Themes in Eliot's Novel

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1946

Some critics have dismissed Eliot’s Silas Marner because it reads too much like a fairy tale. And true, there are many fairy-tale elements in the novel, but this is no reason to condemn it as lacking depth. Eliot uses the familiar story frame of fortuitous coincidence, clear-cut relationships between good and evil, as well as the novel’s happy ending so as to avoid inventing a new kind of story structure. Using this simple form has allowed Eliot to concentrate on the themes she wants to explore. The fundamental form highlights Eliot’s messages, making them stand out against the more basic background. Her point is not to tell a complicated story but rather to get her point of view across. Eliot’s themes are her message, and her messages can be seen most clearly through an examination of the contrasting characters of Silas Marner and Godfrey Cass.

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Although the title of this novel emphasizes Silas Marner as the main character, Marner would not be as fully developed if Eliot had not included Marner’s mirror image, Godfrey Cass. Not only does Eliot flip back and forth between the circumstances of these men’s lives throughout the story, she also compares and contrasts their images with one another long before their eventual meeting. So as readers travel through this novel, it is as if they are wearing stereophonic headphones through which they listen to two separate tracks of music that, though diverse, complement one another. Godfrey is like the bass to the melody of Silas. One offsets the other.

When Silas is first introduced, he is seen as an “alien-looking” man who lives near the village of Ravenloe. He has “mysterious peculiarities.” He also does not invite people to his cottage, nor does he enter the village to seek company. Silas is a loner, who needs, or so it appears, nothing more than to work, which he does incessantly. He is, according to gossip, a “dead man come to life again,” a man who might just as easily cure you from a malady as to cause you mischief. In the villagers’ eyes, Silas is someone to talk about but not someone to talk to. He is a man with no known past and thus a man who cannot be trusted.

In contrast, Godfrey Cass is the son of “the greatest man in Raveloe” whose main weakness, according to village sentiment, is that he has “kept all his sons at home in idleness.” Although Godfrey has his family’s reputation behind him, he has not proven himself. He has yet to establish any worth other than his inheritance. Godfrey’s history is well known, and so he is trusted. His path has been determined by the stature of his father and his grandfather. He has a path that the local citizens expect him to follow. Their only fear is that Godfrey might stray from that path, as did his brother. Thus, the comparison of Silas and Godfrey begins. Silas works hard but is criticized for not socializing while Godfrey is deemed a “fine, open-faced, good-natured young man,” but he is lazy. At this point, Eliot also begins to display her other major theme: the disparities between the working class and the wealthy landowners. Each group has its qualities; each has its weaknesses. At the beginning of the novel, Godfrey is given the benefit of the doubt because of his known ancestry. Silas is feared because he represents the unknown. As the novel progresses, however, the villagers become more acquainted with Silas as his humanity becomes exposed. In contrast, Godfrey’s reputation begins to crumble.

Eliot gives both Silas and Godfrey adversaries. It is through the men’s relationship with these antagonists that the novelist explores her dual theme of honesty and deception. Ironically for Silas, his enemy is his best friend, William Dane. Dane betrays Silas and is the reason Silas leaves his hometown and lives for many years in total isolation. Dane’s dishonesty causes Silas to mistrust everyone. Silas eventually turns against himself. Instead of blossoming in his youth, Silas sinks deeper and deeper into a world of darkness.

Godfrey’s adversary is his brother Dunstan, a fraudulent man who causes Godfrey a lot of distress. The circumstances surrounding the brothers’ relationship are more complicated than that between Silas and Dane. Dane, in comparison to Silas, is a man of loose morals. The Silas and Dane relationship has very definite boundaries without any shades of gray. Silas is all good. Dane is all bad. Dane acts alone, without any communication with Silas. Dane is cruel and, as far as the story studies the matter, fully without repentance. Silas portrays the role of the innocent and is caught completely off guard when Dane betrays him. In contrast, Godfrey, even though at first it appears he is only trying to protect his brother from their father’s wrath, turns out to be a silent partner in his brother’s deception. Godfrey himself is dishonest and makes excuses for his own weaknesses in order to justify them. In this way, Eliot’s contrast of the two main characters begins to deepen. Silas, Eliot demonstrates, is the better man.

