Squire Cass is acknowledged as the greatest man in Raveloe, the closest thing the village has to a lord. His sons, however, have “turned out rather ill.” The Squire’s younger son, Dunstan, more commonly called by the nickname Dunsey, is a sneering and unpleasant young man with a taste for gambling and drinking. The elder son, Godfrey, is handsome and good-natured, and everyone in town wants to see him married to the lovely Nancy Lammeter. Lately, however, Godfrey has been acting strange and looking unwell.
One November afternoon, the two Cass brothers get into a heated argument over 100 pounds that Godfrey has lent Dunsey—money that was the rent from one of their father’s tenants. The Squire is growing impatient, Godfrey says, and will soon find out that Godfrey has been lying to him about the rent if Dunsey does not repay the money. Dunsey, however, tells Godfrey to come up with the money himself, lest Dunsey tell their father about Godfrey’s secret marriage to the drunken opium addict Molly Farren. Dunsey suggests that Godfrey borrow money or sell his prized horse, Wildfire, at the next day’s hunt. Godfrey balks at this, since there is a dance that evening at which he plans to see Nancy. When Dunsey mockingly suggests that Godfrey simply kill Molly off, Godfrey angrily threatens to tell their father about the money and his marriage himself, thus getting Dunsey thrown out of the house along with him.
Godfrey, however, is unwilling to take this step, preferring his uncertain but currently comfortable existence to the certain embarrassment that would result from revealing his secret marriage. Thinking that he has perhaps pushed Godfrey too far, Dunsey offers to sell Godfrey’s horse for him. Godfrey agrees to this, and Dunsey leaves. The narrator then gives us a glimpse of Godfrey’s future: the empty, monotonous prosperity of the aging country squire who spends his years drinking and wallowing in regret. The narrator adds that Godfrey already has experienced this regret to some degree: we learn that Godfrey was talked into his secret marriage by none other than Dunsey, who used the idea as a trap to gain leverage with which to blackmail Godfrey. Godfrey does genuinely love Nancy Lammeter—as the narrator suggests, Nancy represents everything missing from the household in which Godfrey grew up after his mother’s death. The fact that Godfrey cannot act upon his emotions toward Nancy only increases his misery.
Dunsey sets off the next morning to sell his brother’s horse. Passing by Silas Marner’s cottage, Dunsey remembers the rumors about Silas’s hoard of gold and wonders why he has never thought to persuade Godfrey to ask Silas for a loan. Despite the promise of this idea, Dunsey decides to ride on anyway, since he wants his brother to be upset about having had to sell Wildfire and he looks forward to the bargaining and swagger that will be involved in the sale of the horse.
Dunsey meets some acquaintances who are hunting. After some negotiation he arranges Wildfire’s sale, with payment to be handed over upon safe delivery of the horse to the stable. Dunsey decides not to deliver the horse right away, and instead takes part in the hunt, enjoying the prospect of jumping fences to show off the horse. However, Dunsey jumps one fence too many, and Wildfire gets impaled on a stake and dies. No one witnesses the accident, and Dunsey is unhurt, so he makes his way to the road in order to walk home. All the while he thinks of Silas’s money. When Dunsey passes Silas’s cottage just after dusk and sees a light on through the window, he decides to introduce himself. To his surprise the door is unlocked and the cottage empty. Tempted by the blazing fire inside and the piece of pork roasting over it, Dunsey sits down at the hearth and wonders where Silas is. His thoughts quickly shift to Silas’s money and, looking around the cottage, Dunsey notices a spot in the floor carefully covered over with sand. He sweeps away the sand, pries up the loose bricks, and finds the bags of gold. He steals the bags and flees into the darkness.
While the first two chapters establish a tone of monotony and routine, the third chapter introduces narrative tension. Godfrey’s secret wife, his frustrated love for Nancy, and Dunsey’s blackmail create a precarious situation. Silas’s situation is much the opposite: he lives a life marked by unchanging labor and the slow accumulation of money, a life in which change is hard to imagine. The tension between these two lives sets the narrative in motion, as Godfrey’s need for money leads Dunsey to Silas’s door.
The parallel narratives of Silas and the Cass family do not intersect until Dunsey’s theft at the end of Chapter Four. This theft represents the first of three major intersections between Silas and the Cass family. Aside from these three intersections, the two different narratives run along separate tracks, with Eliot following each for a few chapters at a time. This structure of two separate narratives renders each point of intersection significant for both. This first intersection, the theft, sets in motion the action of the entire novel, upsetting the monotony of Silas’s life and eventually bringing him forcefully into the life of his surrounding community.
Dunsey’s theft bridges not only a narrative distance, but also a social distance. By juxtaposing the wealthy Cass family with the humble Silas, Eliot focuses our attention on the sharp differences in social class within the village of Raveloe. In the nineteenth century, as throughout most of British history, the class system was the predominant reality of village life. The class to which one belonged not only defined one’s social interactions, but also shaped one’s values and view of the world. Eliot explores class distinctions throughout the novel. All of the characters we meet in the first two chapters are of a lower class than the Cass family, who, while not nobility, still hold a high social rank as landowners. The Casses are admired by everyone in Raveloe and are therefore at the farthest social extreme from Silas, who is seen as the village freak.
For Silas, labor has come to mean nothing more than a way to collect gold coins, while, for the Casses, labor is a completely foreign concept altogether. As a landowner, Squire Cass makes a living not from his own labor but from the rents he collects from his tenants for the right to work his land. This life of ease is especially embodied by Dunsey, who spends his time swapping animals and betting, and who delights in selling his brother’s horse. These all represent means of making money without working. When Godfrey needs money, not one of the schemes that occur to Dunsey is rooted in the idea of earning money through toil.
Furthermore, Eliot implies that the Cass family’s prosperity, like Godfrey’s double life, is not something that can long continue. Silas Marner takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, a series of early nineteenth-century conflicts fought by England and various allies against Napoleon’s France. These wars kept land prices artificially high. As Eliot writes in Chapter Three, “the fall of prices had not yet come to carry the race of small squires and yeomen down that road to ruin for which extravagant habits and bad husbandry were plentifully anointing their wheels.” The metaphor of a carriage poised at the top of a hill, wheels pointed down the slope, is an apt one for the financial and social status of the Cass household. This precarious image of the carriage serves as a counterpoint to the image of Silas’s loom, which embodies his steady labor and monotonous life. These images serve to contrast the Cass family’s precarious idleness with Silas’s persistent, if resigned, industriousness.