The novel opens with a discussion of the superstitious attitude of provincial English peasants toward the "wandering" tradesmen at the fringes of their society. Such outsiders include weavers. Eliot suggests that villagers in nineteenth-century England prefer simple, direct experience to the mysterious histories and abilities of weavers. Because such men are generally distrusted by rustic society, they have tended to become "aliens": eccentric, disagreeable, lonesome and mysterious. One such weaver-indeed, the pinnacle of such weavers-is Silas Marner.
Marner is a solitary, nearsighted, crooked man with massive brown eyes and a simple pale face who works "in a stone cottage that stood among the nutty hedgerows near the village of Raveloe, and not far from the edge of a deserted stone-pit." The villagers of Raveloe say he has supernatural powers. Jem Rodney has seen him in a cataleptic fit, solid as stone. Marner also knows herbal arts, which he learned from his mother, and which the villagers associate with the occult. But because his trade is necessary, the villagers tolerate him. Marner has lived outside Raveloe for fifteen years when the novel begins, and in all that time his reputation there has not changed one iota.
Before Marner came to Raveloe, he had been an exceptionally bright and fervent young disciple of an esoteric sect of Puritanism practiced by the parishioners of Lantern Yard. This religious community initially held him in high regard due to his cataleptic fits, which they took to be a sign of his righteousness. At Lantern Yard he was wholly devoted to his best friend, William Dane, and was also betrothed to a young woman, Sarah. William, jealous of Marner, hatched a plot to frame Marner and disgrace him in the community. One night, while Marner was sitting watch at the deathbed of a deacon of Lantern Yard, he was struck with one of his fits. William then stole a pouch of the deacon's money and placed Marner's knife near where the pouch had been.
When Marner awoke from his trance he found the deacon dead. He rushed out into the town to inform the church elders, only to be accused of theft because of the knife. After Marner denied the crime, the members of Lantern Yard drew lots to be certain of Marner's guilt. They drew the lots and, inevitably, Marner was declared guilty. This two-fold condemnation-not only by the treachery of his best friend but also by the community of God-destroyed the young Marner's faith completely. He left the community of Lantern Yard, declaring that "there is no just God that governs the earth righteously, but a God of lies, that bears witness against the innocent."
In the following weeks, unable to reconcile his proclaimed guilt with his self-assurance of innocence, Marner removed himself from society. Word arrived that his fiancÃ©e, Sarah, had renounced her betrothal to him--and within a month she married William. Marner departed from Lantern Yard in despair.
After fleeing from Lantern Yard, Marner settled in the village of Raveloe, a place fully unlike Lantern Yard. Whereas Lantern Yard had been austere, white-walled, and filled with serious and devout Puritans, Raveloe is a place of lazy plenty, pints at the local tavern, and carefree religion on Sundays. Chapter One declared it to be a place where bad farmers are rewarded for bad farming.
In response to the treachery of William Dane, Silas Marner instinctively sought out his loom. That habit continued and calcified with his settlement at Raveloe. His first commission upon arriving at Raveloe was to create table-linen for Mrs. Osgood. He worked at his job far into the night, insensibly hoping to finish the linen sooner than she expected.
Mrs. Osgood's paid him with five gold guineas, a sum much higher than any he had earned at the loom in Lantern Yard. Thus a new, powerful force entered Marner's life. Golden money became the evidence of Marner's "fulfilled effort," and in a life without any other society, the faces on his gold and silver coins became his only friends.
Still, in his early days at Raveloe there were opportunities for Marner to become integrated into the community. One day, as he was taking a pair of shoes to be mended, he saw the cobbler's wife, Sally Oates, in a fit of dropsy. Because his mother had died of the same symptoms Sally Oates was displaying, Marner was able to heal her using his knowledge of herbs. The villagers concluded that Marner must be an occult healer of sorts, and they requested that he heal them too. But Marner refused their requests, and they concluded that he did not want to help them.
Still, in the midst of this social and spiritual withering, Marner retained a tiny remnant of affection. One day as he was returning from the well, he stumbled on a stile and dropped his pot, breaking it into three bits. Though he could never use the pot again, he gathered up the pieces and fashioned them together, placing the restored pot in its old place as a memorial. Aside from this one flash of sentiment, Marner's whole existence at Raveloe--until his fifteenth year there--was a cycle of weaving and hoarding his coins.
