The Rise of Silas Lapham is a novel that was written in 1885, by William Dean Howells. He was a novelist, literary critic and playwright. He was the editor for the Atlantic Monthly whilst writing this novel. He wrote the novel whilst he was living at Beacon Street, after moving to Boston in the 1860’s, reflecting the actions of the book’s protagonist.
The story follows Silas Lapham, a materialistic businessman who obtained his wealth suddenly through the success of his paint business that he stumbled upon by accident. Moving from rural Vermont to Boston, a bustling port, Silas and his family must attempt to spend their newfound money in a way that conforms to society’s fashionable expectations. As a businessman keen to earn repute, Silas is delighted with the entry of Tom Corey, the younger member of a wealthy and distinguished family. He enters in to the paint business with Silas, and is taken by his older daughter, Penelope, despite societies expectations that he will prefer the younger and prettier Irene. Silas begins to spend money to prove himself, building a house in Beacon Street, yet begins to lose money. Silas eventually goes bankrupt when he lends money to his old businessman partner, Rogers, and enters in to a dodgy business deal, involving mills that are worthless. This plotline is mirrored by the love triangle between Tom, Penelope and Irene. Irene must visit her cousins to heal from the heartbreak at not securing her future with Tom, and Penelope eventually agrees to marry him. The novel ends with the Lapham family returning to the farm in Vermont, and Penelope and Tom getting married.
William Dean Howells is said to have been the forefather for realism, and this is very much reflected in this novel. He rejects any sentimental aspects, such as reactions to the romantic novel Tears, Idle Tears, suggesting it to be unrealistic of life’s experiences. Realism is also reflected in the narration, which is extremely unobtrusive and never reveals a character’s thoughts, yet provides detailed descriptions of character’s outward appearances. The ultimate rejection of literary romanticism is in the downward turn that accompanies Silas’ ‘rise’; he loses his money, Irene loses her youthful joy, and the family lose their place in Boston society. Howells’ uses realism in such a poignant way that he defines it for an entire age of literature to come.