The issue of money is another major theme of Eliot’s story. She looks at it from several different points of view. There is, of course, the money that William Dane stole and then blamed its theft on Silas. This matter of pilfering a small bag of coins has as much to do with money as it does with religion and friendship, at least in terms of Silas’s life. It was this theft and the blame for it that drove Silas away from his home, his church, and his friends. This act was the catalyst that in the end would save Silas from a life of monotonous labor in an industrialized world. It might have also saved him from an unhappy marriage, as his betrothed ended up marrying Silas’s best friend, the one who had betrayed him, implying that the young woman might not have been worth Silas’s love. This money and the theft of it turned out to be Silas’s ticket out of town. Looked at in this way, this first robbery foreshadows a greater and more significant crime, one that will once again change the course of Silas’s life.

Silas is more personally involved in the second robbery. This time the money is his—savings he has accumulated over many years. Silas’s devotion to and admiration of his wealth is as close as he comes to feeling love. There is nothing more precious to him than the gold that he hides under his loom and counts each night before going to bed. It is the reason for him to weave all day and night. It is what drives him to go out and sell his wares. This money is the motivation that makes him want to continue to live. It is his family, his friends, and his community. When Godfrey’s brother steals it, Silas is devastated. He was like a “man falling into deep water,” Eliot writes, and he “gave a wild ringing scream, the cry of desolation” when the full realization of the theft sunk deep into his consciousness. Silas had invested every thought, every hope in his golden treasure. His attention to his wealth might even have absorbed him to the depth of his identity, his soul. Who was he without the rewards he had earned through his labors? What worth remained in him? Or as Eliot puts it, the theft had “left his soul like a forlorn traveler on an unknown desert.” This loss of money will once again turn Silas’s life around. Only this time, instead of turning toward the dark, Silas will turn toward the light. His life will open up, as will his heart. He will become a part of the community. His past, both the good and the bad parts, will be reviewed. He will no longer have to hide. Money, Eliot seems to be saying, is not the proper goal in life. It is but currency and must move from one hand to another to provide food and shelter. The love of money can turn one’s heart into an organ as cold as a rock.

Offsetting Silas’s part of the story, Eliot presents Godfrey’s problems once again. Godfrey has wealth but it is controlled by his father. This does not usually seem to concern Godfrey. His needs are always met. He has no need for a craft by which to earn a wage because he will one day rule the family estate. It seems that the only time Godfrey thinks of money is when he is forced to cover his brother’s mishandling of it. Money, in Godfrey’s case, is not associated with sweat, as it is with Silas. The only sweat Godfrey experiences is of a psychological nature. For one thing, Dunstan causes Godfrey great anxiety. So, too, does Godfrey’s own deeds. Godfrey’s real fear is that his secret will be found out, and he will lose both his father’s and his sweetheart’s respect. It is at this point that Eliot reveals further corruptions of Godfrey’s integrity. For reasons of sexual passion, Godfrey has become involved with a poor, drug-addicted woman. She has born him a child for whom Godfrey shows little affection. He provides monetary easements but little else. With this, Eliot demonstrates again her theme that money is not related to love. She also shows the shallowness of Godfrey’s feelings. Godfrey cares little for his wife, Molly. He wants only to be rid of her so that he can marry Nancy, a woman more suited to his social standing. Also with Godfrey’s involvement with Molly, Eliot emphasizes the chasm that exists between the poor class and the rich. It is in contrast with these exposed elements of Godfrey’s personality, his weaknesses and deficits, that Silas Marner begins to shine.

