Literature Study GuidesSilas MarnerPart 1 Chapter 1 Summary

Silas Marner | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Silas Marner | Part 1, Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Silas Marner is set when people still had spinning wheels in their homes. In those days, country people saw a pale man walking stooped under the weight of a heavy bag. In the bag was flax thread or perhaps bolts of the linen the man had woven from flax thread. People in those days were suspicious of anyone who was not like them, including peddlers, knife-grinders, and weavers. Such people were outsiders who passed through town. Weavers were masters of a mysterious skill, which made people suspect they might be in league with the devil. Even if such a person came to live locally, his origins remained unknown, so it was impossible to trust him. As a result, outsiders were unlikely ever to be accepted into the community—a lonely life that led to eccentricities.

Silas Marner is an outsider and a linen weaver who lives in a stone cottage near an abandoned quarry on the outskirts of a country village called Raveloe. The local boys sometimes creep up to his windows to watch him working at his loom, but they run in fear if he notices them and comes out of his cottage. They have heard their parents say he can cure rheumatism "and add, still more darkly, that if you could only speak the devil fair enough, he might save you the cost of the doctor." Raveloe's people are prosperous because their farms are fertile. Still, the village is well off the beaten track, and the locals have little contact with the outside world. Even after 15 years, several factors have kept Marner an outsider: his appearance—extreme pallor, bulging eyes, and stooped posture; his solitary way of life—he only speaks with the locals when necessary to buy provisions or sell his goods; and his witchlike reputation. As an outsider, he might have been persecuted, but he is protected by worries that he might do his persecutor "a mischief" coupled with local housewives' desire to purchase his linen. After 15 years, people speculate less about him than they once did, but they feel certain he possesses both mysterious powers and a hoard of money.

As a young man, Silas lived in a city neighborhood called Lantern Yard, where he was a respected member of a small religious sect and particularly valued for his "mysterious rigidity and suspension of consciousness," which was interpreted—even though he had no visions—as a spiritual trance of some sort. His mother taught him how to find and use medicinal herbs, though he felt prayer should be enough on its own to effect healing. In Lantern Yard, Silas's closest friend is William Dane. Although William is a bit of a bully and tends to think a little too well of his own abilities, in Silas's eyes he can do no wrong. Silas and his fiancée, Sarah, are saving up to get married. This is when Silas's first fit occurs. All the members of his congregation view the event positively—all but William, who suggests it "looked more like a visitation of Satan than a proof of divine favour." Soon it seems to Silas that Sarah is growing distant, but she insists she is not. After all "their engagement [is] known to the church, and ha[s] been recognized in the prayer-meetings"; it cannot be ended without a church "investigation." Then, the deacon, a widower with no children, becomes ill, and the younger members of the congregation take turns looking after him. Silas and William share the night shift, with William taking over from Silas at 2:00 a.m. One night Silas realizes the deacon has stopped breathing and has in fact been dead for some time. It is 4:00 a.m., and William has not come. Silas fetches the minister and some friends to help, then goes to work. That evening Silas is brought before the minister and the congregation and accused of stealing the church's money from the deacon's drawer, which was jimmied open with Silas's penknife; the penknife has been left conveniently in place of the bag. Silas, having last known the penknife to be in his pocket, reasons that he must have had a fit and that the thief took his knife and used it to swipe the money while Silas was "out of [his] body." He suggests they search his room, confident they will find nothing but his meager savings. Instead, William finds the church's money bag—empty—and accuses Silas of "giv[ing] Satan an advantage over" him. Silas stares at him, flushes, and says he remembers that the knife was not in his pocket. He will not say where it was, though, but insists, "God will clear me."

Because the church does not allow recourse to the courts, the church members decide to settle the matter by "praying and drawing lots," and despite his innocence, the lots find Silas guilty. He says to William, "The last time I remember using my knife, was when I took it out to cut a strap for you. I don't remember putting it in my pocket again." He accuses William of the theft and of framing him. William may get away with it, he says, because God is unjust and "bears witness against the innocent." The next day, Silas learns Sarah considers their engagement "at and end"; a few weeks later, she marries William. Soon after that, Silas leaves Lantern Yard.

Analysis

The time is the early 19th century, and the place is the rural village of Raveloe. The main character is the linen weaver Silas Marner, who is the target of suspicion and superstition among the locals due to his differences in appearance, skills, and lifestyle. Because he is a solitary man, Silas "never stroll[s] into the village to drink a pint at the Rainbow"; this is the village pub and an important symbol of community in the novel.

The narrator—a third-person, omniscient narrator—has deep knowledge of the time period and the place. Even though the people in Raveloe live more or less in oblivion of the outside world, the narrator reminds readers from time to time what is going on beyond the village. For example, the narrator points out that even bad farmers in Raveloe could make enough money to live well "in those war times." This is a reference to the Napoleonic wars, when the British army needed all the supplies it could get to mount its 12-year campaign against the French emperor. The omniscient narrator also speaks directly to readers using the first-person pronoun; this is known as authorial intrusion—a technique often employed by Victorian writers. Authorial intrusion occurs in Chapter 1 when the narrator gives an example of how a hard life destroys a person's imagination. The observation begins, "I once said to an old labouring man, who was in his last illness," and goes on to recount how he couldn't keep down what he was used to eating and so refused to eat anything at all.

When describing Silas and his friend William, the narrator describes how their facial features reveal their characters. Silas has an "expression of trusting simplicity ... that defenseless, deer-like gaze which belongs to large prominent eyes," whereas William's face wears a "self-complacent suppression of inward triumph ... in the narrow slanting eyes and compressed lips." The narrator also explains Silas never lies about having visions during his cataleptic fits, which by implication makes readers doubt William's account of having "dreamed that he saw the words 'calling and election sure' standing by themselves on a white page in the open Bible." Silas may trust William, but the narrator gives readers a more accurate impression—one that is in keeping with his betrayal of Silas.

In Lantern Yard and in Raveloe, Silas's catalepsy sets him apart from others. Catalepsy is a condition in which the sufferer enters a nonresponsive trance and becomes rigid, so that the body remains in the same position as when the fit begins or in which it is placed. In Lantern Yard, Silas's fits mark him as special and worthy of admiration, but in Raveloe they mark him as a scary outsider. For Eliot catalepsy is purely a medical condition, but the novel shows readers how people interpret the unknown and use their interpretations to form judgments of others, who are then forced to live under those judgments. In Lantern Yard, William is able to force his interpretation on the congregation, and his success condemns Silas to the next 15 years of bitter solitude. William has not only convinced the congregation of Silas's guilt but has destroyed Silas's faith in a just god. The loss of that faith, of his community, of his understanding of friendship, and of the woman he loves leaves an emotional hole in Silas that will have to be filled somehow. And what will fill it—at least for the next 15 years—is a love of gold.

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