The first chapter of Silas Marner puts into play many of the thematic elements that Eliot develops throughout the novel. First among these is the bearing that Marner's profession as a weaver has on his life, both in the narrative and as allegory. The nature of a weaver's work is solitary and, to an extent, anti-social. Unlike, say, a shop-owner, whose trade is tied up with social life, a weaver spends the overwhelming majority of his working life in front of the loom, disconnected from village life. Eliot emphasizes that the peasantry views weavers' solitude, as well as their mastery of the complex and arcane loom, as a threatening force. Male weavers tend to be viewed as belonging to a quasi-magical "disinherited race" (think of Rumpelstilzchen in the fairy tale, another of the classic weavers in literature).
On another level, Marner's weaving is immediately associated with the creative process. He invites comparison with the "weaver" of the "tale" in question, George Eliot herself. This is an ancient comparison: Arachne the weaver in Greek mythology was said to have expressed her magical gift of storytelling through her magnificent tapestries. The Three Fates are also depicted as weavers, spinning the thread of human lives out of their loom and cutting it to signify death. And like the weaver of Raveloe, a writer is often removed from society, peddling her wares from village to village, possessed of a unique, uncommon, often threatening insight into the workings of the heart and the lives of insiders.
Marner's betrayal at the hand of his best friend recalls the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba. In II Samuel, King David is so enamored of Bathsheba that he causes her husband, Uriah, to fight on the front lines of battle in a hopeless cause. When Uriah is killed as expected, David takes Bathsheba as one of his wives. Similarly, William sets Marner up for his expulsion from the church in order to marry his friend's betrothed, Sarah. Eliot invites this comparison explicitly by comparing the friendship of Silas and William to that of "David and Jonathan." (In the first book of Samuel, Jonathan is an intensely, perhaps blindly devoted friend of David.)
The biblical story of Cain and Abel also parallels the betrayal in that the more righteous brother, Abel, is betrayed by Cain. Marner interprets William's first act of two-facedness toward him as merely an execution of William's "brotherly office." Brothers tend to fight for the patrimony. In the novel, however, Silas Marner (figured as Abel) survives and is the one who goes into exile, not the betrayer William. Marner is the one who becomes an outsider, one of the "remnants of a disinherited race." This upending of the traditional story suggests the injustice of Lantern Yard, where the innocent are banished and the guilty thrive.
Marner's odd affliction is described precisely. His fits are not epileptic, in which the sufferer falls to the floor in a seizure. Rather, Marner suffers from cataleptic fits, in which the body goes completely rigid. He is repeatedly described as remaining completely upright, even as though "made of iron," having temporarily lost his very soul. He is rendered completely insensible: to God (his first fits at Lantern Yard were not accompanied by religious visions, causing some concern among the congregation), to society (Jem Rodney cannot get a hello from him for quite a while when Marner is in a fit), and even to the sensory world in general. These fits serve as a fairly straightforward metaphor for Marner's social and spiritual isolation. His rigid, passive character during the fits underscores the torpor that Silas finds himself in as the novel opens. He is a man lost to despair, inactive except in his arcane craft, without hope of redemption through either God or society.
Chapter Two notes the introduction of gold into Marner's life. His first taste of it at Mrs. Osgood's hands is like an alcoholic's first taste of wine-it is delicious, somehow meaningful, vaguely fulfilling, though Marner would be utterly at a loss if asked why. Ultimately, it is ruinous, because Marner's coins-the weight of them, the fact of them, not the value of them-destroy his ability to value things with more than an empty meaning.
Marner awaits the coins he has yet to receive from his unfinished commissions "as if they had been unborn children." This is a tragic outcome, not merely in that the moldering pile of coins he loves as much as a child cannot possibly love him back, but also in that Marner's love is without purpose. Money doesn't mean anything to him in terms of what it can buy. Rather, he treats it as its own society-as a gathering of friends and family, of familiar faces.
Sadly, Marner's narrow life in Lantern Yard so limited his experience that after the betrayal, he was ill equipped to respond to his misfortune. He makes the symbol of productive work and commodities into something to value in its own right. Even so, all of his attention is not always on money. In his betrayal he returns to the one place where he still exerts control: his loom. As he comes to terms with the likelihood that he will never properly belong to society again, he clings to the proof of his usefulness to society: the loom and the money people pay him for his control of the loom.
By comparing Marner throughout Chapter Two to an insect, Eliot captures the instinctual, unreflective way that Marner finds comfort in the loom and his money. She also thus strengthens the mythic undercurrent of the work. Arachne, the mythological weaver, was turned into a spider (practically an insect) after offending Athena, the patron goddess of weavers, by suggesting that she could weave better than even the gods. The images of Marner as an insect also emphasize his alienation from his own race, his unreflecting and innocent nature, and the seemingly purposeless repetition of his life. Like a spider, Marner weaves to weave and to earn, and he earns simply to earn. Endless contemplation of money, a symbol of good things, is a very low form of life in comparison with contemplating good things themselves.