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.