Finally there is Eppie, Godfrey’s child, who has a head of gold curls that remind Silas of the pile of gold treasure he once had but has lost. Upon seeing Eppie, Silas immediately falls in love with her. It is his belief that the gods of fortune have replaced his lost money with this child. He feels he has finally been rewarded. Eppie now becomes the true reason for living. She opens Silas’s heart. Silas had been misguided in the past, trying to amass a fortune of gold to dismiss his loneliness and make up for the false judgment of his character. It takes more than gold, Eliot proclaims through Silas, to make a life worthwhile. Opening oneself to another is the most gratifying pleasure that exists. Then, Eliot takes this concept one step further by having Godfrey try to win the heart of Eppie through monetary things. Godfrey tries to buy Eppie’s love. He will provide her a better home and bestow on her social status. Eppie exemplifies Eliot’s message. Love, not money, is the way to open someone’s heart. So in the end, Silas is victorious, and Godfrey berates himself for having failed. “It’s part of my punishment,” he says to his wife, “for my daughter to dislike me.”

With this, the fairy tale ends. The bad are punished for their weaknesses and sins, and the good are provided benevolence. Through this fairy tale, Eliot has found a form upon which to display her message.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Silas Marner, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

The Contrast Between the Approach to Religion and the Sect at Lantern Yard and the Villagers of Raveloe

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1704

The story of Silas Marner’s life has a mythic dimension to it. Silas undergoes a spiritual journey that is a variation on the great religious myth of Western culture. In the Christian myth, man is expelled from a garden, saved by the birth of the Christ-child, and promised a life in bliss in the heavenly city of Jerusalem described in the Book of Revelations. Silas travels a similar path from expulsion to redemption, but the symbolism is reversed. He is expelled from a city, saved by a child, and ends up in a garden (as seen in the final chapter when Eppie and Aaron grow a garden just outside his cottage). In the course of this journey, which occupies over thirty years of Silas’s life, he travels from a stern, Bible-centered Calvinistic religion, in which the central concern is the “Assurance of salvation,” to a more tolerant, nondogmatic version of Christianity in which the emphasis falls not on the idea of salvation but on tolerance and solidarity with others in a cooperative human community.

Marner’s spirituality is first awakened at Lantern Yard, where as a young man in the 1780s he is a member of a Dissenting Protestant sect. In nineteenth century England, those who rejected the doctrines and authority of the Church of England were known as dissenters. They included such groups as the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians, and other minor sects. The most notable feature of the dissenters was that they were more democratic than Anglicans. They had no bishops or priests, and did not accept doctrines or policies handed down from above. Instead, they took responsibility for organizing, financing and running their own groups. Large towns like Birmingham and Manchester were dominated by dissenters, and many artisans, like Silas Marner, were members of dissenting sects. The sect to which Marner belonged has not been identified as of 2004, but from the clues given in the text, it was strongly Calvinistic in nature. Calvinist tradition was strong in parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire during this period. The tenets of Calvinism, as Q. D. Leavis points out in her notes to the Penguin edition of the novel, include the idea of a priesthood of all believers; marriage only within the sect (as Silas, who was engaged to a girl named Sarah, intended to do); and the necessity of personal salvation, accomplished through divine grace revealed through personal religious experience. Those who were assured of salvation became members of the Elect.

Silas, who by nature is humble and selfdoubting, never manages to convince himself that he possesses that vital assurance, quite unlike his holierthan- thou, judgmental friend William Dane. From Dane’s treachery to the subsequent unjust condemnation of Silas for theft, it appears that the members of this sect, that pride themselves on being among the Elect, do not possess much in the way of spiritual wisdom. And just in case events do not speak sufficiently for themselves, the narrator (whose voice is surely that of Eliot) adds this poignant description of the earnest discussions that take place between Silas and William Dane and others of their type: “Such colloquies have occupied many a pair of palefaced weavers, whose unnurtured souls have been like young winged things, fluttering forsaken in the twilight.” This description gives the impression of youthful purity of heart and intention that is given no guidance at all by the religious sects to which the young people entrust their spiritual lives.

It is a long journey, in more ways than one, from Lantern Yard to Raveloe, from dissenting chapel to village church. Not surprisingly, Silas, his faith shattered, does not go out of his way to discover what kind of religion might be available to him in his new place of residence. Lantern Yard was all he knew. Had he been of a mind to investigate, he would have discovered that religion in Raveloe is a different matter altogether than the fierce and narrow faith he has been fed at Lantern Yard. The narrator is at pains to point out that Raveloe has not only seen nothing of the Industrial Revolution, it has not been affected by “puritan earnestness”—the kind that flourished in many of the dissenting chapels. People in Raveloe are not in the habit of applying a stern morality to their own lives, and they do not judge their neighbors in that way either.

