Silas Marner, the Weaver of Raveloe, published in 1861, is unique among George Eliot's writings for its brevity and its apparent allegorical clarity. The novel is only slightly longer than the short stories that Eliot published in her first work, Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), and it is less than half as long as her other novels. Still, it is no mere fairy tale, nor is it ultimately less weighty than the bulk of Eliot's output. The story of Marner's expulsion from society and his eventual redemption through the love of a child, Eppie, has powerful Biblical and mythic resonances. It also expresses aspects of Eliot's own life as a creative artist in several interesting ways. In addition, the novel strikes a bargain between the realistic and the fantastic in its depiction of village life and culture in nineteenth-century England. Although Eliot explored this blending of fantasy and realism elsewhere in her career, she never executed it so fully as in Silas Marner.
Silas Marner's origin is as unusual as its content. Marner, as Eliot writes in her journal, "thrust itself between me and the other book I was meditating." That "other book" eventually became Romola (1863), a book about Renaissance Italy that, superficially at least, could hardly differ more from Silas Marner. Work on Marner continued more quickly than on any of Eliot's other works. By March 10, 1861, within three months of starting it, she had completed the book. It was published three weeks later.
In Marner Eliot was "thrust" into a setting that had proved extremely successful for her in the past: poor village life in rural England. This is the same general Midland background as in her two previous novels, Adam Bede (1859) and The Mill on the Floss (1860), both of which had been runaway bestsellers. It has been suggested that Eliot was afraid of the change Romola would demand of her readership, and that she therefore cushioned the shift in tone and setting with Marner's tapestry of English provincial life.
The novel proved to be an immediate success with critics and readers alike. Since its publication, it has remained one of Eliot's best-known and most beloved works. It also has the consistent reputation of being "less difficult" than Eliot's other works, especially her later magnum opus, Middlemarch (1871). Even so, one should not confuse the naivete of the characters in Silas Marner with the sophistication and elegance of the book itself, which enjoys a thematic and symbolic density equal to that of her other works. Eliot would never write another work so tightly constructed, so elegantly woven, or so rich with magic as Silas Marner.