Silas Marner Day 30: Taming Your Toddler: Take Off Your Mob-Cap and Let Her Be !

dahlia in rain.JPG
Dahlia still glowing on the back step despite the cold and  rain, 6 September

I’ve been reading Silas Marner very slowly  (search ‘Silas Marner’) and  intermittently here for a few months. We’re in chapter 14, which you can find here. For previous posts, search ‘Silas Marner’.

Here is Silas unable to accept that he has to learn to discipline the toddler Eppie. Dolly Winthrop has suggested, if he can’t bear to smack her, he might think, more mildly,  of locking her in the coal hole as a punishment – perhaps our equivalent would be the naughty step, or ‘stay in your room’. Today, Eppie, aged about three, has been tied to his loom with a length of cloth, found the scissors, cut herself free and escaped  the cottage while he was concentrating on his work. Poor Silas has been frantic with worry and  has  now found her:

Silas, overcome with convulsive joy at finding his treasure again, could do nothing but snatch her up, and cover her with half-sobbing kisses. It was not until he had carried her home, and had begun to think of the necessary washing, that he recollected the need that he should punish Eppie, and “make her remember”. The idea that she might run away again and come to harm, gave him unusual resolution, and for the first time he determined to try the coal-hole–a small closet near the hearth.

“Naughty, naughty Eppie,” he suddenly began, holding her on his knee, and pointing to her muddy feet and clothes–“naughty to cut with the scissors and run away. Eppie must go into the coal-hole for being naughty. Daddy must put her in the coal-hole.”

He half-expected that this would be shock enough, and that Eppie would begin to cry. But instead of that, she began to shake herself on his knee, as if the proposition opened a pleasing novelty. Seeing that he must proceed to extremities, he put her into the coal-hole, and held the door closed, with a trembling sense that he was using a strong measure. For a moment there was silence, but then came a little cry, “Opy, opy!” and Silas let her out again, saying, “Now Eppie ‘ull never be naughty again, else she must go in the coal-hole–a black naughty place.”

The weaving must stand still a long while this morning, for now Eppie must be washed, and have clean clothes on; but it was to be hoped that this punishment would have a lasting effect, and save time in future–though, perhaps, it would have been better if Eppie had cried more.

I’d want to think first about how  we react when someone, especially a child, has done something dangerous.  A child runs into the road after a ball, narrowly avoiding being run over by a car. Your first instinct is gratefulness that they are not dead. For me, as I imagine that, gratefulness is immediately followed by a frightened anger that they nearly got themselves killed.  I can imagine shouting  screaming or slapping at that point (sorry, my children). But Silas is more gentle, more careful perhaps. It’s more than that, though – it is the amount of joy he feels on finding her. ‘Convulsive’ suggests deeply out of his control. And he has carried her home before ‘punishment’, ‘a lesson’ comes into his mind, miles and miles behind his  natural response.

I notice how  George Eliot calls Eppie ‘his treasure’ – we know from our previous readings how deep this sense of her as a golden boon, a lifesaver, a bringer-back-to-life runs for Silas. The entire weight of his life’s meaning and purpose now rests on the child.  He has lost his treasure once (Lantern Yard); he has lost his treasure twice (the stolen gold) and now he has nearly lost his treasure (Eppie) a third time. It’s not surprising that the thought of punishment lags long behind his love. He needs  ‘unusual resolution’ to even contemplate  bringing a punishment about.  And then, his  imagined fear of the pain of the punishment (and he has suffered terrible punishments himself, which must  be partly why?)  means he cannot bring it about.

He’s scared of frightening her, and yet he has thought (Dolly has told him) that sometimes he must frighten the child to make her remember. Why is it possibly for Dolly Winthrop, decent woman, loves her children, to discipline a child, but not Silas? This is something to do with Silas’ own fears, the power of his imagination. Eppie isn’t afraid as Silas is:

“Naughty, naughty Eppie,” he suddenly began, holding her on his knee, and pointing to her muddy feet and clothes–“naughty to cut with the scissors and run away. Eppie must go into the coal-hole for being naughty. Daddy must put her in the coal-hole.”

He half-expected that this would be shock enough, and that Eppie would begin to cry. But instead of that, she began to shake herself on his knee, as if the proposition opened a pleasing novelty.

Silas is afraid of the act of disciplining Eppie, but  what is it  he fears?

Seeing that he must proceed to extremities, he put her into the coal-hole, and held the door closed, with a trembling sense that he was using a strong measure.

Fears using a ‘strong measure’? Strong measures were certainly once used, to life-devastating effect, on him, in Lantern Yard.

It’s an interesting and ongoing problem for anyone  looking after  a child. We learn by experience and sometimes experience must hurt. But can you as a caring adult deliberately hurt the child – hurt even by  shouting, or by the modern-day equivalent of the  coal hole?  By disapproval?  By threatening isolation? Silas thinks the threat itself is bad enough to have effect (it’s not).

Thinking of Freud (poor out-moded fellow, nobody seems interested in his thoughts any more)  and the Reality Principle. What helps a toddler understand the reality of possible danger in the external world? We can’t leave them to find out by falling into the Stone Pits, we cannot  always let them learn by actual experience.  Eppie is moved by the pleasure principle – she wanted to wander in the meadow and play in the mud and luckily for her and for Silas, she didn’t hurt herself. How is he to teach her if not by bringing to some  approximation of the reality principle – don’t do that! it hurts! – into her mind?

He tried the punishment, very slowly after the event,  without wanting it to hurt her: it doesn’t hurt her. Next minute she’s putting herself back in the  coal hole for fun.

In half an hour she was clean again, and Silas having turned his back to see what he could do with the linen band, threw it down again, with the reflection that Eppie would be good without fastening for the rest of the morning. He turned round again, and was going to place her in her little chair near the loom, when she peeped out at him with black face and hands again, and said, “Eppie in de toal-hole!”

This total failure of the coal-hole discipline shook Silas’s belief in the efficacy of punishment. “She’d take it all for fun,” he observed to Dolly, “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.”

“Well, that’s partly true, Master Marner,” said Dolly, sympathetically; “and if you can’t bring your mind to frighten her off touching things, you must do what you can to keep ’em out of her way. That’s what I do wi’ the pups as the lads are allays a-rearing. They _will_ worry and gnaw–worry and gnaw they will, if it was one’s Sunday cap as hung anywhere so as they could drag it. They know no difference, God help ’em: it’s the pushing o’ the teeth as sets ’em on, that’s what it is.”

Silas must find his own way as a loving parent, and  his way is the way of love; ‘this total failure of the coal-hole discipline shook Silas’s belief in the efficacy of punishment’. It might work for Dolly, who could probably carry it off  with straightforward and still loving confidence, but for Silas? No.  Instead, as Dolly instructs, he must now take the responsibility of thinking ahead of the child, ‘if you can’t bring your mind to frighten her off touching things, you must do what you can to keep ’em out of her way.’ That’s a lot more work, but Silas prefers to stick to the natural shape of his own ‘mind’  that to the alternative of causing pain:

“She’d take it all for fun,” he observed to Dolly, “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.”

The pain of the reality principle shifts: he’ll bear it, by keeping things out of her way. He trusts this will work and she’ll grow out of her naughtiness. No Victorian stereotype, Silas. No, nor Dolly, neither. They both seem real, live people, thinking in real time.  Hurray for no cardboard cut-outs in mob caps.

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.

Here the key work is ‘vicariously’. Silas bears the pain, the burden, and keeps it from her. Eppie engages with the world as freely as he can let her, he suffers the problems of  making that not painful.  Very responsible parenting, I’d say. And even Dolly seems almost to approve.

 

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