In Raveloe, religion is a much more easy-going, casual affair than it is at Lantern Yard. No one is expected to be fanatical about regular church attendance, for example. In fact, the opposite seems to apply:

[T]here was hardly a person in the parish who would not have held that to go to church every Sunday in the calendar would have shown a greedy desire to stand well with Heaven, and get an undue advantage over their neighbors—a wish to be better than the “common run.”

Whereas in Lantern Yard, religion has an element of competition in it—the urge to show that one is saved—in Raveloe, it is a more cooperative enterprise. It is valued primarily as a way of encouraging a sense of community. For example, Mr. Macey’s purpose in telling Silas he should have a suit made so he can come to church on Sunday, is to enable Silas to “be a bit neighborly.” It has nothing to do with salvation, which no one in Raveloe ever talks about. Indeed, Godfrey Cass, who perhaps has as much reason as anyone in the novel to fear God and ask Him for mercy and forgiveness, appears to be untroubled by any religious thought at all. He relies only on “chances which might be favourable to him.”

“Favourable Chance,” as Godfrey continually finds out, makes a poor god. Most people in Raveloe, if anyone were to ask them, would no doubt claim to believe in a better one, but few trouble themselves to inquire into His nature. Eliot gives no opportunity to the rector, Mr. Crackenthorp, to discourse on such a topic. A minor character, his sole contribution is to admonish Silas that his money has probably been taken from him because he thinks too much about it and also because he does not go to church. But Mr. Crackenthorp, like some of the other villagers, does bring Silas a gift of food, a gesture that shows his desire to include Silas in the community.

The real theologian of Raveloe is not the rector but the humble, inarticulate, unlearned Dolly Winthrop. Dolly understands almost nothing of Christian doctrine, but she has an intuitive faith that a higher force operates in human life that knows better than she does what is right for her and for everyone else. She goes to church because doing so makes her feel better. She trusts in “Them,” as she puts it—the plural pronoun satisfying her need not to seem overly familiar with the divine persons. Dolly’s faith is based on bits and pieces she has picked up from sermons and other aspects of the church services, as well as from her own experience. It serves her well enough. Like Mr. Macey, she has no interest in assuring Silas’s eternal salvation; she simply wants him to go to church because it will make him feel better too, and will also enable him to participate in the community.

Such is religion in Raveloe. It offers comfort and a sense of community. In that respect it is perhaps no more important than the Rainbow or even the squire’s Red House when it hosts a community event. The nearest the Raveloe church congregation ever gets to the kind of spiritual experience that the believers at Lantern Yard might value is during the special service at Christmas, which “brought a vague exulting sense . . . that something great and mysterious had been done for them in heaven above and in earth below, which they were appropriating by their presence.”

The “something great and mysterious” in Silas Marner is of course the appearance of Eppie on Silas’s hearth. This is the moment when salvation reaches out and touches the miser. But it is a thisworldly salvation, redemption of Silas’s earthly life, not the promise of an afterlife in heaven. It has nothing to do with the Thirty-Nine Articles that constitute the orthodox doctrine of the Anglican Church. And just in case the reader misses the point, the narrator, who has earlier subtly conveyed her disapproval of the spiritual education provided at Lantern Yard, now tellingly comments on the events by which Silas’s life is to be transformed. His salvation is not to be confused with anything transcendental or supernatural:

In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backwards; and the hand may be a little child’s.

