Justice in Silas Marner ‘At the end of Silas Marner, there is a feeling that justice has been done: that the bad have been punished and the good rewarded. ’ To what extent is this statement true? For centuries, the definition of justice has been disputed over by wise men of all countries. Through the works of Plato, the views of Socrates are recorded for all to read and reflect upon. He believed that justice was good, and the good could only be attained through self-knowledge.
In the Republic, Socrates defines justice as ‘working at that which he is naturally best suited,’ and ‘to do one’s own business and not to be a busybody’. George Eliot induces her personal opinions in and further elucidates her nineteenth century readers on the very real and prevalent issue of justice by intertwining several cases between characters in her novel Silas Marner, cleverly using terms that can be interpreted in various ways and presenting as clearly progressing throughout.
Justice is shown to have prevailed at the end of Silas Marner by contrasting it with injustice in the beginning, as the reader becomes familiarized with Silas’s situation and standing with justice. After leaving the vestry, Silas murmurs, ‘. . . there is no just God that governs the earth righteously, but a God of lies, that bears witness against the innocent. ’ This critical attitude towards his environment and world devoid of God not only sets the stage for the story but also provides contrast and room for development with the theme of justice so that the rectification in the end of the novel is represented as profound and significant.
Silas has been hurt severely by the shortcomings of his friend, his fiancee and the religious systems and practices in which he had been indoctrinated with for many years like the drawing of lots and prayer independent of any actions (like defending himself verbally and not just leaving it to God to clear him). This injustice upon Silas Marner is exacerbated by the figurative justice done to one who was undeserving – a manipulative Dunstan Cass.
Although not to be taken literally, by Dunstan Cass’s utterance ‘you do me justice, I see’, in response to Godfrey’s accurate description of him, it serves as a taunting echo to highlight the unfairness in the beginning of the novel. This was soon to be stopped by the protagonist himself – Silas Marner. George Eliot portrays Silas Marner as seeking to restore fairness after experiencing another injustice as if it was the last straw when he says, ‘I’ve been robbed!
I want the constable—and the Justice—and Squire Cass—and Mr. Crackenthorp. ’ Although ‘Justice’ is in reference to Justice Malam, it is clear that Eliot wanted her readers to construe it as also justice in the non-titular sense; the proper name ‘Malam’ was only introduced later in the chapter. In this sense of the word, Silas ‘want[ed] . . . the Justice’ as if it was a definite and universal object with the use of the definite article and the capitalization of ‘justice’.
This shows the progression from injustice to justice. While external justice was developing, Silas needed to take an introspective approach and check if he was disadvantaging himself by brooding over offenses against him; like prayer, justice didn’t come solely from external forces but needed action on the part of the aspirer. The reader is made to reflect upon this when the narrator remarks that ‘such things had been known as a man’s doing himself a mischief, and then setting the justice to look for the doer. Thence on, Silas interacted with Dolly Winthrop more often and with a faint sense of gregariousness. Silas fully remedied this self-impediment and self-injustice when Eppie came. The readers’ attention is once again diverted to the development of external justice in a similar manner as to that with Dunstan Cass, but with a different outcome. The other undeserving Cass brother, Godfrey hopes for justification but, justly, doesn’t receive it. He fled to his usual refuge, that of hoping for some unforeseen turn of fortune, some favorable chance which would save him from unpleasant consequences—perhaps even justify his insincerity by manifesting its prudence. ’ After prevaricating proper responses to his father’s interrogation, he sought to justify his insincerity. As we know, Godfrey is later found out when Dunstan’s body is recovered from the Stone-pits, nullifying his efforts and hopes in successfully avoiding the truth.
The Socratic dialogues, again, have some insight to this matter. In Gorgias, Socrates suggests that on the scale of evil – which goes hand in hand with the scale of misery, second is the man who does wrong, but first is the man who does wrong and gets away with it. Godfrey is this ‘first’ who is more miserable, which shows that he has been justly served; for several years, he had to endure being this ‘first’ man, hiding his guilt before having the courage to be the ‘second’, less miserable man.
Godfrey again pushes for his perceived justice (personal interest) when he tries to coax Silas into giving him Eppie ‘You may look at it in that way, Marner, but I never can; and I hope you’ll let me act according to my own feeling of what’s just. ’ Again, justice prevails and Godfrey is unsuccessful. Justification and religion are somewhat reconciled when the narrator reflects upon Nancy’s character and Sunday thoughts by recognizing that ‘the spirit of rectitude’ came with the ‘sacred documents of the past’.
This opens the way for the justice to come upon her, first with ‘Godfrey . . . [doing] Nancy no injustice as to the motives of her obstinacy’ and the deserved revelation that Godfrey was Eppie’s biological father. A series of events drives justice to triumph by the end of Silas Marner. Effectively, George Eliot starts the narrative from the complete opposite – injustice – so that there is room for justice to develop. She recognizes the complexity of achieving justice when she writes about Molly’s struggle. Just and self-reproving thoughts do not come to us too thickly, even in the purest air, and with the best lessons of heaven and earth’. This adds to the gravity of the accomplishment of justice in the end of the novel. Furthermore, George Eliot does not restrain this achievement and discourages us, as readers, in doing so. She provides this wise insight: ‘When we are treated well, we naturally begin to think that we are not altogether unmeritorious, and that it is only just we should treat ourselves well, and not mar our own fortune. ’ By Chino Jose San Diego Garcia
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