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The protagonist of the story, Silas Lapham, is a materialistic business man who discovers a paint mine in his rural Vermont home. In moving his family and now wealthy business to the hub of industry, Boston, he fancies that he has risen in social rank and is now a member of the gentry. However, he lacks social civility, cannot understand the manners required of him at dinner parties and is questionable in morality. In Howells' novel, Silas both contributes money to the wife of a man who saved his life, and leaves his business partner, Rogers, without a job or any money. His moral ambiguity is solved at the end, as he returns bankrupt to his rural home, embracing life as a family man.
Mrs. Persis Lapham
Silas’ wife, Mrs Lapham, acts both as a mediator between his business and family life, and as a constant presence of a residual Puritan morality. Throughout Howells’ novel, she constantly reminds Silas of his duty to amend his wrongdoing with his ex-business partner Rogers. Yet she is seemingly clueless as to the love triangle between her two daughters, Penelope and Irene, and Tom Corey. Only at the end is she important as the character whom alerts Silas to the situation when he becomes engulfed in the bankruptcy of his company. Despite being a constant moral presence, Mrs Lapham fails as a character when Silas must decide whether to sell the knowingly worthless mills to a clueless business partner. Instead, she allows suspicion to drive her to believe Silas is having an affair with Zerilla Dewey, Silas’ receptionist. She is also a female reminder that the Laphams do not know how to spend their money in society; she buys ‘ugly clothes’ because she is ignorant to societies fashions.
Penelope Lapham is the oldest daughter of Silas and Mrs Lapham. She is extremely smart and perceptive, and Howells presents us with evidence that she reads a lot throughout the novel. In her intelligence, she is aware of gender constraints of the period, acknowledging that in courtship, women need not do anything for the affair to continue. If Penelope and Irene were to be compared to the Dashwood sisters in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Howells initially suggests that Penelope would be the rational Elinor. However, she unnecessarily sacrifices her happiness for the sake of her sister Irene, of whom is in love with the gentlemen who seeks Penelope’s heart, Tom Corey. She eventually marries Tom, only after making a large fuss and causing much hurt anyway. Howells therefore pushes Penelope beyond stereotypes of the rational, intelligent sister, by allowing her to display sensibility also.
Irene Lapham is the younger, prettier sister, of whom is aligned with Austen’s Marianne Dashwood and assumed to have little stored in her dainty head. When she is invited to the Corey dinner party, Mrs Lapham comments that Irene will entertain the guests with her beauty alone. When Tom Corey visits her, she becomes smitten from the smallest of gestures, such as talking about the book Tears, Idle Tears on the deck. Everyone assumes it is Irene that Tom loves, as she is aesthetically more pleasing, and therefore a more suitable candidate for a wife. Yet she defies stereotype when she learns Tom loves Penelope instead of her. Irene goes to stay with her cousins and returns ‘hardened’, swallowing both her emotions of heartbreak and helping to fix her family that are falling apart from Penelope’s guilt and Silas’s bankruptcy.
Tom Corey is part of the wealthy, established Corey family that are successful from old money. Despite having enough money to live as he wishes, he passionately enquires to work for Silas Lapham’s paint company after passing their house viewing on Beacon Street. Working for Silas proves issues of authority for the boss: Silas is both overwhelmed that a Corey is working for him, and determined to remain dominant as the boss of the company. However, he differs in view from his Father and defends the Lapham’s lack of social standards. Despite being the third party in the love triangle with the two sisters, Penelope and Irene, he becomes involved almost accidentally. He is only ever friendly with Irene, only proclaiming his true feelings for Penelope at the end. He eventually marries Penelope, but the marriage does not unite the two family that are separated by the barrier of old and new money.
Bromfield Corey is the father of Tom Corey, and the head of the wealthy family. He comments on the Lapham’s lack of social civility, but is less concerned with it than his wife. His role is more as an audience, watching the action but aware now that he has little influence. He acknowledges that Tom will marry who he want, and work the job that he wants.
Mrs. Anna Corey
Mrs Corey is the character most aware of social standards, and the first to point out the bad taste of the Lapham’s interior design. When she goes to visit Mrs Lapham and her daughters, she makes Penelope feel as if ‘she’d bought’ her and ‘thought she’d given too much’. When the Laphams attend the Corey dinner party, she makes Mrs Lapham feel as if she should be more fashionable. She also complains of what she believes is an ill suited match between Tom and Penelope, but is very much under the thumb of her husband, who tells her she can do nothing to stop it.
Milton K. Rogers
Milton Rogers is a minor character, but important in the exploration of Silas’ morality. He was Silas Lapham’s previous business partner, allowing Silas to begin his paint business. Silas then drops him and leaves him without a job. He is described by Silas as a ‘crook’. At the end, Rogers is present in the deal for the worthless mills, and asks Silas for a loan. In giving it to him, Silas believes he has atoned for his previous sins.
Bartley Hubbard is a journalist for the Boston Events newspaper, and opens Howells' novel with an interview with Silas Lapham. He mocks Silas' ignorance to social etiquette, encouraging him that there is nothing worse in an interview than to close up. He returns home and plans to publish the piece as satirical.
Reverend Sewell is described as the character most like William Dean Howells. He is a guest at the Corey dinner party, and offers a scornful reaction to the overtly romantic Tears, Idle Tears, mocking the self sacrifice of heroines for love that foreshadows Penelope's future actions. He is presented as an advocate for realism, rather than the fantastical adventures of romance.
Zerilla Millon Dewey
Zerilla is the daughter of a man who saved Silas' life when he was in the army. He gave her a job as his typist and contributes to her home life when she is forced to marry a drunken sailor. She is accused at the end by Mrs Lapham of having an affair with Silas through an anonymous note.
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