Silas Marner by George Eliot


In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the
farmhouses–and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had
their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak–there might be seen in
districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills,
certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny
country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race. The
shepherd’s dog barked fiercely when one of these alien-looking men
appeared on the upland, dark against the early winter sunset; for what
dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag?–and these pale men rarely
stirred abroad without that mysterious burden. The shepherd himself,
though he had good reason to believe that the bag held nothing but
flaxen thread, or else the long rolls of strong linen spun from that
thread, was not quite sure that this trade of weaving, indispensable
though it was, could be carried on entirely without the help of the
Evil One. In that far-off time superstition clung easily round every
person or thing that was at all unwonted, or even intermittent and
occasional merely, like the visits of the pedlar or the knife-grinder.
No one knew where wandering men had their homes or their origin; and
how was a man to be explained unless you at least knew somebody who
knew his father and mother? To the peasants of old times, the world
outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and
mystery: to their untravelled thought a state of wandering was a
conception as dim as the winter life of the swallows that came back
with the spring; and even a settler, if he came from distant parts,
hardly ever ceased to be viewed with a remnant of distrust, which would
have prevented any surprise if a long course of inoffensive conduct on
his part had ended in the commission of a crime; especially if he had
any reputation for knowledge, or showed any skill in handicraft. All
cleverness, whether in the rapid use of that difficult instrument the
tongue, or in some other art unfamiliar to villagers, was in itself
suspicious: honest folk, born and bred in a visible manner, were mostly
not overwise or clever–at least, not beyond such a matter as knowing
the signs of the weather; and the process by which rapidity and
dexterity of any kind were acquired was so wholly hidden, that they
partook of the nature of conjuring. In this way it came to pass that
those scattered linen-weavers–emigrants from the town into the
country–were to the last regarded as aliens by their rustic
neighbours, and usually contracted the eccentric habits which belong to
a state of loneliness.

In the early years of this century, such a linen-weaver, named Silas
Marner, worked at his vocation 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 questionable sound of Silas’s loom, so
unlike the natural cheerful trotting of the winnowing-machine, or the
simpler rhythm of the flail, had a half-fearful fascination for the
Raveloe boys, who would often leave off their nutting or birds’-nesting
to peep in at the window of the stone cottage, counterbalancing a
certain awe at the mysterious action of the loom, by a pleasant sense
of scornful superiority, drawn from the mockery of its alternating
noises, along with the bent, tread-mill attitude of the weaver. But
sometimes it happened that Marner, pausing to adjust an irregularity in
his thread, became aware of the small scoundrels, and, though chary of
his time, he liked their intrusion so ill that he would descend from
his loom, and, opening the door, would fix on them a gaze that was
always enough to make them take to their legs in terror. For how was
it possible to believe that those large brown protuberant eyes in Silas
Marner’s pale face really saw nothing very distinctly that was not
close to them, and not rather that their dreadful stare could dart
cramp, or rickets, or a wry mouth at any boy who happened to be in the
rear? They had, perhaps, heard their fathers and mothers hint that
Silas Marner could cure folks’ rheumatism if he had a mind, and add,
still more darkly, that if you could only speak the devil fair enough,
he might save you the cost of the doctor. Such strange lingering
echoes of the old demon-worship might perhaps even now be caught by the
diligent listener among the grey-haired peasantry; for the rude mind
with difficulty associates the ideas of power and benignity. A shadowy
conception of power that by much persuasion can be induced to refrain
from inflicting harm, is the shape most easily taken by the sense of
the Invisible in the minds of men who have always been pressed close by
primitive wants, and to whom a life of hard toil has never been
illuminated by any enthusiastic religious faith. To them pain and
mishap present a far wider range of possibilities than gladness and
enjoyment: their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed
desire and hope, but is all overgrown by recollections that are a
perpetual pasture to fear. “Is there anything you can fancy that you
would like to eat?” I once said to an old labouring man, who was in
his last illness, and who had refused all the food his wife had offered
him. “No,” he answered, “I’ve never been used to nothing but common
victual, and I can’t eat that.” Experience had bred no fancies in him
that could raise the phantasm of appetite.

