In the early 1800s, when spinning wheels were still popular in every household, solitary men traveled from village to village in the rural English countryside seeking work as weavers. Rural villagers, fearful of any change in their lives, often made negative assumptions about anything unusual, or even infrequent, such as the visit of a farrier or a weaver. Any special skill or intelligence was particularly frowned upon as evidence of one’s communion with evil forces, for how else was any unique ability to be gained?
One such rural weaver facing the suspicion and distrust of his neighbors is Silas Marner, a lonely figure who lives on the outskirts of Raveloe, in a cottage near the Stone Pits. The Raveloe villagers perceive Marner as strange, because of both his lonely occupation and his strange condition in which he periodically falls into a trance-like state, or fit. Marner’s isolation is due to his unfortunate youth in the distant town of Lantern Yard. In Lantern Yard, Marner was believed to be a young man of great promise among the local congregation who had once witnessed one of his fits during a service and believed it to be the mark of God’s intervention. However, Marner’s happiness is interrupted when his friend William Dane frames him as a thief. The congregation decides to draw lots to determine Marner’s fate. Marner is convinced that God will demonstrate his innocence only to find that the lots declare his guilt. Having lost his faith, Marner flees Lantern Yard.
For fifteen years, Marner lives in Raveloe, withdrawn from the community, but making a fair sum of money from his constant weaving work. He is fascinated by the gold he earns and begins to hoard it. He works for the gold itself and treasures a store of it under his floorboards. Every night, he takes out his gold to admire it, and the gold takes the place in his heart of any human affection.
Meanwhile, in Raveloe, the older son of Squire Cass, the community’s most prominent man, is dealing with a dark secret. The older son, Godfrey, has married a woman named Molly Farren of lowly birth and they have a young daughter. Their marriage is a secret from everyone, including the Squire, and only the younger son, Dunstan, knows the truth. Godfrey regrets his foolish marriage and has long loved a respectable young woman named Nancy Lammeter. Dunstan uses his knowledge to bribe Godfrey into doing whatever he wants, including giving Dunstan a sum of money Godfrey collected from one of the Squire’s tenants. In order to repay this money, and to keep his secret, Godfrey allows Dunstan to take his horse, Wildfire, and sell him at the hunt. After securing a price for the horse, Dunstan rides the hunting course only to have the horse fall and die. Embarrassed by his predicament, but unconcerned for his brother’s fate, Dunstan decides to walk home through the misty evening. On this walk, he passes by the Stone Pits and Silas Marner’s cottage. Remembering talk of the weaver’s wealth, Dunstan decides to speak with him and considers forcing him into making a loan. However, he finds the door of the cottage unlocked and the place deserted. He quickly deduces where the gold is hidden, and, taking both bags, stumbles off into the darkness.
Silas Marner returns home to find his gold gone and is thrown into panic and despair. He goes to the Rainbow, the local pub, for assistance. The men gathered there help Marner, but half of them believe that the robbery must have been committed by a supernatural force, and the other half are unable to discover anything about the thief. The villagers begin to reach out to Marner in his misfortune, and one woman in particular, Dolly Winthrop, is very generous. Godfrey Cass learns of Dunstan’s disappearance and Wildfire’s death and decides that he must at once confess the full story to his father. However, despite his deliberations and anxiety, he backs out of this course of action and tells his father only the problem of the loaned money. Dunstan Cass does not return home. No one connects his disappearance with Marner’s robbed gold.
On New Years Eve, a large party is hosted at Squire Cass’s home, the Red House. Nancy Lammeter and her sister, Priscilla, wear matching outfits, and while Nancy’s beauty outshines her sister’s, Priscilla is admired for her cooking, good sense, and generally pleasant acceptance of her own appearance and her lot in life. Nancy has determined to never marry Godfrey as he has behaved unusually to her, by ignoring her or by paying her close attention in a whimsical matter. Godfrey and Nancy dance together and Godfrey decides to get as much joy from the brief evening as possible. Unknown to Godfrey, his wife, Molly, is walking through the snowy evening to the Red House, carrying their child and bitterly intending to expose her connection to Godfrey. Molly is addicted to opium and she cannot resist taking a dose as she travels. From the cold, weariness, and the drug, Molly collapses near Silas Marner’s cottage.
Molly’s daughter totters away from her mother and follows the light to the open door of Silas Marner’s cabin. The weaver is frozen in one of his fits at the open door, and the child moves past him and falls asleep on the warm hearth. Marner returns to his senses only to see what he thinks is his gold returned to him. The gold is revealed to be the hair of the sleeping child and Marner is baffled as to how she appeared there, until he finds her dead mother in the snow. Marner rushes to Squire Cass’s party seeking Dr. Kimble, and Godfrey, in great agitation, returns with the doctor and Mrs. Winthrop to see the woman, realizing that her life or death will greatly impact his future. Molly is dead, and Marner fixes upon keeping the child himself. Godfrey returns to the party realizing that the way has been cleared for him to find happiness with Nancy.
Silas Marner’s care for the child, who he names Eppie, reconnects him with the people and community around him. He learns much about childcare from Dolly Winthrop. He begins attending church and has Eppie baptized. He takes her on journeys and deliveries and receives kind smiles and attention from everyone. Through seeking what is best for his daughter, Marner regains trust and faith in other humans and connections throughout Raveloe.
Sixteen years pass and Eppie grows into a lovely young woman. Aaron Winthrop proposes to her and the two plan to marry and to live with Silas Marner, so that Eppie need not leave her father. Godfrey and Nancy are married, though they are faced with the difficulty of having no children of their own. Godfrey has proposed adopting a child, namely Eppie, but Nancy firmly believes that to adopt a child is to disobey the fate given to one by Providence.
One Sunday afternoon, a draining project in the fields causes the Stone Pits to empty of water, and, at the bottom, Dunstan Cass’s body is discovered, accompanied by Marner’s stolen gold. Godfrey’s horror at his brother’s crime causes him to finally confess all to Nancy. Nancy’s reaction is one of regret that she didn’t know earlier the true reason behind his interest in adopting Eppie. The pair resolves to adopt Eppie at that point and to give her more comfort and security, as well as the life of a lady. Godfrey and Nancy visit Marner and Eppie at the cottage and make their offer of adoption. Eppie refuses, saying she could never leave her father, and Godfrey, frustrated, reveals the truth of her parentage. Eppie is unimpressed by Godfrey’s insistence and his treatment of Silas Marner, as well as what she supposes about his connection with her biological mother. Again, she turns away the offer of adoption, reaffirming her commitment to the father who has raised her. Godfrey feels that it must be part of his punishment for past wrongs for his daughter to dislike him.
Eppie and Aaron are married and the villagers celebrate, happy to see someone like Silas Marner be so blessed after the good deed he did for a young orphaned girl. Godfrey Cass has helped expand the cottage for Marner’s growing family, and Eppie has a beautiful garden as she desired. Eppie exclaims that she and her father must be the happiest people in the world.