the old Squire distinguishable from that of the ordinary farmers in the parish, who were perhaps every whit as refined as he, but, having slouched their way through life with a consciousness of being in the vicinity of their “betters”, wanted that self-possession and authoritativeness of voice and carriage which belonged to a man who thought of superiors as remote existences with whom he had personally little more to do than with America or the stars. The Squire had been used to parish homage all his life, used to the presupposition that his family, his tankards, and everything that was his, were the oldest and best; and as he never associated with any gentry higher than himself, his opinion was not disturbed by comparison.

My first glance reading seemed to say – ‘there was something about him’ despite his slovenly dress etc. But when I reread I saw that really there was nothing about him except ‘self-possession and authoritativeness of voice and carriage’. I stopped for a while to think about this. The ordinary farmers were just as ‘good’ as Cass – ‘every whit as refined as he’, which is a joke because he is not  very refined at all, and neither are the other farmers… it’s just that Cass comes with a self-belief grown by  generations of  entitlement –  ‘the presupposition that his family, his tankards, and everything that was his, were the oldest and best’. And it’s a hierarchy that stops at himself, too, because Cass never meets anyone above him … so he is always top dog in his own world. That’s what’s coming in the room with him, despite his slovenly clothes and ‘slack and feeble mouth’.

On I read…Squire Cass gets annoyed about the loss of the horse, loss of the money, and berates himself for being ‘too good a  father.’

Godfrey was silent. He was not likely to be very penetrating in his judgments, but he had always had a sense that his father’s indulgence had not been kindness, and had had a vague longing for some discipline that would have checked his own errant weakness and helped his better will.

I wonder where the thought ‘he was not likely to be very penetrating in his judgments’ comes from? Not from Godfrey Cass himself,  from George Eliot then, from the narrator of this story. The George Eliot voice is also inside Godfrey, knowing his thoughts, as well as judging him from a more external point of view. So the sentence continues  ‘but he had always had a sense that his father’s indulgence had not been kindness’. Not only that, he had ‘a vague longing for some discipline that would have checked his own errant weakness and helped his better will’. This is really interesting to me because I am interested in learning how people change. The language here, of not knowing, but somehow sensing or feeling or knowing vaguely, points to a  kind of unknown knowledge that might be in a person – a clue to being happier?  Because the morality here – ‘errant weakness/better will’ – is not morality for its own sake. Godfrey Cass is not a happy man. Being good might be good for him.

Godfrey left the room, hardly knowing whether he were more relieved by the sense that the interview was ended without having made any change in his position, or more uneasy that he had entangled himself still further in prevarication and deceit. What had passed about his proposing to Nancy had raised a new alarm, lest by some after-dinner words of his father’s to Mr. Lammeter he should be thrown into the embarrassment of being obliged absolutely to decline her when she seemed to be within his reach. He fled to his usual refuge, that of hoping for some unforeseen turn of fortune, some favourable chance which would save him from unpleasant consequences– perhaps even justify his insincerity by manifesting its prudence. And in this point of trusting to some throw of fortune’s dice, Godfrey can hardly be called specially old-fashioned. Favourable Chance, I fancy, is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in. Let even a polished man of these days get into a position he is ashamed to avow, and his mind will be bent on all the possible issues that may deliver him from the calculable results of that position. Let him live outside his income, or shirk the resolute honest work that brings wages, and he will presently find himself dreaming of a possible benefactor, a possible simpleton who may be cajoled into using his interest, a possible state of mind in some possible person not yet forthcoming. Let him neglect the responsibilities of his office, and he will inevitably anchor himself on the chance that the thing left undone may turn out not to be of the supposed importance. Let him betray his friend’s confidence, and he will adore that same cunning complexity called Chance, which gives him the hope that his friend will never know. Let him forsake a decent craft that he may pursue the gentilities of a profession to which nature never called him, and his religion will infallibly be the worship of blessed Chance, which he will believe in as the mighty creator of success. The evil principle deprecated in that religion is the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind.

Interesting that chance is so set up against law – any law? ‘Favourable Chance, I fancy, is the god of all men who follow their own devices instead of obeying a law they believe in.’ is the difference about sticking true to some belief, not so much what the belief is? But the ultimate law for George Eliot here, is the law of consequences in human action,’the orderly sequence by which the seed brings forth a crop after its kind.’

In the religion of chance there is no such law – one hopes for a lucky break. But in the religion of consequences, you know that if you do x, then y will follow.  The sense of the  consequence following – pursuing  – Godfrey is getting a bit frightening. Is his sense of self-worth strong enough to make him take action?

Thinking of the way Godfrey has been brought up by Squire Cass, partly bullied, partly over-indulged. Thinking of the potential good that there might be in Godfrey and which he himself senses.  After all, many men would not have married the alcoholic woman he (presumably) got pregnant. He married her out of ‘compunction’.  That compunction may be a form of  weakness and an attempt to halt the process whereby ‘the seed brings forth a crop after its kind’. Compunction is an  interesting word –  being sharply pricked  – being hurt by remorse… I wonder what  a person like Godfrey, with some sense of  ‘could do better’ – can do to change? and is that going to be possible?  What would need to be in place? Is the pain of compunction what is needed,  or the discipline he somehow vaguely longs for but cannot self-supply?  How is he going to shore up his ‘better will’?

Often we need outside help, new habits, a voice over the shoulder helping us create those new habits…I’m wondering about Miss Nancy Lammeter, could she be the discipline Godfrey needs? … But then, Godfrey is already  married!

 

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