And Raveloe was a village where many of the old echoes lingered,
undrowned by new voices. Not that it was one of those barren parishes
lying on the outskirts of civilization–inhabited by meagre sheep and
thinly-scattered shepherds: on the contrary, it lay in the rich central
plain of what we are pleased to call Merry England, and held farms
which, speaking from a spiritual point of view, paid highly-desirable
tithes. But it was nestled in a snug well-wooded hollow, quite an
hour’s journey on horseback from any turnpike, where it was never
reached by the vibrations of the coach-horn, or of public opinion. It
was an important-looking village, with a fine old church and large
churchyard in the heart of it, and two or three large brick-and-stone
homesteads, with well-walled orchards and ornamental weathercocks,
standing close upon the road, and lifting more imposing fronts than the
rectory, which peeped from among the trees on the other side of the
churchyard:–a village which showed at once the summits of its social
life, and told the practised eye that there was no great park and
manor-house in the vicinity, but that there were several chiefs in
Raveloe who could farm badly quite at their ease, drawing enough money
from their bad farming, in those war times, to live in a rollicking
fashion, and keep a jolly Christmas, Whitsun, and Easter tide.

It was fifteen years since Silas Marner had first come to Raveloe; he
was then simply a pallid young man, with prominent short-sighted brown
eyes, whose appearance would have had nothing strange for people of
average culture and experience, but for the villagers near whom he had
come to settle it had mysterious peculiarities which corresponded with
the exceptional nature of his occupation, and his advent from an
unknown region called “North’ard”. So had his way of life:–he invited
no comer to step across his door-sill, and he never strolled into the
village to drink a pint at the Rainbow, or to gossip at the
wheelwright’s: he sought no man or woman, save for the purposes of his
calling, or in order to supply himself with necessaries; and it was
soon clear to the Raveloe lasses that he would never urge one of them
to accept him against her will–quite as if he had heard them declare
that they would never marry a dead man come to life again. This view
of Marner’s personality was not without another ground than his pale
face and unexampled eyes; for Jem Rodney, the mole-catcher, averred
that one evening as he was returning homeward, he saw Silas Marner
leaning against a stile with a heavy bag on his back, instead of
resting the bag on the stile as a man in his senses would have done;
and that, on coming up to him, he saw that Marner’s eyes were set like
a dead man’s, and he spoke to him, and shook him, and his limbs were
stiff, and his hands clutched the bag as if they’d been made of iron;
but just as he had made up his mind that the weaver was dead, he came
all right again, like, as you might say, in the winking of an eye, and
said “Good-night”, and walked off. All this Jem swore he had seen,
more by token that it was the very day he had been mole-catching on
Squire Cass’s land, down by the old saw-pit. Some said Marner must
have been in a “fit”, a word which seemed to explain things otherwise
incredible; but the argumentative Mr. Macey, clerk of the parish, shook
his head, and asked if anybody was ever known to go off in a fit and
not fall down. A fit was a stroke, wasn’t it? and it was in the
nature of a stroke to partly take away the use of a man’s limbs and
throw him on the parish, if he’d got no children to look to. No, no;
it was no stroke that would let a man stand on his legs, like a horse
between the shafts, and then walk off as soon as you can say “Gee!”
But there might be such a thing as a man’s soul being loose from his
body, and going out and in, like a bird out of its nest and back; and
that was how folks got over-wise, for they went to school in this
shell-less state to those who could teach them more than their
neighbours could learn with their five senses and the parson. And
where did Master Marner get his knowledge of herbs from–and charms
too, if he liked to give them away? Jem Rodney’s story was no more
than what might have been expected by anybody who had seen how Marner
had cured Sally Oates, and made her sleep like a baby, when her heart
had been beating enough to burst her body, for two months and more,
while she had been under the doctor’s care. He might cure more folks
if he would; but he was worth speaking fair, if it was only to keep him
from doing you a mischief.

