Critical Essays Technique and Characterization in Silas Marner


Like most novelists of her day, Eliot uses an omniscient point of view — that is, she views the action from any point she finds convenient, whether from the narrator's standpoint, as a disinterested spectator might see it, or as seen or felt by any character. This viewpoint has many advantages, and it is well suited to Eliot's strengths as a novelist. It allows her to show what any character thinks or feels and to show an act and its consequences with great comprehensiveness. Eliot uses this technique to increase the reader's sympathy and understanding of characters and of the situations they find themselves in. It also allows better control of the reader's awareness, which is the main source of the irony so important in Eliot's novels. The reader generally knows more than any single character (for example, about Godfrey's marriage and that Dunstan is the thief), and this superior knowledge lends ironic humor to the things the characters think and do in their ignorance. However, the reader is not told everything. The news of Dunstan's death is perhaps less of a surprise than to Godfrey, but it has never been a certainty. This allows the reader to feel something of the shock that Godfrey must feel at that moment.

The excellence of Eliot's characterization depends partly on this omniscience, but the most important factor is Eliot's deep understanding of human psychology. Her major characters are portrayed in great depth. Their reactions are varied: they are capable of surprising, yet they never seem arbitrary. On reflection, that which seemed surprising in them is seen to be consistent with their previous actions. They do not remain static, but their development builds on the past. A prime example of this is Silas. His belief in God goes through a series of developments that are directly related to the things that have happened to him. Throughout all these changes, however, he clings to some support — his church, his work, his gold, or his daughter. His character displays both change and constancy, and this makes him recognizably the same person even as he changes. His character does not merely change — it develops.

Eliot's style lends her several aids to characterization. The omniscient point of view sometimes does this by giving the reaction of an unprejudiced observer, someone whom the reader will believe. The Miss Gunns find Nancy charming; and since they are neutral toward her at best, the reader is likely to accept their view.

Another important device of persuasion is metaphor, which is likely to go almost unperceived by the reader, but which have a cumulative effect. Throughout the opening chapters, Silas is compared to a spider in a number of ways, and this "insect-like existence" lends reality to the withering of his humanity.

A third device of characterization is speech. The characters do not all talk alike. Squire Cass' speech is rough but forceful. Priscilla sounds almost like a man, and from what we see of her it is evident that she is trying to fill a man's place. All of the characters except Godfrey speak a more or less rustic dialect, but it is more pronounced when Eliot is calling attention to the insularity of the community — for example, at the gathering at the Rainbow. Godfrey's speech is always somewhat more refined than his neighbors' or his father's, indicating perhaps that he is at least trying to hold himself above a life of "conviviality and condescension."

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