Silas Marner is the title of the book, so you'd expect him to be a major player—and he is. But just how important is he?
When the book opens, our narrator introduces us not to Silas but to a whole group of "certain pallid undersized men" (1.1.1). We meet Silas in the second paragraph, but not until the narrator spends quite a long time explaining how the villages feel about people like Silas. Why? Well, one effect, at least, is to make us question how important Silas really is. Is this book really an in-depth character study, as the title might suggest? Or is Silas the individual not as important as the historical changes or allegorical narrative that he represents?
Let's think about what we know about Silas: he comes from the North, he's got some skillz with a loom, and he used to be devout. And that's about it. Eliot drops little hints of life before Raveloe, like the fact that he had a sister named Hepzibah, but other than that Silas might as well have crashed-landed on Earth from the planet Krypton. It does seem a little strange not to know more about our central character—leading us to think that Silas Marner isn't a character study so much as a…
… study of a community.
One thing to notice is that the narrator often describes Silas in relation to other people. She doesn't just say, "He was a pale guy with big brown eyes, and he looked pretty ordinary." What she says instead is "he was then simply a pallid young man, with prominent, shortsighted 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" (1.1.3).
In other words, Silas's freaky appearance is relative. He looks strange to the villagers because their experience is so narrow, but we sophisticated novel readers (Eliot suggests) know better. These pre-Industrial Revolution villagers are used to seeing robust, cheerful farmers rather than the pale, hunched factory workers whom Silas represents.
In fact, give him carpal tunnel and a blue button-down shirt, and he could be any of a thousand 21st-century office workers.
But in Raveloe, Silas stands out like an emo kid at the country fair. And it sucks for him. Silas has never had to live on his own. Since birth, Eliot implies, he's been part of a loving, supporting network. He may have worked hard for very little money, but he had friends and neighbors, and the respect of his community. Being kicked out of his community and then rejected from his new one destroys Silas's spirit. He stops even wanting to connect with people. All he can do is weave.
Even that works against him. The loom makes sounds that no one's ever heard before, mechanical noises rather than the "natural cheerful trotting of the winnowing machine, or the simpler rhythm of the flail" (1.12). Even his shy attempts to make friends by using his knowledge of medicinal herbs backfire when the villagers assume he's practicing magic.
After years of doing nothing but weaving, Marner's "face and figure shrank and bent themselves into a constant mechanical relation to the objects of his life, so that he produced the same sort of impression as a handle or a crooked tube, which has no meaning standing apart" (1.2.8). What's happened is that Silas has lost any motivations that could be considered recognizably human. He doesn't have any friends or family to work for or talk to him; he doesn't have any goals or dreams or hopes. All he wants to do is add to his pile of gold. This gets at a main trope that Eliot uses in relation to Silas: a machine or object. How much of Silas is still human, after fifteen years of living alone?
The thing about machines is that they aren't autonomous—they're controlled by other people. Silas's weird fits match up with his machine-nature. During his trances, things happen to him: he thinks that possibly the deacon's money was stolen during a trance, and Eppie enters his house during a trance. Like a machine, Silas has no control over his life.
At the beginning of the 19th century, it wasn't clear that machines were going to win. If you've ever called someone a Luddite for not wanting to get a smartphone, then you already know something about this early-19th-century debate: Luddites were people, mostly textile workers, who protested mechanized looms by smashing them. They were saboteurs, sneaking into mills at night and destroying expensive new equipment because they thought that the machines would put them out of work. By 1813, there were about 2,400 power-looms in England. Weavers like Silas still had work, but not for long.
It's interesting that Eliot focuses on Silas's mechanical nature when his hand-work would probably have read, to readers of 1861, as quaint artisanship. By 1861, nearly all textiles were made by machine. By anachronistically focusing on mechanization, Eliot might be suggesting that machines aren't bad in and of themselves—it's the lack of true human connection that destroys lives. (Are you listening, Facebook?)
Machines—and spiders—don't change. Machines do only what they're programmed to do, and spiders might as well be programmed for all their independent thoughts. What turns Silas back into a human is having another human to care for. When Eppie comes into his life, he has a reason to work and a reason to engage with his community.
Yet it's worth noticing that, just like the book doesn't begin with Silas, it also doesn't end with Silas. Eppie has the last word, and Silas doesn't do or say a whole lot in the whole second part, although he does stand up to Godfrey. He talks to Eppie with a "mild passive happiness" (2.16.21), and then he sits and watches her "with a satisfied gaze" (2.16.27) while she fixes dinner. After dinner, she tells him "you're wanting to go into the sunshine to smoke your pipe" (2.16.29)—practically bossing him around.
Just as Silas used to be completely absorbed in his work, he's now completely absorbed in Eppie. Maybe she's a better object of obsession, but how much has he changed, really? In some ways, that may be the wrong question to ask. Eliot seems to want us to approve of what's happened to Silas. He has slowly become part of a new community and, more important, "recovered a consciousness of unity between his past and present" (2.16.30). In other words, he's not only got a social life, but he's also begun to think about himself as having a history and purpose in life—no longer a machine, Silas is now fully a man.Silas Marner's Timeline