The Rise of Silas Lapham

Behaving Reasonably: A Defense of Romance in Howells’s Realistic Fiction College

Harry T. Moore, in the afterword to William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, says, “Much of the criticism of Silas Lapham has been directed at the love-story subplot” (345). Critics of Howells are quick to point out the Romantic elements in this otherwise Realist writer’s novel, yet digging deeper into the love story uncovers the biting irony which Howells was pointing at the Romantic writers for their “silly slop” and their “immorality” of fiction (Howells 184, 185).

For the bulk of the novel, Howells deals with the moral rise of Silas Lapham, and unlike the Romantic writers, deals with issues and occurrences on a rather small level. Silas, through losing his money and status, actually rises above many men in his position by choosing the morally correct path in life. Not only does he get peace of mind, but he also becomes more human, no longer the static stereotype of the “robber barrens” of his time. Howells attempts to paint an accurate picture of an American Everyman to whom the reading public could relate. Critics may argue that the love story sways more toward Romanticism than Realism, but “neither in theory nor in practice is Mr. Howells a romancer” (James 79). Nonetheless, if any have read Howells’s other...

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