Silas Marner

by: George Eliot

Part I, Chapters 1–2

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.

Analysis: Part I, Chapters 1–2

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.