This interpolation by the narrator might be seen as a kind of agnosticism or humanism. The child that saves is not the divine child that the wise men came to honor, nor the angels of popular tradition, but a poor little orphan girl. What counts in human life, the narrator seems to be telling the reader, is not man’s relationship to God or his reliance on the panoply of divine helpers so beloved by true believers, but man’s relationship with man. In place of empty speculation about “Assurance of salvation,” which led the pious young Silas into the barren terrain of “hope mingled with fear,” is the concrete reality, mediated to him by the innocent Eppie, of a man’s connections to the human community in which he lives. Silas’s salvation is found not in supernature but in nature, not in a future shining heavenly city but in a garden and a cottage and the comforting familiarity of daughter and son-inlaw and neighbors well-known and loved.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Silas Marner, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

George Eliot

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1675

Silas Marner is not the most important, but it is perhaps the most perfect of George Eliot’s novels. It is flawed by no failure of characterisation and no excess of moralism. Where Adam Bede had in parts the still beauty of an eclogue and where Maggie Tulliver expressed with great tenderness and truth the unsatisfied longings of her creator, Silas Marner represents a significant advance in objectivity. Even the familiar landscape is viewed with greater realism; nowhere, except in the passages between Marner and his foster-child Effie, is there the slightest effort to charm. George Eliot tells us that she once asked a dying labourer: “Is there anything that you can fancy that you would like to eat?” “No,” he answered, “I’ve never been used to nothing but common victual and I can’t eat that.” It was out of her own experience of this plainness, this homespun simplicity, that Silas Marner was conceived. The Methodist atmosphere of Marner’s youth, and of her own, is perfectly evoked:

The whitewashed walls; the little pews where wellknown figures entered with a subdued rustling, and where first one well-known voice and then another, pitched in a peculiar key of petition, uttered phrases at once occult and familiar, like the amulet, worn on the heart; the pulpit where the minister delivered unquestioned doctrine, and swayed to and fro, and handled the book in a long-accustomed manner; the very pauses between the couplets of the hymn, as it was given out, and the recurrent swell of voices in song: these things had been the channel of divine influences to Marner—they were the fostering home, of his religious emotions—they were Christianity and God’s kingdom upon earth.

This was [Latern Yard] with its courtyards and red-brick alleys and censorious congregations, where Marner had been unjustly pronounced guilty of theft. A sharp contrast is drawn between this industrial dinginess and the fat complacent countryside where Marner will always feel himself to be an exile.

Orchards, looking lazy with neglected plenty; the large church in the wide churchyard, which men gazed at lounging at their doors during service-time; the purple-faced farmers jogging along the lanes or turning in at the Rainbow; homesteads, where men supped heavily and slept in the light of the evening hearth, and where women seemed to be laying up a stock of linen for the life to come.

And there is the prosperous Anglican Christmas, with its

vague exulting sense, for which the grown men could as little have found words as the children, that something great and mysterious had been done for them in heaven above and in earth below, which they were appropriating by their presence. And then these red faces made their way through the black, biting frost to their own homes, feeling themselves free for the rest of the day to eat, drink, and be merry, and using that Christian freedom without diffidence.

These oppositions are more scenic than sociological; they prepare the reader’s mind for the myth which is the core of the novel. Nothing is more dangerous for a novelist than an idea, and George Eliot was more than once defeated by them. But in Silas Marner the myth is so amply clothed by characterisation, so subtly aided by description, that we still feel that “this is life”—the acid test of fiction—even though we are made aware, as we are so often made aware in life itself, of symbols and purposes behind it. Marner is certainly presented to us as a wronged man, but there is a sin in his embitterment. Of this embitterment, this sterile turning in upon himself, the hoarded gold is the expression; and when he loses it, again unjustly, he loses a prop which had really been an obstacle. His material and spiritual poverty are now made one, and he is free to welcome the redemptive influence of Effie. These profound meanings are never overstressed and Marner himself is doubtless but half aware of them. He only knows that:

The gold had kept his thoughts in an ever-repeated circle, tending to nothing beyond itself; but Effie was an object compacted of changes and hopes that forced his thoughts onward and carried them far away from their old eager facing towards the same blank limit. . . . The gold had asked that he should sit weaving longer and longer, deafened and blinded more and more to all things except the monotony of his loom and the repetition of his web; but Effie called him away from his weaving and made him think all its pauses a holiday— re-awakening all his senses with her fresh life, even to the old winter-flies that come crawling forth in the early spring sunshine, and warming him into joy because she had joy.

