In the village of Raveloe lives a weaver named Silas Marner. He is viewed with distrust by the local people because he comes from a distant part of the country. In addition, he lives completely alone, and he has been known to have strange fits. For fifteen years he has lived like this.
Fifteen years earlier, Silas was a respected member of a church at Lantern Yard in a city to the north. His fits were regarded there as a mark of special closeness to the Holy Spirit. He had a close friend named William Dane, and he was engaged to marry a serving girl named Sarah. But one day the elder deacon fell ill and had to be tended day and night by members of the congregation, as he was a childless widower. During Silas' watch, a bag of money disappears from a drawer by the deacon's bed. Silas' knife is found in the drawer, but Silas swears he is innocent and asks that his room be searched. The empty bag is found there by William Dane. Then Silas remembers that he last used the knife to cut a strap for William, but he says nothing to the others.
In order to find out the truth, the church members resort to prayer and drawing of lots, and the lots declare Silas guilty. Silas, betrayed by his friend and now by his God, declares that there is no just God. He is sure that Sarah will desert him too, and he takes refuge in his work. He soon receives word from Sarah that their engagement is ended, and a month later she marries William Dane. Soon afterward Silas leaves Lantern Yard.
He settles in Raveloe, where he feels hidden even from God. His work is at first his only solace, but soon he begins to receive gold for his cloth; the gold gives him a kind of companionship. He works harder and harder to earn more of it and stores it in a bag beneath his floor. His contacts with humanity wither. Once he gives help to a woman who is ill by treating her with herbs as his mother taught him, but this action gives him a reputation as a maker of charms. People come for miles to ask his help, and he cannot give any. As a result, he is believed to cause other misfortunes and be in league with the devil. After that, Silas is more alone than ever.
The greatest man of Raveloe is Squire Cass. His wife is dead, and his sons are left to their own devices. Some trouble results from this: the eldest son, Godfrey, has made a hasty marriage with a woman of poor reputation, and the second son, Dunstan, is blackmailing Godfrey to keep their father from knowing. Godfrey has given Dunstan some rent money from one of his father's tenants; now the Squire wants the money, so Godfrey gives Dunstan his horse to sell to raise the cash.
On the way to the hunt where he hopes to sell the horse, Dunstan passes the weaver's cottage. This sight gives him the idea of borrowing the money from Marner, but he rather likes the idea of vexing his brother, so he continues to the hunt and makes the sale. However, instead of turning over the horse at once, he rides in the chase and kills the animal on a stake.
Dunstan begins to walk home. It becomes dark and foggy before he can reach there, and in the darkness he comes to Marner's cottage. Dunstan goes there to borrow a lantern and to try to get some money out of the weaver. He finds no one there. Searching around the floor, he soon finds where the money is hidden. He replaces the bricks that had covered it and carries the money away.
Silas has poor eyesight, and on his return he finds nothing wrong until he goes to take out his money to count it. When he cannot find it, he feels that once again he has been robbed by an unseen power. However, he clings to the hope that there was a human thief, and he goes off to the village inn to find the constable.
At the inn, the conversation has been of ghosts, and when Silas bursts in he himself is momentarily taken for a ghost. But Silas is so worked up that it is apparent he is no ghost, and when he tells of the robbery, there is immediately sympathy for him. His helplessness removes any feeling that he is connected with the devil. Some of the men set out after the constable.
The news of the robbery spreads quickly, and there is soon general agreement that the thief must have been an itinerant peddler who had been in the neighborhood: no other stranger has been noticed, and no local person could be suspected. Dunstan's disappearance is not thought strange because that has happened before. Godfrey is not surprised either, for he soon learns that Dunstan has killed his horse. Now he decides to tell his father of his marriage. He leads up to this by telling of his horse and of the rent money that he had given Dunstan; but he gets no farther, for his father explodes with anger, which leaves Godfrey in a worse position than ever.
Silas is now treated with some consideration by his neighbors. Dolly Winthrop, especially, visits Silas and tries to coax him into attending church, at least on Christmas. However, Silas finds no connection between local religious customs and those he knows of, and Christmas finds him at home as usual.
