To have sought a medical explanation for this phenomenon would have been held by Silas himself, as well as by his minister and fellow-members, a willful self-exclusion from the spiritual significance that might lie therein.
The novel opens in the English countryside “in the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses.” In this era one would occasionally encounter weavers—typically pale, thin men who looked like “the remnants of a disinherited race”—beside the hearty peasants who worked in the fields. Because they possessed a special skill and typically had emigrated from larger towns, weavers were invariably outsiders to the peasants among whom they lived. The peasants were superstitious people, often suspicious of both “cleverness” and the world beyond their immediate experience. Thus, the weavers lived isolated lives and often developed the eccentric habits that result from loneliness.
Silas Marner, a linen-weaver of this sort, lives in a stone cottage near a deserted stone-pit in the fictional village of Raveloe. The boys of the village are drawn to the sound of his loom, and often peer through his window with both awe and scorn for his strangeness. Silas responds by glaring at them to scare them away. The boys’ parents claim that Silas has special powers, such as the ability to cure rheumatism by invoking the devil. Although Raveloe is a fairly affluent, attractive village, it is far from any major road. Sheltered from currents of progressive thought, the townspeople retain many primitive beliefs.
In the fifteen years Silas has lived in Raveloe, he has not invited any guests into his home, made any effort to befriend other villagers, or attempted to court any of the town’s women. Silas’s reclusiveness has given rise to a number of myths and rumors among the townspeople. One man swears he once saw Silas in a sort of fit, standing with his limbs stiff and his eyes “set like a dead man’s.” Mr. Macey, the parish clerk, suggests that such episodes are caused by Silas’s soul leaving his body to commune with the devil. Despite these rumors, Silas is never persecuted because the townspeople fear him and because he is indispensable—he is the only weaver in town. As the years pass, local lore also begins to hold that Silas’s business has enabled him to save a sizable hoard of money.
Before Silas came to Raveloe, he lived in a town to the north, where he was thought of as a young man “of exemplary life and ardent faith.” This town was dominated by a strict religious sect that met in a place called Lantern Yard. During one prayer meeting, Silas became unconscious and rigid for more than an hour, an event that his fellow church members regarded as divinely inspired. However, Silas’s best friend at the time, William Dane—a seemingly equally devout but arrogant young man—suggested that Silas’s fit might have represented a visitation from the devil rather than from God. Troubled by this suggestion, Silas asked his fiancée, a young servant named Sarah, if she wished to call off their engagement. Though Sarah seemed at first to want to, she did not.
One night Silas stayed up to watch over the senior deacon of -Lantern Yard, who was sick. Waiting for William to come in to relieve him at the end of his shift, Silas suddenly realized that it was nearly dawn, the deacon had stopped breathing, and William had never arrived. Silas wondered if he had fallen asleep on his watch. However, later that morning William and the other church members accused Silas of stealing the church’s money from the deacon’s room. Silas’s pocketknife turned up in the bureau where the money had been stored, and the empty money bag was later found in Silas’s dwelling. Silas expected God to clear him of the crime, but when the church members drew lots, Silas was determined guilty and excommunicated. Sarah called their engagement off. Crushed, Silas maintained that the last time he used his knife was in William’s presence and that he did not remember putting it back in his pocket afterward. To the horror of the church, Silas angrily renounced his religious faith. Soon thereafter, William married Sarah and Silas left town.
Marner’s face and figure shrank and bent themselves into a constant mechanical relation to the objects of his life, so that he produced the same sort of impression as a handle or a crooked tube, which has no meaning standing apart.
According to the narrator, Silas finds Raveloe, with its sense of “neglected plenty,” completely unlike the world in which he grew up. The fertile soil and climate make farm life much easier in Raveloe than in the barren north, and the villagers are consequently more easygoing and less ardent in their religion. Nothing familiar in Raveloe reawakens Silas’s “benumbed” faith in God. Spiritually depleted, Silas uses his loom as a distraction, weaving more quickly than necessary. For the first time he is able to keep the full portion of his earnings for himself, no longer having to share them with an employer or the church. Having no other sense of purpose, Silas feels a sense of fulfillment merely in holding his newly earned money and looking at it.
