Once it was common in country areas to see men bent under heavy bags, weavers who had come from distant places. They were distrusted by the local people because they were not "born and bred in a visible manner." One such weaver was Silas Marner, who lived near Raveloe. His pale face and protruding eyes were fearful to small boys, and he was not much liked by their parents either, for there were rumors that Silas had strange powers. Jem Rodney had seen him standing once as stiff as a dead man, but then he recovered and walked off. Moreover, Marner had cured Sally Oates when she was sick, and "he might cure more folks if he would." All in all, it was best to be on his good side.
Silas had come to Raveloe fifteen years earlier from a city to the north. There in Lantern Yard he had been a faithful member of a narrow religious sect, and his first fits of unconsciousness were seen as a mark of special grace. Silas was the friend of William Dane, a friendship so close that they were called David and Jonathon. Even Silas' engagement to a young serving woman did not seem to chill that friendship. Only once William suggested that Silas' fit was a visitation of Satan, but Silas accepted the brotherly rebuke in pained silence.
At this time, the senior deacon fell ill, and members of the congregation took turns tending him. During Silas' turn, the deacon died. Silas thought he appeared to have been dead for some time. Silas went to seek help and then later returned to his work. That day it was reported to him that a bag of money had been taken from the bureau by the deacon's bedside, and Silas' knife had been found there. Furthermore, the empty bag was found in Silas' room. Silas remembered then that he had last used the knife to cut a strap for William, but he said nothing.
After further deliberation, the church members decided to draw lots to see whether Silas told the truth. The lots declared him guilty. At this, Silas declared that there was no just God, and accused William of the theft. He expected that Sarah would desert him too, and he retreated to his loom for refuge. The next day, he received word that Sarah considered their engagement ended. A month later, she married William Dane, and Silas departed from Lantern Yard.
Silas Marner is to a certain extent a historical novel — that is, the setting is a time already past when the book was written, "the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses." However, Eliot is being ironic in saying that the book will express a state of mind "no longer to be found," meaning the distrust of strangers, the extreme provincialism of the villagers of that time. This sentiment is intended to bring home the absurdity of some feelings that are found everywhere, although perhaps not in such extreme form.
The general introduction narrows to certain men who are particularly suspect, the wandering linen weavers. Then it is further narrowed to a concentration on one particular weaver, Silas Marner of Raveloe. Silas is seen through the eyes of the small boys of Raveloe, and the picture is a fearful one. This image tends to identify the reader with the impression already given and held by the local folk, that Silas is an untrustworthy character. Yet the impression is kept indefinite because we have already been shown that the Raveloe view is a faulted one.
Note the image used for the weavers — "remnants of a disinherited race." Silas certainly is one such: he has been literally disinherited, driven out by his people. He is further referred to as "a dead man come to life again." This image will attain the status of a symbol through Silas' frequent fits, which give him the appearance of one dead, and through his long exile from humanity and his reunion through the love of a child.
Silas' unsociability is partly a result of his neighbors' distrust; partly it is a cause of it. In any case, this unsociability turns even his good deeds against him. When, out of honesty, he refuses to go into the business of providing charms, it becomes accepted that he has refused out of some evil purpose.
Having explained Silas' present life, Eliot skips back fifteen years to show the cause of his coming to Raveloe. Where the earlier material was an explanation as seen by Raveloe, the old life is seen from Silas' point of view. It is a revelation of his true character that counterbalances the other impression. In this way, the reader is given a greater understanding than any of the characters possess and is able to comprehend both sides of the situation and to sympathize with all the characters.
Silas' acceptance of the doctrine of his sect and of the goodness of his friend William is utterly unquestioning. Ironically, they are referred to as David and Jonathon, for it was Jonathon who saved David from death at the hand of Saul, Jonathon's father (see I Samuel, verses 18 ff.). This Jonathon, instead of saving David, betrays him. Silas' "expression of trusting simplicity" is contrasted to "the self-complacent suppression of inward triumph that lurked" in William's eyes.
Silas feels betrayed by his God because he is unable to question the validity of doctrine that drawing of lots will establish guilt. His life has been built around his church and his friend. Now these props vanish, and Silas has only his work to fall back on. His engagement was a part of his church life, and it seems only natural that it should vanish too.