The protagonist of the story, Silas Lapham is a materialistic businessman who discovers a paint mine on his family's rural Vermont property. In moving his now wealthy family and business to the nearest hub of industry, Boston, he fancies that he has risen in social rank and is now a member of the gentry. However, he lacks social civility, cannot understand the manners required of him at dinner parties, and is questionable in morality. For example, Silas contributes money to the wife of a man who saved his life, but at the novel's start, he has also left his prior business partner without a job or any money. At the same time, we are made to wonder throughout the novel to what extent he actually accepts Tom Corey for reasons unrelated to his upbringing and how much he secretly wills Tom to marry one of his daughters, though he says no such thing explicitly. However, his moral ambiguity is resolved at the end, as he fails to offload the mills at a premium and accepts bankruptcy, cleaning his hands of debt and returning to his rural home.
Mrs. Persis Lapham
Silas’ wife, Persis Lapham, acts as a mediator between Silas' business and family life, as well as a constant presence of residual Puritan morality. Throughout Howells’ novel, she constantly reminds Silas of his duty to amend his wrongdoing with his ex-business partner Rogers.
At the same time, however, she is poisoned by Silas' and her own ambitions for her daughters, which makes her blind to the love triangle that develops between her two daughters and Tom Corey. Towards the end of the novel, however, she is the first to be aware of this situation and alerts Silas to it as he becomes engulfed in the bankruptcy of his company.
Despite being a constant moral presence, Persis fails to unequivocally support Silas and wavers when he must decide whether to sell the knowingly worthless mills to a clueless business partner. Additionally, she allows her suspicions to get the best of her when she believes Silas is having an affair with Zerilla Dewey.
In general, though Persis might be said to be a partner to Silas throughout much of the novel, a better characterization takes account of her increasing distance and difference from Silas as the novel continues. While she is the mediator between the personal and the professional, her and her husband's failures to properly bring these realms together at the novel's end cause a great deal of the personal pain that the Laphams must face. She seems to regress entirely into the personal and forget the professional, while the opposite might be said of Silas.
Penelope Lapham is the older daughter of Silas and Persis Lapham. She is extremely smart, witty, and perceptive, and Howells presents us with evidence throughout the novel that she educates herself, primarily by reading a great deal and attending church lectures. In her intelligence, she is aware of the gender constraints of the period, making bold claims about what her life would be like if she were a young man and acknowledging that, in courtship, women need not do anything for the affair to continue. Despite all this sense, however, she unnecessarily sacrifices her happiness for the sake of her sister Irene, who is in love with the gentlemen who in fact seeks Penelope’s heart, Tom Corey. When pressed on why she has the irrational desire to do this, which makes many members of her family resent her, she only says that her common sense fails once it is herself and her sister that are involved. She eventually marries Tom after many trials, tribulations, and offers on his part. Penelope is one of the most dynamic and nuanced characters in the novel on account of the way that Howells pushes her beyond stereotypes of a rational, cold, intelligent woman—she is also one of the novel's most sensitive and self-critical characters.
Irene Lapham is the younger, prettier Lapham sister who is assumed to have little in her head, though she is practical and capable of performing a wide variety of domestic tasks. She is not well-read, following all of Tom's book suggestions and always deferring to Penelope when Tom asks her for entertainment or her thoughts on a book like Middlemarch. When she is invited to the Coreys' dinner party, Mrs. Lapham comments that Irene will entertain the guests with her beauty alone. When Tom Corey visits her, she becomes smitten with the smallest of gestures, such as playing with wood shavings or discussing books that she knows little about. Everyone around her assumes that it is she that Tom loves, since she is more beautiful and therefore a more socially suitable candidate for a rich man's wife. However, she defies stereotypes when she learns that Tom loves Penelope instead of her, setting to work immediately around the houses and handling it with composure and coolness. Afterwards, Irene goes to stay with her cousins and returns "hardened," getting over her heartbreak and helping to fix her family as it falls apart from Penelope’s guilt and Silas’ bankruptcy. At the close of the novel, she remains unmarried and stays unmarried for at least five years after the narration ends.