It was partly to this vague fear that Marner was indebted for
protecting him from the persecution that his singularities might have
drawn upon him, but still more to the fact that, the old linen-weaver
in the neighbouring parish of Tarley being dead, his handicraft made
him a highly welcome settler to the richer housewives of the district,
and even to the more provident cottagers, who had their little stock of
yarn at the year’s end. Their sense of his usefulness would have
counteracted any repugnance or suspicion which was not confirmed by a
deficiency in the quality or the tale of the cloth he wove for them.
And the years had rolled on without producing any change in the
impressions of the neighbours concerning Marner, except the change from
novelty to habit. At the end of fifteen years the Raveloe men said
just the same things about Silas Marner as at the beginning: they did
not say them quite so often, but they believed them much more strongly
when they did say them. There was only one important addition which
the years had brought: it was, that Master Marner had laid by a fine
sight of money somewhere, and that he could buy up “bigger men” than

But while opinion concerning him had remained nearly stationary, and
his daily habits had presented scarcely any visible change, Marner’s
inward life had been a history and a metamorphosis, as that of every
fervid nature must be when it has fled, or been condemned, to solitude.
His life, before he came to Raveloe, had been filled with the movement,
the mental activity, and the close fellowship, which, in that day as in
this, marked the life of an artisan early incorporated in a narrow
religious sect, where the poorest layman has the chance of
distinguishing himself by gifts of speech, and has, at the very least,
the weight of a silent voter in the government of his community.
Marner was highly thought of in that little hidden world, known to
itself as the church assembling in Lantern Yard; he was believed to be
a young man of exemplary life and ardent faith; and a peculiar interest
had been centred in him ever since he had fallen, at a prayer-meeting,
into a mysterious rigidity and suspension of consciousness, which,
lasting for an hour or more, had been mistaken for death. To have
sought a medical explanation for this phenomenon would have been held
by Silas himself, as well as by his minister and fellow-members, a
wilful self-exclusion from the spiritual significance that might lie
therein. Silas was evidently a brother selected for a peculiar
discipline; and though the effort to interpret this discipline was
discouraged by the absence, on his part, of any spiritual vision during
his outward trance, yet it was believed by himself and others that its
effect was seen in an accession of light and fervour. A less truthful
man than he might have been tempted into the subsequent creation of a
vision in the form of resurgent memory; a less sane man might have
believed in such a creation; but Silas was both sane and honest,
though, as with many honest and fervent men, culture had not defined
any channels for his sense of mystery, and so it spread itself over the
proper pathway of inquiry and knowledge. He had inherited from his
mother some acquaintance with medicinal herbs and their preparation–a
little store of wisdom which she had imparted to him as a solemn
bequest–but of late years he had had doubts about the lawfulness of
applying this knowledge, believing that herbs could have no efficacy
without prayer, and that prayer might suffice without herbs; so that
the inherited delight he had in wandering in the fields in search of
foxglove and dandelion and coltsfoot, began to wear to him the
character of a temptation.

Among the members of his church there was one young man, a little older
than himself, with whom he had long lived in such close friendship that
it was the custom of their Lantern Yard brethren to call them David and
Jonathan. The real name of the friend was William Dane, and he, too,
was regarded as a shining instance of youthful piety, though somewhat
given to over-severity towards weaker brethren, and to be so dazzled by
his own light as to hold himself wiser than his teachers. But whatever
blemishes others might discern in William, to his friend’s mind he was
faultless; for Marner had one of those impressible self-doubting
natures which, at an inexperienced age, admire imperativeness and lean
on contradiction. The expression of trusting simplicity in Marner’s
face, heightened by that absence of special observation, that
defenceless, deer-like gaze which belongs to large prominent eyes, was
strongly contrasted by the self-complacent suppression of inward
triumph that lurked in the narrow slanting eyes and compressed lips of
William Dane. One of the most frequent topics of conversation between
the two friends was Assurance of salvation: Silas confessed that he
could never arrive at anything higher than hope mingled with fear, and
listened with longing wonder when William declared that he had
possessed unshaken assurance ever since, in the period of his
conversion, he had dreamed that he saw the words “calling and election
sure” standing by themselves on a white page in the open Bible. Such
colloquies have occupied many a pair of pale-faced weavers, whose
unnurtured souls have been like young winged things, fluttering
forsaken in the twilight.