Around this time Silas notices the cobbler’s wife, Sally Oates, suffering the symptoms of heart disease and dropsy, a condition of abnormal swelling in the body. Sally awakens in Silas memories of his mother, who died of similar causes. He offers Sally an herbal preparation of foxglove that his mother had used to ease the pain of the disease. The concoction works, so the villagers conclude that Silas must have some dealings with the occult. Mothers start to bring their sick children to his house to be cured, and men with rheumatism offer Silas silver to cure them. Too honest to play along, Silas sends them all away with growing irritation. The townspeople’s hope in Silas’s healing power turns to dread, and they come to blame him for accidents and misfortunes that befall them. Having wanted only to help Sally Oates, Silas now finds himself further isolated from his neighbors.
Silas gradually begins to make more money, working sixteen hours a day and obsessively counting his earnings. He enjoys the physical appearance of the gold coins and handles them joyfully. He keeps the coins in an iron pot hidden under the floor beneath his loom, and takes them out only at night, “to enjoy their companionship.” When the pot is no longer large enough to hold his hoard, Silas begins keeping the money in two leather bags. He lives this way for fifteen years, until a sudden change alters his life one Christmas.
Eliot opens Silas Marner by immediately distancing the novel from its readers. The narrator repeatedly stresses that the time, physical setting, and characters are unfamiliar to us. Eliot evokes the pastoral English countryside of the early nineteenth century, emphasizing Raveloe’s distance from large towns and even large roads, an isolation that keeps the town mostly ignorant of the intellectual currents of its own time. The characters behave according to a rustic belief system that is distant and alien to us. This distance is temporal as much as it is spatial. Intervening between the era in which the novel is set and the era in which it is written is the Industrial Revolution. This industrialization dramatically transformed England from a society of farms and villages to one of factories and cities. In Silas Marner Eliot is therefore describing a lost world, and part of her purpose in the novel is to evoke what she feels has been lost.
Here, as in all of her novels, Eliot’s narrative voice is sympathetic but strongly moral. Eliot does not romanticize the simplicity of her characters. On the contrary, she underlines the flaws and limitations of their worldview with a sort of benevolent condescension. Administering justice by drawing lots, for instance, or suspecting that Silas is allied with Satan because he knows how to work a loom, are clearly outmoded beliefs. However, Eliot also takes it upon herself to explain these characters and their shortcomings—not to justify them, but to make them understandable and human.
Though Silas is isolated, there are hints of his eventual incorporation into the community of Raveloe. Silas’s outsider status is partly due to his profession, as, the narrator tells us, weavers of his day were rarely accepted by their neighbors. However, Silas’s work also provides a powerful metaphor of unity for that same community. It is Silas who takes the threads spun on Raveloe’s individual spinning wheels and weaves them into whole cloth. This work both contrasts with his literal isolation and prefigures a later act, his adoption of Eppie, which serves to unite the community. This metaphor is further reinforced when Chapter Two ends with a comparison of Silas’s hermetic existence to a “little shivering thread.”
Silas has not always been an outsider. His rejection of community coincides with his loss of faith, and thus, in a sense, his faith in his fellow man has died along with his faith in God. Whereas the religious community in which Silas grew up is founded and governed by a strict belief system, the community of Raveloe shares a looser set of superstitions. When Silas rejects his former beliefs, he begins to idolize his money to fill the void. This spiritually impoverished worship only reinforces his isolation. Money allows Silas to once again worship something, but without involving other human beings. When he is banished from his church, he casts away his desire for human fellowship and finds a new source of fulfillment in his gold coins.
Silas’s mechanical aptitude and worship of money can be seen as representative of the imminent onset of industrialization, a historical phenomenon that uprooted many people from their villages and tore apart the communities that had previously connected working-class people to one another. The German social philosopher Karl Marx, writing shortly before George Eliot, coined the phrase “the commodification of labor” to describe this uprooting, which tended to dehumanize workers as they came to be defined solely in terms of the monetary value produced by their labor, rather than by their place in a local economy. Silas’s existence has become as mechanized as any factory worker’s. He is described as shrunken to fit to his loom, so much so that he looks like a part of it, and the narrator compares him to “a handle or a crooked tube, which has no meaning standing apart.” Silas’s labor holds no significance for him except as a means to collect more of the money he loves. He does not view his work as a contribution to the community or as something in which to take pride. Bereft of connections to other human beings, Silas attributes human qualities to his money, admiring the faces on the coins as if they were friends.