Tom Corey is the only son of the wealthy and established Corey family. Despite having enough money to live as he wishes, he passionately endeavors to work for Silas Lapham’s paint company after passing their house on Beacon Street and calling upon Silas' daughters and wife. Working for Silas, however, raises its own issues of authority between himself and his boss: Silas is both overwhelmed that a Corey is working for him and determined to remain dominant as the boss of the company, which causes a bit of performative tension or callousness. However, his own views diverge from his father's, and he defends the Laphams' lack of social standards as part of their honesty, coupled with a naive and simple country charm. Despite being the catalyst of tension in his love triangle with the two Lapham daughters, his involvement in this drama is almost entirely accidental. He is only ever friendly with Irene, despite what people think, and he proclaims his true feelings only for Penelope at the novel's end. He eventually marries Penelope, but the marriage does not immediately unite the two families that are separated by the barrier of old and new money. At the very least, however, their marriage suggests that there is the possibility for these groups to reconcile or change moving forward.
Bromfield Corey is the father of Tom Corey, and the head of the wealthy Corey family. He grew up the son of a rich colonial merchant and spent his entire youth dissolutely traveling the world and painting in Italy. He comments on the Laphams' lack of social civility, but he is less concerned with it than his wife and even goes so far as to advocate for the downtrodden at his dinner party. Even so, he makes a variety of snobbish comments to his wife throughout the novel that disabuse us of any suspicions that he is not a complete elitist. Still, his role is more as an audience, watching the action unfold but aware that he has little influence, despite Silas' near worship of him. Towards the end of the novel, he acknowledges that Tom will marry who he wants and work the job that he wants, though he thinks this to be quite a loss considering the privilege that he had growing up.
Mrs. Anna Corey
Mrs. Corey is the character most concerned with and aware of snobbish social standards, and she is consistent in pointing out the Laphams' crude behaviors and tastes. She is a key player in initiating Persis' desire to move from Nankeen Square to the new home on Beacon Street. When she goes to visit Mrs. Lapham and her daughters, she makes both Penelope and Persis feel as if they are inadequate, which leaves a lasting impression on Penelope and serves as one reason for her consistent rejection of Tom. She also complains consistently of what she believes is an ill-suited match between Tom and Irene (and later, Tom and Penelope), but she is very much under the thumb of her husband, who tells her she can do nothing to stop it. Later, she comes around and accepts Tom's marriage to Penelope as part of an effort to make Tom happy and not cause public friction.
Milton K. Rogers
Milton Rogers is a minor character, but he is important in the novel's exploration of Silas’ morality. He was Silas Lapham’s previous business partner, allowing Silas to begin his paint business with a significant investment of capital after the war. Silas crowded him out of the business because of Rogers' lack of passion and belief in the product, which left him without a job. Still, Silas continues to feel throughout the novel that Rogers is a "crook," a judgment which consistently earns him the ire of Persis. Towards the end of the novel, Rogers shows up and asks Silas for a loan, which Silas grants to feel as if he has atoned for his previous sins. Nonetheless, Rogers' patents and worthless mills play a large role in Silas' financial ruination and in the test of Silas' morality that he faces with the English businessmen.
Bartley Hubbard is a cocky and cynical journalist for the Events newspaper in Boston. He opens Howells' novel with his interview with Silas Lapham, during which a great deal of information about Silas' past is revealed. He mocks Silas' ignorance to social etiquette, encouraging him that there is nothing worse to do in an interview than to close up and hold back. When he returns home and plans to publish the piece as a somewhat satirical encomium, he finds that Silas has gifted his wife a jar of fine paint and teases him once more for being an "old fool."
Reverend Sewell is described as a character whose views on literature are very much like those of William Dean Howells himself. He is a guest at the Corey dinner party, and he offers a scornful reaction to the overtly romantic Tears, Idle Tears, mocking the self-sacrifice of heroines for love that foreshadows Penelope's own future actions. He is presented as an advocate for realism and common sense rather than the fantastical adventures of romance. This realistic view of love and suffering eventually leads him to advise the Laphams that Tom and Penelope should marry, so that one should suffer rather than three. Later, he pays a visit to the newly repatriated Laphams, and he has real concern for Silas, asking him whether he has any regrets after losing his fortune.
Zerilla Millon Dewey
Zerilla is the daughter of a man who saved Silas' life when he was in the army. He gave her a job as his typist and contributes to her home life when she is forced to marry a drunken sailor. She is accused at the end by Mrs. Lapham of having an affair with Silas after Persis receives an anonymous note and becomes suspicious about payments to a "Mrs. M."
The Rise of Silas Lapham Questions and Answers
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The houses have always represented a certain style of living and a certain "sensibility" that comes with "old money" and a lifestyle based on inherited money and grand living. As the money falls away and the people become poorer, the wealthy...