It had seemed to the unsuspecting Silas that the friendship had
suffered no chill even from his formation of another attachment of a
closer kind. For some months he had been engaged to a young
servant-woman, waiting only for a little increase to their mutual
savings in order to their marriage; and it was a great delight to him
that Sarah did not object to William’s occasional presence in their
Sunday interviews. It was at this point in their history that Silas’s
cataleptic fit occurred during the prayer-meeting; and amidst the
various queries and expressions of interest addressed to him by his
fellow-members, William’s suggestion alone jarred with the general
sympathy towards a brother thus singled out for special dealings. He
observed that, to him, this trance looked more like a visitation of
Satan than a proof of divine favour, and exhorted his friend to see
that he hid no accursed thing within his soul. Silas, feeling bound to
accept rebuke and admonition as a brotherly office, felt no resentment,
but only pain, at his friend’s doubts concerning him; and to this was
soon added some anxiety at the perception that Sarah’s manner towards
him began to exhibit a strange fluctuation between an effort at an
increased manifestation of regard and involuntary signs of shrinking
and dislike. He asked her if she wished to break off their engagement;
but she denied this: their engagement was known to the church, and had
been recognized in the prayer-meetings; it could not be broken off
without strict investigation, and Sarah could render no reason that
would be sanctioned by the feeling of the community. At this time the
senior deacon was taken dangerously ill, and, being a childless
widower, he was tended night and day by some of the younger brethren or
sisters. Silas frequently took his turn in the night-watching with
William, the one relieving the other at two in the morning. The old
man, contrary to expectation, seemed to be on the way to recovery, when
one night Silas, sitting up by his bedside, observed that his usual
audible breathing had ceased. The candle was burning low, and he had
to lift it to see the patient’s face distinctly. Examination convinced
him that the deacon was dead–had been dead some time, for the limbs
were rigid. Silas asked himself if he had been asleep, and looked at
the clock: it was already four in the morning. How was it that William
had not come? In much anxiety he went to seek for help, and soon there
were several friends assembled in the house, the minister among them,
while Silas went away to his work, wishing he could have met William to
know the reason of his non-appearance. But at six o’clock, as he was
thinking of going to seek his friend, William came, and with him the
minister. They came to summon him to Lantern Yard, to meet the church
members there; and to his inquiry concerning the cause of the summons
the only reply was, “You will hear.” Nothing further was said until
Silas was seated in the vestry, in front of the minister, with the eyes
of those who to him represented God’s people fixed solemnly upon him.
Then the minister, taking out a pocket-knife, showed it to Silas, and
asked him if he knew where he had left that knife? Silas said, he did
not know that he had left it anywhere out of his own pocket–but he was
trembling at this strange interrogation. He was then exhorted not to
hide his sin, but to confess and repent. The knife had been found in
the bureau by the departed deacon’s bedside–found in the place where
the little bag of church money had lain, which the minister himself had
seen the day before. Some hand had removed that bag; and whose hand
could it be, if not that of the man to whom the knife belonged? For
some time Silas was mute with astonishment: then he said, “God will
clear me: I know nothing about the knife being there, or the money
being gone. Search me and my dwelling; you will find nothing but three
pound five of my own savings, which William Dane knows I have had these
six months.” At this William groaned, but the minister said, “The
proof is heavy against you, brother Marner. The money was taken in the
night last past, and no man was with our departed brother but you, for
William Dane declares to us that he was hindered by sudden sickness
from going to take his place as usual, and you yourself said that he
had not come; and, moreover, you neglected the dead body.”

