The Rise of Silas Lapham Symbols, Allegory and Motifs
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Written by Victoria Joss
The house on Beacon Street
The reader is introduced to Silas Lapham and his family at a point in his life where he has earned huge amounts of money, but has little social knowledge on how to spend it fashionably. Therefore, the house Silas begins to build on Beacon Street becomes the ultimate symbol of new money; it is a property that Silas claims every fashionable person in Boston must own. The house is especially important as it is an outward statement to society that Silas has managed all he wishes to achieve in life. Beacon Street, and its connotations, becomes a fixation for Silas, and he spends ridiculous amounts of money on it. Its symbolic nature thus changes from something to prove to others, to something Silas must prove to himself by throwing money at it. As his business begins to crumble, the house becomes an imperative asset in his life to cling on to the dream he had of a future in it. The fact that the house is destroyed before it is even finished is the ultimate symbol of ‘new wealth’: a tonne of money with little idea on how to use it either fashionably or sustainably.
The house that Silas begins to build on Beacon Street is burnt down as his company also begins to crumble. Whilst they are completely unrelated events, the fire therefore works as the ultimate symbol of renewal. It is after the fire that Silas reaches acceptance as to his bankruptcy, and metaphorically rises from the ashes to begins a new life back in Vermont. This symbolic renewal is especially necessary to allow Silas and his family a new beginning, as this was only possible after the house that symbolizes fashionable wealth was gone. However, the fire can also be symbolic in other ways. In burning the house down, Silas chooses to return to where it all began, on his Father’s farm in Vermont. Thus, fire can be symbolic of creation, and the first elements that Prometheus gave to man, emphasizing Silas’ return to where he as a businessman was created.
The wood shaving
When Tom Corey comes to Silas’ summerhouse, he meets the intelligent Penelope, and the beautiful Irene. He sits outside, and plays with a wood shaving at his and Irene’s feet, fashioning it in to a flower and pushing it towards her. The small wood shaving has a huge symbolic significance to the subplot of Tom Corey and the Lapham sisters. First of all, such a small item becomes a gesture of love when coupled with the social expectation of his affections. As the more obviously beautiful sister, everyone, including Irene, assumes that Tom loves her. The shaving is, in this context, the beginning of a love affair that will lead to marriage. Irene assumes all this from such a small gesture that the wood shaving is also symbolic of her naivety. She plans out her entire life from one moment, and is punished when it is revealed that Tom loves Penelope. Eventually, the wood shaving incident has little incident on the storyline, and remains simply a wood shaving.
Silas Lapham and his discovery of a paint mine in Vermont is the nineteenth century equivalent of a success story. This is symbolized in Silas’ paint, the sole product of his business. However, his paint is not only his product, but represents his rise to a successful businessman. Initially, it is a symbol of the reward you will receive if you are a hard working, honest American citizen. However, throughout the novel, this image of Silas begins to waver. The reader isn’t quite convinced of his passion for paint, and it is questionable whether he harbors a passion for it only due to the profit it has made him. The paint as a symbol of success therefore changes slightly when Silas begins to be corrupted as a businessman facing bankruptcy. Whilst paint makes the surface look aesthetically pleasing, it does not change the nature of the materials underneath it, merely covering something up than changing it. And this is absolutely symbolic of what Silas becomes. He constantly tries to convince himself and his wife, Persis, that he is an honest businessman, but underneath his morals are swayed by the opportunity to cheat dissolution.
Books and Newspaper Articles
In Howells’ novel, there are a number of published items, whether it is a newspaper or a book. Each are used as a symbol; it is almost irrelevant what each item says, but how it is used within a social situation. Firstly, the novel opens with a newspaper article by Bartley Hubbard. Whilst his article isn’t very complimentary, it is more interesting to note the first impressions of Silas from another, such as Silas’ obvious bragging and a lacking knowledge of how to act when being interviewed. Secondly, the novel Tears, Idle Tears is first read by Irene, and then discussed at the Corey dinner party. This book is symbolic of Howells’ zealous use of realism, and his hate for romances such as this. In discussing the book, it highlights the intelligence of Tom and later Penelope, whilst reiterating the uselessly romantic aspects of Irene. Any written article within Howells’ novel is therefore used as a structural pointer to analyse the character that reacts to the writing, not the writing itself.
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