As discussed previously, Silas Marner, at 183 pages, is just as rich as it is economical. The novel’s main setting (Raveloe) is a fully realized rural community. But the setting’s value becomes nullified if its inhabitants are any less realized.
The true strength of Eliot’s writing is made manifest by her expression of character interiority, i.e. a Character’s thoughts and feelings at any given time.
A difficult obstacle in any writing endeavor is to express feeling in an interesting, non-encyclopedic way. George Eliot accomplishes this by implementing several different tactics, which we will discuss shortly. As an experiment, I’d like to withhold any plot details to see if Eliot’s expressions of interiority are powerful enough to transcend context.
Physical. Audible. Interior. Exterior:
Below, Eliot conveys Silas Marner’s mental state through four separate phases:
He filled up the blank with grief. As he sat weaving, he every now and then moaned low, like one in pain: it was the sign that his thoughts had come round again to the sudden chasm–to the empty evening time. And all the evening, as he sat in his loneliness by his dull fire, he leaned his elbows on his knees, and clasped his head with his hands, and moaned very low–not as one who seeks to be heard.
Notice the four levels Eliot moves through when expressing her characters’ struggle.
First, she grounds us in his position with the first sentence “He filled up the blank with grief.” We can ascertain, from this sentence alone, that Silas feels a deep emptiness and that he’s filling this void with negativity.
Next, Eliot follows a pattern: Physical, Audible, Interior, Exterior:
“As he sat weaving” gives us physicality, i.e. Silas is relieving his pain through physical labor.
Directly followed by audibility “he every now and then moaned low, like one in pain.”
Stop, for a moment, and conjure this mental image: A lonely man weaving. Silence, but for the sound of his weaving machine and low, intermittent groans.
Then, Eliot elaborates why Silas is moaning by taking us inside his mind: “it was a sign that his thoughts had come round again to the sudden chasm.” From this, we learn that his suffering is cyclical and that whatever caused his pain was unexpected and enormous enough to create a “sudden chasm.”
Lastly, Eliot takes us outside of Silas to explore his environment: “…to the empty evening time. And all the evening, as he sat in his loneliness by his dull fire…” Notice, even his environment informs his interiority. An empty evening. A dull fire. Now reimagine the image of Silas: A man weaving all night, in emptiness and solitude, with a feeble fire, little warmth, and the sound of his pain bubbling up out of him in quiet moans.
The cycle repeats itself in the last part of the text:
(Physical) “he leaned his elbows on his knees, and clasped his head with his hands”
(Audible) “and moaned very low”
(Interior) “…not as one who seeks to be heard.”
Interiority is best achieved with the combination of seemingly disparate elements. Characters’ mental and emotional states are made manifest through their actions and by the way they intuit the outside world; each emotion alters the way your character experiences things, i.e. it is not conducive to simply state a character is grieving, rather, how does their grief reveal itself through setting, sound, physicality, weather, etc.
This concludes our lesson How to Express Character Interiority. Next up, we’ll look at nineteenth century master Joseph Conrad and his unique method of character description.