What is the importance of the subplot, and how does it interweave with the main plot of Silas Lapham?
There are two plots in Howells’ novel: the main plot of Silas’ wealth and business, and the romantic sub-plot that involves Tom Corey and the Lapham sisters. They interweave in their patterns of fortune: there is a season of prosperity, followed by a declaration –whether it is Tom declaring he loves Penelope, or Silas declaring he is bankrupt –that ends with a gentle, contented resolution. The sub-plot is also used to highlight how blinkered Silas is by his business, as he barely notices Tom’s perceived courtship between either Irene or Penelope. Despite a novel based on the world of business, the plot stands as a reminder that the outside world, and people’s emotions, continue outside the realm of his paint company. The two plots also align two characters in particular: Silas and his daughter, Penelope. Both figures do what is morally right in the world of both business and romance, whether it be refusing Tom to save Irene’s feelings, or announcing that the property Silas is selling is worth very little. They therefore stand as the moral examples in the story, who do what is right despite the negative consequences that follow.
How does Howells approach the subject of love?
Love is very much trivialized in Howells’ novel. Any romantic notion is presented as naïve and foolish, suggested through the scornful reactions to the novel Tears, Idle Tears that presents a typical, romantic hero and heroine. Instead, love is extremely practical throughout this novel. Silas and Persis’ love is based on mutual respect, and an understanding that they are both good people. Mostly, Silas neglects Persis to run his business, or oversee the building of the house, and the grandest gesture we see from him is naming paint after her. The most emotional that any character becomes is Tom’s proclamation that he loves Penelope. Yet, even this is contained to the drawing room, and he is forbidden from telling anyone else. In the end, their marriage is not the culmination of the plot but almost a side point. They are married and content, but it is not the works of a romantic writer; their families accept their spouses, but will never fully love them. Perhaps the most interesting way that Howells approaches the question of love is through social expectation. Every member of society presented in this novel expects Tom Corey to favor beauty over intellectual depth. In rebuking this, it suggests that love does not, and should not, always follow social convention.
How do the families of Corey and Lapham represent the differences between old and new money?
Throughout the novel, the head of the Corey family, Bromfield Corey, is constantly judgemental of the Laphams wealth; they have new money, whilst his family possess old money. The difference lies in where the money comes from: old money has been inherited, whilst new money has been earned, usually quickly. The Laphams are therefore judged as they have earned all their money, and therefore have not possessed large amounts of it for very long. Consequently, they also have little idea on how to spend money, or any social etiquette needed for the company they keep when richer. This is especially poignant at the Corey dinner party, where Silas is so nervous he gets drunk for the first time and embarrasses himself. This scene almost suggests a Corey principle, that people who do not know what it is to be rich cannot handle it properly. Tom does attempt to argue the Lapham’s prestige to his Father, explaining that Penelope will inherit a large sum of money. However, Bromfield highlights that if her Father has not been rich long enough, she is not worthy of Tom. Therefore, the Coreys are the ultimate symbol of new money in their occupations, lifestyle, and snobbery of others. The Laphams represent new money in their fast acquisition of it, ignorance to how to spend it, and naïve friendliness to anyone who mocks them.
How does Howells engage with realism in his novel?
Howells was seen as the founding Father of Realism in nineteenth century American, and he engages with it heavily in this novel. Firstly, the characters are presented as people who inhabit more than one character stereotype. Penelope is the intelligent sister, but she is still incredibly dumb in her refusal of Tom’s love. Another example is the protagonist Silas, of who has evidently committed sins in his past despite claiming to be a fair businessman. Therefore, each character is flawed as well as being fundamentally good, presenting a depth more in character with reality than fiction. Secondly, the structure is more representative of life, as chance plays an important part. The house on Beacon Street burning down encourages Silas’ bankruptcy of his company, yet these are two separate events. Howells thereby actively works against a romance structure, where all events are consequential of another, suggesting that sometimes tragedy happens without reason. However, the most obvious way that Howells interacts with realism is through his inclusion of this very tragedy. In a romance structure, the ending concludes with happiness after some distress. In this novel, the ending only ever reaches contentment at most.
What does Howells suggest about the different settings of the city and country?
The Rise of Silas Lapham and its plotline occurs almost entirely within the city, in Boston. However, the novel is bookended by Silas’ beginning and ending in the country, in Vermont. Whilst we barely see family life here, it works to suggest connotations of both city and rural settings. When in the city, and especially Boston, Silas loses sight of what is important and is entirely engulfed by social fancies. He strives to own what other rich people own, and lives his life based on social expectation and then approval. He also encounters unsavoury characters that are associated with the busy city life, such as Bartley Hubbard. He exploits Silas in his newspaper article, suggesting an atmosphere of corruption surrounding the city. In comparison, the country is presented as a humbling and honest place. It is where Silas begins, and is rewarded by finding the paint source that he labels a ‘gold mine’. It is also where Silas must cyclically return to at the end, to remember his true roots and the importance of excellent morals and family life. The settings that the characters inhabit therefore affect their actions based on whom they see, and where they go.
How does Howell describe characters and their developments? Discuss the narrative voice of The Rise of Silas Lapham.
The genre of Howells’ novel as realist also impacts the narrative voice used. As a text that aspires to be as close to reality as possible, the narrator is actively as invisible as it can be, as to acknowledge a narrator would be to acknowledge the novel as a piece of fiction. Therefore, there is little psychology of the characters and we, as readers, rarely get to engage with the thoughts of any of the characters. The narrator describes only what other people can see, and allows impressions to be made only when others also make them. A prime example is the opening scene with Bartley Hubbard, where the only way that Silas’ past can be revealed is through an interview, the narration restricted. This is surprisingly freeing in judgement, as the narrator can only suggest an opinion of a person, they cannot outright say it. It is left to the reader to read between the lines, study what each character says, and draw their own conclusions.
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