“I must have slept,” said Silas. Then, after a pause, he added, “Or I
must have had another visitation like that which you have all seen me
under, so that the thief must have come and gone while I was not in the
body, but out of the body. But, I say again, search me and my
dwelling, for I have been nowhere else.”

The search was made, and it ended–in William Dane’s finding the
well-known bag, empty, tucked behind the chest of drawers in Silas’s
chamber! On this William exhorted his friend to confess, and not to
hide his sin any longer. Silas turned a look of keen reproach on him,
and said, “William, for nine years that we have gone in and out
together, have you ever known me tell a lie? But God will clear me.”

“Brother,” said William, “how do I know what you may have done in the
secret chambers of your heart, to give Satan an advantage over you?”

Silas was still looking at his friend. Suddenly a deep flush came over
his face, and he was about to speak impetuously, when he seemed checked
again by some inward shock, that sent the flush back and made him
tremble. But at last he spoke feebly, looking at William.

“I remember now–the knife wasn’t in my pocket.”

William said, “I know nothing of what you mean.” The other persons
present, however, began to inquire where Silas meant to say that the
knife was, but he would give no further explanation: he only said, “I
am sore stricken; I can say nothing. God will clear me.”

On their return to the vestry there was further deliberation. Any
resort to legal measures for ascertaining the culprit was contrary to
the principles of the church in Lantern Yard, according to which
prosecution was forbidden to Christians, even had the case held less
scandal to the community. But the members were bound to take other
measures for finding out the truth, and they resolved on praying and
drawing lots. This resolution can be a ground of surprise only to
those who are unacquainted with that obscure religious life which has
gone on in the alleys of our towns. Silas knelt with his brethren,
relying on his own innocence being certified by immediate divine
interference, but feeling that there was sorrow and mourning behind for
him even then–that his trust in man had been cruelly bruised. _The
lots declared that Silas Marner was guilty._ He was solemnly suspended
from church-membership, and called upon to render up the stolen money:
only on confession, as the sign of repentance, could he be received
once more within the folds of the church. Marner listened in silence.
At last, when everyone rose to depart, he went towards William Dane and
said, in a voice shaken by agitation–

“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.
_You_ stole the money, and you have woven a plot to lay the sin at my
door. But you may prosper, for all that: there is no just God that
governs the earth righteously, but a God of lies, that bears witness
against the innocent.”

There was a general shudder at this blasphemy.

William said meekly, “I leave our brethren to judge whether this is the
voice of Satan or not. I can do nothing but pray for you, Silas.”

Poor Marner went out with that despair in his soul–that shaken trust
in God and man, which is little short of madness to a loving nature.
In the bitterness of his wounded spirit, he said to himself, “_She_
will cast me off too.” And he reflected that, if she did not believe
the testimony against him, her whole faith must be upset as his was.
To people accustomed to reason about the forms in which their religious
feeling has incorporated itself, it is difficult to enter into that
simple, untaught state of mind in which the form and the feeling have
never been severed by an act of reflection. We are apt to think it
inevitable that a man in Marner’s position should have begun to
question the validity of an appeal to the divine judgment by drawing
lots; but to him this would have been an effort of independent thought
such as he had never known; and he must have made the effort at a
moment when all his energies were turned into the anguish of
disappointed faith. If there is an angel who records the sorrows of
men as well as their sins, he knows how many and deep are the sorrows
that spring from false ideas for which no man is culpable.

Marner went home, and for a whole day sat alone, stunned by despair,
without any impulse to go to Sarah and attempt to win her belief in his
innocence. The second day he took refuge from benumbing unbelief, by
getting into his loom and working away as usual; and before many hours
were past, the minister and one of the deacons came to him with the
message from Sarah, that she held her engagement to him at an end.
Silas received the message mutely, and then turned away from the
messengers to work at his loom again. In little more than a month from
that time, Sarah was married to William Dane; and not long afterwards
it was known to the brethren in Lantern Yard that Silas Marner had
departed from the town.