Silas Marner
George Eliot
Contributed by Harvey Landy
Chapter 1

The novel opens with the narrator’s description of a kind of landscape in the early part of the nineteenth century: one of great industry, with spinning wheels spinning and shepherds at work. She then goes on to depict the juxtaposition of this landscape with a figure coming from far off -- a small, thin pale man amongst a race of brawny men built big through work. This figure is one of a certain type of man, we’re told, carrying a sack (it’s not specified what’s inside), and bent down under his burden. Superstition accrues to such figures, she says, because superstition, in those times, accrued to anything jettisoned or disliked. Such men carried thread in their bags, she says, for weaving. But the villagers also suspect that weaving is an art that takes place through devilish, supernatural machinations. These weavers are travelers -- seeming to live without homes. And how can you get a grip on what a man is if you don’t know his father or mother? Any kind of dexterity is suspect to the peasants, the narrator says -- whether it be weaving or a kind of dexterity of the tongue -- of speech. Dexterity, that is, appears as magic to the villagers. 

Silas Marner is just such a dexterous weaver, and he lived, the narrator says, in the early 1800’s in the village of Raveloe. Silas is the subject of much speculation on the part of the villagers, particularly young boys who peep in his windows to get a glimpse of him. He’s rumored to be able to cure rheumatism. 

Raveloe is a village where superstition runs high, but not because it’s been left out of the push of modernization and industrialization. In fact, Raveloe is in a rich part of central England, and boasts very profitable farmland. But it’s deep in the woods, an hour’s horse ride from any major thoroughfares. It’s a well-kept village, with a church, homesteads, orchards all in good condition. 

Silas has been in Raveloe for fifteen years. When he arrived he was a small young man with brown eyes that bulged somewhat -- a source of much anxiety for the villagers. He claimed to have come from a place he calls "’North’ard.’" He never has guests over, nor does he venture into town to drink at the Rainbow, the village pub. He seeks no friends, nor does he seek to court any young girls. But Silas has a knowledge of herbs and charms and has cured several villagers of ailments such as insomnia. After fifteen years, the villagers’ opinions of Silas have held steady, and he is widely imagined to have built up a large store of money. 

Silas’ solitary existence in Raveloe is quite different than his life in Lantern Yard, where he lived previously. There, he was respected as a religious man, and once, during a sermon, he fell into a kind of fit. He was in a faint for over an hour, and was presumed dead, although he later awoke. Silas, everyone seemed to believe, was marked to have a special role in the spiritual life of the church and community, even though upon waking he did not claim to have had any visions while unconscious. The experience convinced him, however, about the seriousness of the place of religion within his life. He began to have doubts about using his knowledge of herbs, since he believed that herbs can only have the effects they’re meant to have if they’re combined with prayer. And furthermore, he believed that prayer alone can suffice even without the herbs. He began to feel like his preoccupation with herbs distracted from the real power of religious devotion. 

Silas had one friend, William Dane, who was also taken as an example of great piety by the community. He and Silas were quite close, and even though other villagers believed Dane to be somewhat pompous in his beliefs, Silas accepted him utterly. 

Silas began to have an attachment to a woman, a servant named Sarah. Just when he was getting close with Sarah, he had the fit in church. While everyone else thought it a sign of Silas’ deep piousness, William told Silas that it might be representative of something satanic. He encouraged Silas to look to see if he’s hiding anything in his soul. Sarah’s attitude towards Silas began to change now. He asked if she wanted to break the engagement, but she said no.

At this point one of the senior deacons took ill, and Silas and William took turns watching him during the night, switching off at two in the morning. The deacon appeared to be on the mend, but on Silas’ watch abruptly stopped breathing. Silas decided that the deacon had died, and then realized that it was four in the morning. He wondered where William had been. At six in the morning, William came to Silas with the minister. He was shown a knife and asked what he knew about it. It’s his knife, and it’s been found -- he was told, in the deacon’s bedside table, in the place where the bag of church money had been. Someone has taken the money, they say, and they assumed that it was the man to whom the knife belonged. Silas. Silas denied knowing anything about it, but they searched Silas’s home and found the bag there, empty. Silas again denied having anything to do with the theft. 

The town found Silas guilty, and he was suspended from his membership in the church and ordered to return the money. Marner listened to the verdict silently and then approached William. He said that the last time he used the knife was in cutting something for William, but that he didn’t remember returning it to his pocket. He accused William of having stolen the money. Silas appeared at this moment not to believe in a just God anymore, if he, Silas, could stand accused of this crime. He returned home and was informed that Sarah had broken their engagement. Sarah married William within the month. Soon afterwards, Silas left town for Raveloe.

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