In the early 1800s, when spinning wheels were popular in farmhouses and prosperous houses alike, solitary men traveled across the English countryside, seeking work as weavers. Inhabitants of small towns were wary of strangers such as these weavers, suspicious of anyone or anything from a world not within their direct experience. Any intelligence or skill possessed by a man was seen as further evidence of his foreignness, or, worse, communion with evil forces.
The occupation of weaving is shown to be both a job and a way of life that separates the weaver from regular society. The weaver often must travel during a time period in which traveling was difficult, and, therefore, rare. Rural villagers mistake hard-earned skills for evil powers, which emphasizes the backwardness and isolation of these communities.
One linen weaver, named Silas Marner, resides in a cottage near the village of Raveloe, beside a Stone Pit. Local boys are both fearful of and fascinated by Marner and often peek in at his windows, only to receive a gaze of disapproval from the weaver, who dislikes their intrusion. The boys had heard their fathers and mothers hint of Marner’s abilities to cure sickness, no doubt acquired through demon worship. The villagers of Raveloe, who led lives of hard work and possessed little imagination, could not suppose that the same person could possess uncommon skill and benevolence.
Silas Marner’s occupation as a weaver requires him to spend long hours in solitary employment. His already suspicious occupation is reinforced by his ability to use herbs to cure sickness, which was a “magic” different from prayer to God. Marner’s interaction with the local boys and his ability to help others with natural remedies demonstrate how the villagers misconstrue his natural goodness.
At the beginning of the story, Silas Marner has lived in Raveloe for fifteen years. His appearance and lifestyle, fifteen years earlier, had discouraged his neighbors from befriending him. To the young women of the village he resembled a dead man come to life again with his pallid skin and large, near-sighted eyes. He never invited callers into his home, visited no one else, and never spent time drinking at the local pub, the Rainbow. Marner’s strangeness had been further confirmed when Jem Rodney discovered Marner leaning against a stile in a trance: unresponsive, eyes staring, limbs frozen. Suddenly Marner regained his movement and voice, said “good night,” and departed. Some villagers claimed Marner had been in a “fit,” while Mr. Macey, the parish clerk, argued that one in a fit always fell down, whereas Marner’s soul had temporarily come loose from his body.
Jem Rodney’s experience with Marner’s fit both functions as an anecdote of how strange Marner appears to his fellow villagers and demonstrates how the villagers respond to things they don’t understand. Marner’s fits, while they could be explained medically or scientifically today, are given a spiritual explanation: his soul is loose from his body. Marner’s characterization as a dead man returned to life, as well as his reluctance to make friends, show his dispassionate attitude, his loneliness, and his total lack of connection with other people at this point in the book. His faith and his interest in life have died.
Despite the suspicions of his neighbors, Marner’s weaving services continue to be popular in Raveloe, and little changes in public opinion of Marner, or in Marner’s personal habits, over fifteen years of life near the village. Marner’s inner life, however, has taken a negative turn. Before living in Raveloe, Marner lived in Lantern Yard, where he had been surrounded by the activity and fellowship of his community. In this community, Marner had been respected as a young man with great promise after he had fallen into one of his “fits” during a church service. Marner held a strong respect for mystery and for the power of prayer. He had learned the skills of healing with herbs from his mother, but he was reluctant to apply these skills because he believed prayer alone was sufficient for healing.
For fifteen years, Marner’s lifestyle and actions change very little, but his inner life in Raveloe is severely reduced from the thriving spiritual life he enjoyed in Lantern Yard. The community in Lantern Yard respected and admired Marner. Like the villagers of Raveloe, those in the church community at Lantern Yard attributed Marner’s fits to spiritual causes. But instead of finding these fits strange, the churchgoers felt Marner must be blessed. Marner’s reluctance to use his herbal remedies demonstrates his early faith in the power of a benevolent God.
In Lantern Yard, young Marner had a close friend named William Dane, another promising young man who was somewhat severe with those less pious than him. The two friends frequently discussed whether or not they felt assured of their salvation after death: where William Dane was certain, Silas was only hopeful and fearful. Marner was engaged to a young woman named Sarah, and he was thankful that this engagement didn’t interfere with his continued friendship with William Dane. After Marner’s “fit” during a church service, however, William responded that such a fit might be a visitation from Satan, and Sarah started to behave oddly around Marner, exhibiting signs of dislike.
William Dane’s friendship with Silas Marner helps show Marner’s character clearly. William Dane, unlike Marner, is completely confident, both in his pious behavior and in his assurance of salvation. Marner’s tentative nature is shown in contrast. Sarah is fearful of Marner’s fits, and William Dane questions their divine nature. Sarah and William’s reactions show that Marner’s fits may inspire not only awe, but fear and concern.
When the senior deacon of Lantern Yard became ill, the young men and women of the community took turns sitting by his bedside. Marner and William Dane often traded off around two in the morning, splitting a night shift of sitting with the old man. On one such night, Marner realized that the deacon had died during his shift. Marner wondered if he had briefly fallen asleep, and looked at the clock to discover that it was four in the morning and William Dane had not appeared for his shift. Marner sought help. At six in the morning, William Dane and the minister arrived and summoned Marner to a meeting with the church members.
Marner and William Dane’s decision to share shifts looking after the senior deacon demonstrates their close friendship, and Marner’s continued perception that they function as a team. William Dane’s betrayal is first evident when he doesn’t appear for his shift. When the senior deacon dies, Marner worries that he may have fallen into a fit, rather than fallen asleep. Again, Marner’s fits are presented as a possible source of danger or error.
At the meeting, the minister brought out Marner’s pocketknife, which had been found in the deacon’s bureau, where the church money was stored but was now missing. Accused of the robbery, Marner insisted, “God will clear me.” He permitted a search of his dwelling, and William Dane discovered the bag of money behind the chest of drawers in Marner’s chamber. Marner, suddenly overwhelmed, remembered that he had loaned his pocketknife to William Dane and never received it back.
William Dane frames Marner using only his borrowed pocketknife and the bag from the stolen money. Because Marner remembers loaning the pocketknife to William Dane, the real criminal could be apparent, but the church looks for divine answers to form accusations. Marner is likewise confident that divine answers will prove his innocence.
To determine Marner’s fate, the church community drew lots: an ancient practice used in The Bible of casting stones, straw, or objects to determine an outcome. While Marner relied on God to demonstrate his innocence, the lots pronounced him guilty. Shaking in anger, Marner accused William Dane of framing him and renounced God, accusing God of being a liar. The community was horrified by this blasphemy. Marner’s trust in God and in other humans was broken. Sarah broke off their engagement, and, in less than a month, Sarah married William Dane, and Marner left Lantern Yard.
While drawing lots relies primarily on chance, the church community believes the outcome will be divinely directed. When the truth of Marner’s innocence is contradicted by this practice, Marner loses his faith in any divine power. Marner’s public rebuke of William Dane turns the community against him. William and Sarah’s subsequent marriage makes Marner even more of an outcast in his hometown (while also indicating Dane's motive in framing Marner).