The Rise of Silas Lapham Themes

The Rise of Silas Lapham Themes

Social Standards and Manners

Social standards in Howells' Boston-set novel revolve around knowing the clothes to wear, holiday homes to own and the topics to approach in a dinner party setting. The Coreys represent how one should act, and the Laphams how one should not. Instead of a fashionable holiday home, the Laphams own a cottage in Nantusket. At the dinner party, Silas spends an embarrassingly long time researching whether to wear gloves or not, eventually deciding to and ending up with hands like 'canvassed hands'. He then continues to get drunk for the first time in his life and be inappropriate to higher class gentlemen. Yet despite being clueless to the Boston standards that their new-found money means they are now subject to, the Laphams are fundamentally good in moral standards. Howells therefore suggests that upholding moral standards is sometimes not as important as doing the right thing.


Howells' novel embodies traits of literary realism, almost the opposite of the romance genre. In romance novels, all the events are connected almost as if by destiny. In Howells' novel, the events all contribute to Silas' downward curve, but are not linked or dependent on one another. For example, the mills, the burning of the house on Beacon Street and Silas' eventual dissolution all contribute to his bankruptcy, but are individual events. For Howells, this is perhaps a way of truthfully reflecting reality, as a series of temporal events rather than unrealistically linked to every other event.


Love is not the central theme in The Rise of Silas Lapham. It is instead used as a device to highlight the moral standards involved in situations other than Silas' business. Love is first presented as unnecessarily sacrificial in the featured romance novel Tears, Idle Tears, which foreshadows how Penelope will later sacrifice her happiness for the sake of her sister. The main love triangle centers on Penelope and Irene Lapham, and Tom Corey. Irene is smitten with Tom, of whom loves Penelope. It is only at the end that this is revealed, and everyone is surprised that Tom chose the intelligent rather than beautiful sister, highlighting the gender standards in nineteenth century America. The wives of both Silas Lapham and Bromfield Corey are neither overly affectionate, and act as commentators on the husband's businesses, rather than as a loving character in themselves.


As the novel begins, we are told of Silas' rise from a rural paint farm in Vermont, to the successes of the industrial hub of Boston. As he moves up in social class through his rapid acquisition of money, Silas also becomes materialistic. He now has the money of the gentry, but the manners of the middle class and does not understand modesty. He cannot help but brag about the assets in his company, and wants to build a house on Beacon Street because it is 'what everyone does', i.e. the rich. Yet, for the spiritual rebirth to occur at the end, materialism must be rejected as Silas returns bankrupt to his Vermont farm. Materialism is therefore displayed as a dangerous side effect of acquiring new money quickly.

Moral Ambiguity

The exploration of moral standards occurs constantly throughout the novel. Howells begins by informing the reader that Silas took advantage of his former business partner, Milton Rogers, and left him penniless. This is therefore the standard of morality we expect from Silas. It is then surprising when Howells reveals that Silas contributes money to Zerrila Millon, the daughter of a man who saved his life in the army. Howells therefore presents a moral ambiguity, where it is unclear as to where Silas stands. This is emphasized through Howell's characterization; there is always more to the eye with his characters, suggesting a complex moral standard also. Constructed standards of morality are also presented: Penelope believes it is the 'right' action to deny Tom Corey's love for the sake of her sister, Irene. However, this is ridiculed as she causes pain and is guilty of sin anyway. Therefore, a moral idealism is striven for in the spiritual rebirth of Silas at the end, yet is also peppered with a sense of realism, and when adhering to high moral standards is not always the right thing to do.

Industry and Corruption

Industry is an important part of the novel, as it allows Silas to rise in social class, and also presents a platform for corruption. Silas clearly believes the world is made for man's industry, from the moment his wife Persis describes the paint at Vermont as a 'gold mine'. As refinement began to occur in nineteenth century American society, the middle class were able to emulate the higher classes in their habits and lifestyle, simply with cheaper materials. Silas' paint allows exactly this, providing the joy of a welcome home without high costs. Silas is also middle class in his urge to work; he cannot understand why Tom Corey would be idle, even if he does have the money to be jobless. Corruption in business was a theme usually censored in nineteenth century American fiction, as it prevents a different narrative to the American dream that encouraged success and honesty. At the end, Silas is presented with a chance of corruption in his business, that would ensure he would not go bankrupt. Instead, he chooses to not sell the worthless mills without informing the investor of their worth. Despite Rogers' encouragement, corruption in industry is suggested, but not enacted.


Whilst realism is used by Howells as more a literary device, it is still important as a theme in it's implications throughout the novel. Howells' realism engages heavily with the moral aspects of the novel, presenting Silas and Penelope as the moral representatives, only learning what is right through first committing wrong. Howells also engages with realism in Silas's business: he has risen in social standing due to money, but does not automatically assume the social manners associated with this status. Realism was seen by Howells as a truthful representation of life, and that romance novels were 'lies' that embellished life to an unnecessary measure. The structure and narrative voice of the novel therefore embody the realistic genre. Bad events happen as well as good, and the narration reports them with little psychological evidence of the characters, and with ample description of interior and social scenery. However, the ending is more of romance structure than realist. Silas goes bankrupt, but adheres to a moral idealism where he refuses to sell his company without informing the buyers of the worthless mills.

Therefore, Howells argues for and presents a realistic text until the very end, where he seems to diverge to the very romance narrative that he seeks to rebuke.

Family Life

The inclusion of both Silas Lapham and Tom Corey's family presents each character as multi-faceted, as both gentlemen involved with industry and family life. Tom Corey must fight against the expectations of his Father, Bromfield Corey, to marry a fashionable girl and live as he is, and Silas must continue to fulfil the expectations of his family now he is a top businessman. Silas' lack of inclusion in his own family life also highlights how he is engulfed in the dissolution of his business. It is only when his wife, Peris, forces him to recognize Penelope and Irene's struggles does Silas fulfill his role as husband and father, as well as main provider. Tom may not fulfill his Mother's expectations of an advantageous marriage, yet is still accepted as a member of the family. The emphasis is on business and not connections to each family. Howells does not seek to rewrite the Capulet- Montague feud of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. He instead presents the difficulties of balancing family life with the demands of business.

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