With this post I seek to uncover the techniques used by 19th century master George Eliot in her novel Silas Marner, to marry world building with character development; a crucial skill in any creative writing endeavor.
The novel, at only 183 pages, is fully realized in themes, layered characters, and richness of setting. How is Eliot able to achieve so much in such little time?
At the end of the post I will share a passage from my own work inspired by the techniques we will discuss.
Let’s start with a brief summary of the novel for those who are unfamiliar.
“In this heartwarming classic by George Eliot, a gentle linen weaver named Silas Marner is wrongly accused of a heinous theft actually committed by his best friend. Exiling himself to the rustic village of Raveloe, he becomes a lonely recluse. Ultimately, Marner finds redemption and spiritual rebirth through his unselfish love for an abandoned child who mysteriously appears one day in his isolated cottage.
Somber yet hopeful, Eliot’s realistic depiction of an irretrievable past, tempered with the magical elements of myth and fairy tale, remains timeless in its understanding of human nature and has been beloved for generations.”
World Building & Character
The story constructs its titular character by first describing the environment he will be thrust into. Below, I will transcribe and dissect several passages from the first chapter, to illustrate the technical brilliance and purpose of Eliot’s world building.
“IN THE DAYS when the spinning wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses–and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread lace, had their toy spinning wheels of polished oak–there might be seen, in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men who, by the side of the brawny countryfolk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.”
Notice, Eliot has not mentioned Silas by name, but is instead setting up how he will be physically differentiated from the other inhabitants of Raveloe. As we know, by vocation, Silas Marner is a linen weaver, and the epitome of the “disinherited race” the narrator references.
Furthermore, notice the word choice. I’ve underlined the words I feel are important. First, “deep in the bosom of the hills” conjures the image of robust hills, large and well-rounded like an actual “deep bosom”. This is significant because the residents of Raveloe, “brawny countryfolk,” are described in relation to their surroundings; a fact that relates to their collective perspective on identity (we will touch on this shortly). By this logic, the “pallid undersized men” are reflections of the squalid cities they come from. Here, Eliot presents her first philosophical debate–the tension between city and country. To the countryfolk, people from the city look like “remnants of a disinherited race,” meaning they are people disenfranchised from identity, and if not already obsolete, then fading out. Of course, we know this to be opposite, as even in the time this book was written, cities were creeping further and further into rural territory, especially with the rapid rise of industrialization and transportation. Thus, we have a precise classification of how the members of Raveloe consider themselves progressive, and an inherit tension due to the fact that they are wrong.
(Don’t forget, this is all setting up our eventual contextualization of Silas’ situation once he arrives to the town.)
Next, Eliot creates further tension by elaborating Raveloe’s perspective.
“The shepherd’s dog barked fiercely when on of these alien-looking men appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset.”
The novel, in a way, forces you to ask questions and take sides, either with Silas Marner, or with the town members of Raveloe, who fear and marginalize him. Eliot recognizes how simple it is to side and empathize with Silas Marner. Thus, smartly, she offers us Raveloe’s perspective in the first paragraph of the book to catalyze a thought provoking tension in the reader’s mind.
(Imagine you are a resident of Raveloe, secluded in an insular community, and one day a dark alien-looking figure appears on the upland, and all the shepherd’s dogs start barking; the most sensible reaction in this instance would be to fear and mistrust the wandering stranger.)
Furthermore, Eliot’s inclusion of the shepherd’s dog engrosses the entire community within this suspicious viewpoint, while also demonstrating that, unlike larger cities or towns, Raveloe is quiet, private, and to some degree, antiquated with its free roaming shepherds, herds of sheep, the general rurality of its setting, and the nearly bygone occupations of some of its citizens.
“No one knew where wandering men had their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother?”
This passage does a great job exposing the interiority and thought process of an average Raveloe citizen. Notice the creative, economic way Eliot reveals the importance of family and familiarity among members of the town. In 32 words we learn:
- Raveloe is a community where the individual is defined by the merits of his family.
- A person with unknown origins or a broken home will be neglected or prejudiced against.
- An orphan is a phenomenon both unexplained and incomprehensible to the townspeople.
These three facts generate the major philosophical themes and questions raised throughout the novel. For example, a seminal event in the book has Silas finding an orphan girl and deciding to become her sole caregiver. Like Silas, the girl’s origins are mysterious, and the situation in total touches upon all three previously mentioned points. Years later, when the girl’s biological father is discovered, she refuses to live with him, and instead pledges her lifelong allegiance to Silas. Eliot prepares the reader for the intrinsic complexities of this event early and economically, as to allow her characters to unravel naturally through plot, without the impediment of explanation or further commentary.
Thus, in just the first paragraph of the first chapter of Silas Marner, Eliot develops the town of Raveloe, the mentality and history of its residents, and the central tension that will plague the novel’s eventual two main characters.
- We can build our main character(s) from the outside, in. Develop the world around them to show how their environment will affect their lives.
- Setting is not arbitrary and should be as developed, if not more developed from the onset, than the characters in your plot.
- Economy. Be concise and selective about the parts of your world you are describing. More, make sure these parts relate to the themes and/or characters of your story.
- Be creative when getting a point across. Instead of describing a character’s appearance, explore how their presence and appearance affects their surroundings, or vice versa. How do the people around your character frame, contextualize, and quantify events in their lives?
How did I apply this?
Below is a passage taken from the first chapter of a novel-in-progress:
Crisp autumn air. The smell of horse shit wafting from the foothills, the gargantuan ranch houses which only shelter families of three. And the receivers of the intermittent fecal wind on the hilltops, stirring in their houses, starting their days with brains immersed in haze. The white-collar brigade leaving to work in intervals, peering out of windows to confirm the world has yet to change, their neighbors in their usual cars driving in the usual directions. Even a minute deviation and all will realize, holding their collective breath for the winds of change; without their routines they know nothing.
The novel is largely about people watching other people’s lives unfold within the confines of a single suburban street. Thus, it is crucial to establish the routines, environments, and events experienced by the characters as to create a more impactful transformation once these normalities are overturned.
This concludes our lesson, Part 1: Silas Marner [How to Integrate World Building and Character].
Check back for Part 2: Silas Marner [How to Express Character Interiority].