In what ways and to what extent does Eliot’s writing in Silas Marner make us sympathize with Marner’s situation in chapter 5?

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It is easier to answer "in what ways" than "to what extent" does Eliot create sympathy for Marner because to some extent, depending upon each reader's ability with the English language and its higher order constructions, readers may feel various extents of sympathy. You will do better to express "extent" for yourself; then to examine the several "ways" that I'll enumerate; then to determine where you respond to Eliot's strategy and where you don't; then to analyze why: Is it reader language mastery or is it Eliot's technique that fails to create sympathy?

Having said that, Eliot's effort is to build a full extent of reader sympathy with Silas Marner, and she uses at least three techniques for doing this.

  1. Eliot sets up a philosophical basis for Silas Marner's experience and motivations founded upon universal human nature.
  2. Eliot's characterization of Silas presents him with compassion and sympathy.
  3. Eliot employs dramatic irony to give us woeful information that Silas does not have. [Dramatic irony: dramatic situations in which readers/audience have adverse information important to the character but that the character does not have.]

Philosophical Basis for Universal Human Nature. The first place Eliot uses this technique is in the first paragraph of Chapter V: "The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction." The second place Eliot uses it is in the discussion of Silas's "vaguely-felt foundation for freedom from anxiety." The third is when she likens his reaction to discovering the empty money vault to the metaphor of a universal man seeking "a momentary footing even on sliding stones." The introduction of these universal philosophical interjections and descriptions gives Silas's actions and motives not only an innocence but, more importantly, common unity with the actions and motives all honest, innocent people experience.

Characterization of Silas. In Eliot's characterization of Silas, he is presented as:

  • having goodwill and cheerfulness, "a present from that excellent housewife, Miss Priscilla Lammeter"
  • being honest and dealing fairly with customers: "a handsome piece of linen"
  • being one to pity, despite arousing antagonistic feelings as well, not to be hated: "truthful simple soul, not even the growing greed and worship of gold could beget any vice directly injurious to others"
  • having an overwhelming depth of anguish at his loss: "he put his trembling hands to his head, and gave a wild ringing scream, the cry of desolation"
  • thinking of accusations as a last reflex, not a first: "the first shock of certainty was past, the idea of a thief began to present itself"
  • having his grounding in reality in the humble instruments of his productivity and craft: "tottered towards his loom, and got into the seat where he worked, instinctively seeking this as the strongest assurance of reality"

Dramatic Irony. The fact that Eliot informs us of Dunstan's movements (even though in vague ways in Chapter V) creates the dramatic irony of Silas's situation. The dramatic irony builds within us a sympathetic reaction for the horrific surprise that Silas--whom we see as isolated yet worthy and pitiable due to Eliot's characterization--is about to face. The suspense that is inherently a part of dramatic irony builds a more intense sympathy since we can anticipate the shock he will face. When we see, however, the enormity of that shock and how he conducts himself within it (seeks reality at his loom; accuses last, not first) our sympathy grows even greater.

He trod about the floor while putting by his lantern and throwing aside his hat and sack, so as to merge the marks of Dunstan's feet on the sand in the marks of his own nailed boots.

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In Chapter 5 of George Eliot's Silas Marner we find the eponymous main character at his most comfortable, happy, and hopeful. This contrasts enormously from his state of mind when he first came to Raveloe from Lantern Yard. Then, he was a dejected and betrayed man who had lost all hopes for the human race, for love, or company.

Now, Eliot presents Silas as a man with a plan. Although it is clear that Silas's heart and soul are still tormented by the events that led him to seek refuge in Raveloe, we witness how he attempts to heal them completely by hoarding gold. Alone in his cottage, with his hearth in full brightness, and with a supper of pork courtesy of Priscilla Lammeter, Silas is able to heal body and mind only superficially. To him, however, this is a good enough cure: he is, in his opinion, truly happy.

The events that occur next constitute the method that George Eliot employs to provoke sympathy with Silas Marner's situation. This is because, right when Silas is finally resting his mind and finding an aim at life, Dustan Cass takes a hold of Silas's gold and steals it.

The way that Eliot prepares the situation instills sympathy because it reminds the reader that the mistake that Silas made is one who anybody else could make: feeling too comfortable, or too confident, to consider the possibility of something very bad from happening.

Eliot describes the situation the following way

He could not have locked his door without undoing his well-knotted string and retarding his supper; it was not worth his while to make that sacrifice. What thief would find his way to the Stone-pits on such a night as this? and why should he come on this particular night, when he had never come through all the fifteen years before?

And then, something bad DOES happen to a very naive and naturally-trusting Silas.  Not only does this represent taking away the very foundation upon which Silas's happiness laid upon; it also meant leaving Silas hopeless of the human race yet again.

His gold, as he hung over it and saw it grow, gathered his power of loving together into a hard isolation like its own.

It is no wonder why he literally loses his mind momentarily and wanders off his cottage into the streets weak, vulnerable, and in total despair.

At last he shook so violently that he let fall the candle, and lifted his hands to his head, trying to steady himself, that he might think.

His situation dramatically contrasts with the beginning of the chapter where he was seemingly in control of his world. That is the tragic flaw of his character and the central pathos of the story: that Silas, who had already been wronged once with the effects of changing his life forever, has been wronged yet again and in a more negative way than ever. He, who had nearly healed from a horrid blow to his trust, has yet to start healing all over again.

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