Christmas and New Year's are the time of special festivals in Raveloe. The most important celebration is the New Year's dance at Squire Cass' home. There, Godfrey is unable to keep himself away from Nancy Lammeter, the girl he has always intended to marry. Although he knows it is wrong, and that the news of his marriage must come out soon, he determines to enjoy himself with Nancy while he can. Nancy, for her part, wants to marry Godfrey, but his strangeness has made her cool toward him, and when he asks her forgiveness, she says only that she will be glad to see anyone reform.
Meanwhile Godfrey's wife, Molly, has become determined to revenge herself for his treatment of her, and she sets out with their child to confront him at the dance. She loses her way in the snow, and at last she fortifies herself with opium, to which she has become addicted. The opium only makes her more drowsy, and Molly sinks down in the snow. Her child slips from her arms. It is attracted to a light that comes from the open door of Marner's cottage, where the weaver stands, unaware of the child's presence. He has been looking out to see if his money might return and has been stricken by one of his fits. When he awakes, he sees gold by his hearth and thinks his money has come back, then he discovers that the gold is the hair of a child. At last he overcomes his wonder enough to realize that the child has come in out of the snow, and there outside he discovers Molly's body.
Silas takes the child and hurries to Squire Cass' house to get the doctor. His entrance causes Godfrey both fear and hope because he recognizes the child as his own, and he hopes that he may be free at last. He goes with Doctor Kimble and finds that the woman Marner found is indeed his wife and that she is dead.
The woman is buried that week, a stranger to everyone but Godfrey. Silas feels that the child has been sent to him, and he is determined to keep it. This determination causes even warmer feeling for him in Raveloe, and he is given much well-meant advice. Dolly Winthrop gives him real aid with the child and offers some old clothes that belonged to her son Aaron. Godfrey is glad enough to have the child cared for. He gives money for its support but never claims it as his own.
Silas names the child Hepzibah — Eppie for short — after his mother and little sister. He finds that, unlike his gold, Eppie makes him constantly aware of the world and of other men. He gives her his wholehearted love, and everywhere he finds kindness from the other villagers.
Sixteen years pass. Nancy and Godfrey are married, and Eppie has grown into a beautiful young woman. Silas is liked and respected in Raveloe. His life with Eppie has been close and happy, and Mr. and Mrs. Cass have done much for them. Dolly Winthrop has become Eppie's godmother, and she is a close friend of Silas. The two of them have discussed his old problem at Lantern Yard and considered the great differences in religion between the two places. Now Dolly's son Aaron wishes to marry Eppie, and Eppie has agreed — if Silas can live with them. She has been told of her mother, but she knows nothing of any other father, and she cannot bear to be parted from Silas.
Godfrey and Nancy, however, are childless. Their one child died in infancy. Their childlessness is a great trouble to Godfrey, who has always wanted children. At one time he wished to adopt Eppie, but Nancy refused, feeling that it would be going against Providence to adopt a child when none was given naturally. Nancy has tried to make up to Godrey in other ways, and their marriage has been happy but for this one thing. Godfrey was afraid to tell her that Eppie was his own child.
On this particular Sunday, Nancy is thinking over these old problems when Godfrey becomes very much upset. The Stone Pits near Marner's cottage are being drained, and Dunstan's body has been found there with Silas' gold. Godfrey is forced to tell Nancy that his brother was a thief. At the same time, his newfound honesty convinces him that all truths come out sooner or later, and he admits that Eppie is his own child. Instead of being disgusted with him, Nancy is sorry that she refused to adopt Eppie sooner. The two of them go that night to Marner's cottage to claim Eppie.
Eppie, however, does not wish to be claimed. Both she and Silas feel that no claim of blood can outweigh their years of life together. She does not want to leave Silas nor to be rescued from her low station and the prospect of marriage to a workingman. At last Godfrey goes home bitterly disappointed. He feels that he is being punished now for his earlier weakness, but he is determined to try to do his duty at last and to do all he can for Eppie even though she has refused him.
Now that he has his gold, Silas feels able to return to Lantern Yard to try to settle the matter of the old theft. He goes there with Eppie, but they find everything changed. The chapel is gone, a factory set in its place. Only the prison is left to remind Silas that this was where he once lived. He returns home no more wise than when he set out; but he agrees with Dolly that there is reason to have faith in spite of the darkness of the past.
Eppie and Aaron are married on a fine sunny day, with the wedding at Mr. Cass' expense. The young couple come to live with Silas at his cottage, where the villagers join in agreement that Silas has been blessed through his kindness to an orphaned child.