Randall Smith recently published a two-part Public Discourse essay on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Smith criticizes the radical argument put forth in the novel’s trial scene by a sophisticated city lawyer who claims that Fyodor Pavlovich is not truly a father because his son Dmitri feels no loyalty to him. The lawyer argues that, even if Dmitri murdered Fyodor, the accusation of parricide is senseless. In Smith’s view, this line of argumentation prophetically foreshadows our current culture’s relentless attempts to redefine our concepts of marriage, motherhood, and fatherhood to be based upon consent rather than nature.
Although the defense attorney may be attempting to undermine the traditional family, his statement that “he who begets is not yet a father, a father is he who begets and proves worthy of it” includes an element of truth. While there is no denying that a child’s emotions toward his father do not negate biological parenthood, many children understandably lack filial devotion toward their absent biological fathers. In our quest to emphasize the cultural, sociological, and personal importance of biological fathers, we should be careful not to negate the importance of those men who step up to love and care for children to whom they are not biologically related.
Fathering a Child
Another great work of literature depicts the difference between fathering a child and being a father to a child: George Eliot’s Silas Marner.
At its broadest level, the novel is a thoroughly Romantic tale, in which the title character achieves redemption through the genuineness, innocence, and purity of a child. But Silas Marner also presents a stark contrast between two types of fathers. The protagonist, Silas, rescues an abandoned child, Eppie, and showers her with all the love and attention of a devoted parent. Unbeknownst to the rest of the community, Eppie’s biological father lives among them, watching his daughter from afar and purposely choosing to ignore the child for the sake of his own comfort and reputation.
At the novel’s opening, Eppie’s father, Godfrey Cass, is miserably married to Molly, a woman not only far below his social rank, but also a barmaid addicted to opium. For Godfrey, who is a member of the local gentry, “a movement of compunction . . . had urged him into a secret marriage, which was a blight on his life. It was an ugly story of low passion, delusion, and waking from delusion.”
Early chapters describe Godfrey’s character, which constantly vacillates between guilt, duty, and fear of consequences. His family expects him to make a good marriage with the well-bred Nancy, and his father contrives to throw the two together at every opportunity. This makes Godfrey extremely uncomfortable, because he knows that he has a wife and child in another town, yet he undeniably enjoys Nancy’s company. Godfrey gives his wife and child monetary support, but even this noble-seeming action has questionable motives. The reader wishes to believe the best—that Godfrey has not abandoned his family—yet his worries at not having enough money are not that his wife and child will go without, but that his wife will reveal the truth of their relationship to his father.
Eppie’s mother, Molly, on the other hand, while perhaps more willing, is certainly less fit to care for the child than Godfrey. Part of her demands for money stem from her need to feed an opium addiction. That addiction leads to a turning point in the novel. When a drug-induced stupor during a snowstorm precipitates Molly’s death, little Eppie wanders into Silas Marner’s cottage.
Being a Father
Silas, a good-hearted man whose outlook has been embittered by unfair accusations, sees the golden-haired Eppie as a gift. He decides to raise and care for her. Godfrey, the only one who knows the identity of his wife and daughter, remains silent, elated that all his problems are solved. He has utterly abandoned any shred of responsibility toward this child of his, salving the slight twinge of his conscience by a contribution to ensure that Silas can support Eppie. After all, Godfrey “would never forsake [her]; he would do everything but own [her].” By abdicating his duty as biological father, Godfrey forfeits any reciprocal love that might have been given him by his daughter.
In contrast, Silas becomes a new man (or one might say, his old self) in pouring out devotion to a helpless waif. He tenderly cares for Eppie’s needs, watches over her as he works, and finds it difficult even to discipline her when she misbehaves. With the help of a motherly neighbor, Silas raises Eppie into a lovely young woman who seeks to assist him and ease his burdens as he ages. Though poor, the two find enjoyment and satisfaction in the beauty of nature and the fellowship they enjoy together. Eppie even dislikes the thought of leaving Silas alone when she marries.
Godfrey, free at last to live his life unfettered by previous bonds, wastes no time in proposing to and marrying Nancy. The one blot on their happiness is that they have no children. Years pass, and startling revelations about his brother compel Godfrey to acknowledge that it is terrible to have one’s secrets dramatically flung to the world. He confesses to his wife the secret of his first marriage and child. His kind-hearted wife is appalled, not so much for her own sake but for the fact that he abandoned Eppie. She tells him that he must make amends.
In an emotional scene, Godfrey reveals his identity to Eppie, and he demands her filial respect and obligation. Silas points out to Godfrey’s discomfort that “God gave [Eppie] to me because you turned your back upon her, and He looks upon her as mine.” No change of heart on Godfrey’s part can “alter the feelings inside us. It’s me she’s been calling her father ever since she could say the word.”
The three adults await Eppie’s decision. To whom does her loyalty belong? Silas is the only father she has ever known, but the man who gave her life also claims her as his daughter.
Understanding the Difference
At such a staggering revelation, Eppie ponders “this new unfamiliar father who had suddenly come to fill the place of that black featureless shadow” once married to her mother. She finds in her heart “a repulsion towards . . . the newly-revealed father.” She exclaims, “I can’t feel as I’ve got any father but one.” She declares that she must remain with Silas for he is her father, the one who has cared for her, raised her, and whom she can never abandon.
Devastated, Godfrey returns home. Yet even he must admit that the consequences for his decisions are only just: “I wanted to pass for childless once[;] I shall pass for childless now against my wish.” He acknowledges that having “shirked doing a father’s part” has resulted in irreparable damage to a relationship with his daughter.
Yet in positively portraying Eppie’s choice of Silas over Godfrey, Silas Marner does not reject the importance of biological fatherhood. On the contrary, it heightens it. Godfrey’s lowest moment is not distancing himself from his drug-addicted wife or flirting with another woman; what galls the reader is his abandoning his helpless infant daughter to a perfect stranger for his own convenience and then expecting that daughter to welcome him sixteen years later with his talk of duty. Not even Silas contradicts the importance of biological fatherhood: in vindicating his claim to the title of Eppie’s father, he questions why Godfrey never felt compelled to care for Eppie.
Sadly, such scenarios are not relegated to nineteenth-century fiction. Roughly one-third of American children today live apart from their biological father. Add to that the number of children whose fathers may be physically present but emotionally distant or abusive, and one realizes that far too many men are fathers in the mold of Godfrey Cass.
Many across the ideological spectrum have acknowledged the epidemic proportions of this problem and have justly called for biological fathers to shoulder their responsibilities. Perhaps with the attention given to the problem, many of these fathers will come to their senses. Realistically, though, not all of them will. Are their children doomed to a life without a father?
Fortunately, that does not have to be the case. Many men have stepped into the void in these children’s lives as an adoptive or foster father. Because what children need is not simply a person, but the contributions to well-being that a father offers—stability, unconditional love, honest advice, protection, challenges to overcome obstacles, to name a few—a biologically unrelated man can become a father in the broadest sense of the term and after the pattern of Silas.
In light of examples such as Silas Marner, perhaps one should adjust the theorem of Dostoyevsky’s attorney to say, “He who begets is a father in name only; a father in the fullest sense is he who loves and provides for a child regardless of cost to himself.” Rejecting a sole fixation on absentee biological fathers (although certainly not dismissing that problematic reality), we should instead highlight the legal guardians, adoptive dads, or concerned and loving family members or friends who seek to guarantee a father’s presence in the life of a child. These men merit a child’s confident faith and deserve our sincere acclaim.
Jill Burcham is a research director for a nonprofit organization and taught English while completing her master’s degree.