Marner’s redemption was neither automatic nor immediate. It was only when his love was perfected that the gold was given back to him. He sensed it with that clear moral intuition which belongs to all George Eliot’s unsophisticated characters.

At first, I’d a sort of feeling come across me now and then . . . as if you might be changed into the gold again; for sometimes, turn my head which way I would, I seemed to see the gold; and I thought I should be glad if I could feel it, and find it was come back. But that didn’t last long. After a bit, I should have thought it was a curse come again if it had drove me from you . . .

George Eliot was never again directly to treat the theme of money. There is nothing sentimental in her opposition of gold and charity; indeed, her handling of it, though it lacks psychological complexity, has the pure simplicity of a parable. Behind it lies the mystery of being, the unpredictable design, and the permitted wickedness of Mammon. These are left in the twilight where the mind does its feeble best to apprehend them. There is no trace of pessimism in George Eliot’s agnostic acceptance of Fate: “the gods of the hearth exist for us still; and let all new faith be tolerant of that fetichism, lest it bruise its own roots.” And Marner has his own irrefutable reply to the problem of evil:

There’s good i’ this world—I’ve a feeling o’ that now; and it makes a man feel there’s a good deal more nor he can see, i’ spite o’ the trouble and the wickedness. That drawing o’ the lots is dark; but the child was sent to me: there’s dealings with us—there’s dealings. This is more profound, because it is more realistic and less emotional, than Hardy’s “the President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess.” And Marner is helped to his conclusion by Dolly Winthrop, one of George Eliot’s most triumphant character parts. She is the voice itself of naturalism, understood not as an accurate recording of dialect or photographic observation of idiosyncrasy— though she is both of these—but as nature’s own comment upon life. The peasant common sense is finally prepared to accept Marner’s rearing of Effie:

It’s like the night and the morning, and the sleeping and the waking, and the rain and the harvest—one goes and the other comes, and we know nothing how nor where. We may strive and scrat and fend, but it’s little we can do arter all—the big things come and go with no striving of our’n—they do, that they do; and I think you’re in the right on it to keep the little ’un, Master Marner, seeing as it’s been sent to you, though there’s folks as thinks different. You’ll happen to be a bit moithered with it while it’s so little; but I’ll come and welcome, and see to it for you; I’ve a bit of time to spare most days, for when one gets up betimes i’ the morning, the clock seems to stan’ still tow’rt ten, afore it’s time to go about the victual. So, as I say, I’ll come and see to the child for you, and welcome.

Listen to the liturgical lilt of this speech and you will find it easy to imagine that Dolly was used to hearing the Authorised Version read aloud, and these Biblical echoes are mixed with native poetry. George Eliot is generally able to rise to a poetic apprehension of character, and Dolly Winthrop is a good example of this capacity. She is with Shallow and Touchstone and Mistress Quickly, giving to her setting as much as she takes from it.

Silas Marner is, technically, a very finished book. It is much shorter than George Eliot’s other more important novels and one feels that she has put into it exactly the right weight of writing. She does here all her characteristic things supremely well. The scene at the Rainbow is justly celebrated, with Marner, crazy with the loss of his gold, shattering the bucolic humours of the bar. In a single image George Eliot gives us the whole picture, when “the long pipes gave a simultaneous movement, like the antennae of startled insects.” The various social milieux are admirably related to each other—the small squires, the yeoman farmers, the tradesmen, the peasants. There is a rough equality here; the fabric holds easily together. Geoffrey Cass, weak, conscientious, and good-natured, quite without imagination, is first cousin to Arthur Donnithorne and Nancy, a step lower down in the social scale, is carefully differentiated by a touch of provincial dialect. But this was the last time that George Eliot was to content herself with a rustic theme. The bloom of these Midland hedgerows was beginning to wear off; there was a world elsewhere; and even within the loved, familiar setting a more complex pattern of human relationships awaited her discovery.

Source: Robert Speaight, “George Eliot,” in George Eliot, Lowe and Brydone, 1954, pp. 62–67.

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Silas Marner


Critical Evaluation

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