by George Eliot
Where It All Goes Down
Raveloe, A Small Village
Eliot sets her novel in an idyllic village full of "nutty hedgerows" (1.1.2) that is "nestled in a snug well-wooded hollow" with a "fine old church […] and two or three large brick-and-stone homesteads, with well-walled orchards and ornamental weathercocks" (1.1.2). No one's starving (starving was fairly common in English villages throughout much of history), everyone gets along, and there are even some chubby, rosy-cheeked children, like Dolly Winthrop's "apple-cheeked" boy Aaron (1.10.20).
This idealized vision of country life is usually called "pastoral." The pastoral has nothing to do with actual villagers, who are usually overworked, muddy, and probably putting their hands into unpleasant parts of animals. The pastoral is a city girl's vision of country life. It's neat little shepherdesses, thatched roofs, and little babbling brooks; it's blooming hollyhocks and pretty country weddings. Nice work if you can get it, but Eliot is really laying it on thick here.
That's why the historical setting is just as important as the geographical setting. The village of Raveloe is based on a real village, one where some of Eliot's relatives are buried, called Bulkington. Bulkington still exists today, and for most of history the people who lived there were farmers. Toward the end of 18th century (as you may remember if you took U.S. history), a lot of rich people in England started to enclose common land. This land traditionally hadn't belonged to anyone; it was held in common, and people could graze their animals and even farm it. Like privatization these days, "enclosure" took common property and made it private.
This was bad news for farmers. They had to rent land that they used to be able to just use, and sometimes they weren't even allowed to rent it—it was turned into private parks or game preserves. So farmers turned to trades, and in Bulkington that trade was ribbon-weaving. Weaving—sound familiar? Even the name "Raveloe" hints at Bulkington's fate—not even hint, really, more like "says," because "to ravel" means "to undo" or "unweave."
So, while Eliot is weaving her tale of a village that's as interconnected as a finely woven piece of linen, Raveloe itself, or the real-world version of it, is become unwoven through weaving.
Confused? Here's another way of saying it: Silas is a weaver who is woven into the fabric of communal life in Raveloe, a village whose name hints at the unraveling of village life that was taking place at just about the same time that Silas Marner is set.