The Rise of Silas Lapham

The Rise of Silas Lapham Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What is the importance of the novel's subplot, and how does it interweave with the main plot of Silas Lapham?

    There are two main plots in Howells’ novel: the main plot concerning Silas’ wealth and business endeavors, and the romantic subplot that involves Tom Corey and the Lapham sisters. They interweave in their patterns of fortune: there is a season of prosperity, followed by a declaration—whether it is Tom declaring that he loves Penelope, or Silas' declaration of bankruptcy—that ends with a gentle, contented resolution after much conflict and difficulty. The subplot is also used to highlight how blinded Silas and Persis are by their newfound wealth, since they are completely oblivious to Tom’s courtship of Penelope and instead fixate on Irene. Thus, despite the fact that the novel purports to follow Silas' affairs in the world of business, the subplot stands as a reminder that the outside world, people’s emotions, and family life will always penetrate and interfere with one's business life.

    Considered in this light, the two plots also align two characters in particular—Silas and his daughter, Penelope. Both figures try do what is morally right in the world of both business and romance, despite outside pressure and whether it accords with common sense—whether it be Penelope's initial refusal of Tom to save Irene’s feelings, or Silas' announcement to the New York investor that the properties he is selling are worth very little. This is especially unexpected and poignant, since Penelope is said to be quite different than Silas, while Irene is explicitly said to be the one more like Silas.

  2. 2

    How does Howells treat the subject of love in The Rise of Silas Lapham?

    Love in Howells’ novel is stripped of any idealism, and it is presented as a real matter that incorporates both reason and suffering. Romantic notions in literature, for example, which deify love and seemingly present it as the prime concern of life, are mocked as naïve and foolish through the scornful reaction of Reverend Sewell to the novel Tears, Idle Tears, as well as its typical hero and heroine.

    Moreover, even interpersonal love is depicted as extremely practical throughout the novel. Silas and Persis’ love, for example, is based on mutual respect and the strength of their character, rather than grand displays and exaggerated language. On top of this, Silas mostly neglects Persis to run his business and oversee the building of the house; the grandest gesture we see from him is naming his premium paint brand after her. The most emotional that any character becomes, on the other hand, is Tom’s proclamation that he loves Penelope. Even so, this proclamation is contained to the drawing room, and Tom is initially forbidden from telling anyone else. In the end, Tom and Penelope's marriage is not treated as the culmination that it is but almost as a side point, taken for granted. The two are married and content, but it is not the contentment that comes from a Romantic novel, which Howells makes clear that this is not (i.e.,"these things continually happen in novels" (359)). Their families accept their children's chosen spouses, but it is suggested that they will never fully come around to them.

    Despite this, however, Howells also approaches love as being able to rebuff social expectations. Every member of society presented in this novel expects Tom Corey to favor beauty over intellectual depth, and in contradicting this expectation, Howells suggests that love does not and should not always follow social conventions.

  3. 3

    How do the Corey and Lapham families represent the differences between old and new money?

    Throughout the novel, the head of the Corey family, Bromfield Corey, is constantly judgmental of the Laphams' wealth: the Lapham have new money, while his own family possess old money. The difference lies in where the money comes from: the Coreys' old money has been inherited across generations from colonial mercantilism, while the Laphams' new money has been earned rather quickly. The Laphams are judged for having had to work to earn all their money, rather than having lived dissolutely off of the income of others. Additionally, the Laphams have little idea of how to spend money or the social etiquette needed for the company that they keep when richer. This is especially visible with the chapter set at the Corey dinner party, where Silas is so nervous that he does not turn down any food or drink, getting drunk for the first time in his life and embarrassing himself.

    This divide is so stark, even including what the home is furnished with and what is read and consumed, that Tom does not attempt to argue the Laphams' prestige to his father, instead opening the discussion of marriage by explaining that the Lapham girls will inherit a large sum of money. Despite this, however, Bromfield and Anna's old money mentality remains on display, suggesting that only those with the proper upbringing and history of wealth are worthy of Tom.

    Therefore, the Coreys—as well as their habits, hobbies, expenses, and thoughts—represent the ultimate symbol of old money in their snobbery and determination of what is fashionable or acceptable. The Laphams, on the other hand, represent new money in their fast acquisition of wealth, ignorance to how to spend it, and naïve friendliness to anyone who mocks or takes advantage of them.

  4. 4

    How does Howells engage with Realism in his novel?

    Howells was seen as a founding father and leading advocate of Literary Realism in 19th-century America, and he engages with it heavily in this novel.

    First, the characters are presented as people who inhabit more than one personality type or character stereotype. Penelope is the intelligent sister, but she is also quite sentimental and emotional in her initial refusal of Tom’s love. As another example, consider how Silas is presented as a fair businessman and morally upright thinker despite having evidently committed sins in his past against Rogers. Each character has negative traits mixed in with their more positive traits, presenting a depth and nuance more in line with reality than fiction.

    Second, the arc of the novel's plot is more representative of life, since chance plays an important part. The house on Beacon Street burning down and Rogers' milling properties going bust both accelerates Silas’ bankruptcy, yet these are two independent events with no relation to one another and no intentional cause. In writing events like these into his work, Howells actively works against a Romantic plot structure, where most events are consequentially related to or guided by fate. In doing so, Howells presents the harrowing idea that tragedy often happens without reason.

    Third, the way that the Romantic novel Tears, Idle Tears is mocked also reflects a craving on Howells' part (as well as on some characters' parts) to see a greater resemblance of fiction and reality. As Sewell (as well as Howells himself) argues, only realistic fiction can teach people about the smartest and best ways to live, as well as expose common mistakes or flaws. Romantic fiction, with its false ideals, only teaches people to act irrationally.

    Finally, Howells interacts with Realism in the text by his means of resolving the Lapham story. In a Romantic novel, the ending would have concluded with a grand display of happiness after some distress—for example, coming together for a fantastic and happy wedding. In this novel, on the other hand, the ending only ever reaches contentment at most, and the cyclical structure of the narrative conveys a futility that dismantles Romantic ideals.

  5. 5

    What does Howells suggest about the different settings of the city and country?

    The Rise of Silas Lapham is set almost entirely within an urban environment—specifically, in Boston. However, the novel is bookended by Silas’ origin and terminus as a simple worker in the countryside of Vermont. While we barely see family life here, what we do see works to suggest specific and concrete connotations for the urban and rural settings.

    When in the city, and especially Boston, Silas loses sight of what is important and is entirely engulfed by social fancies. He strives to own what other rich people own, and he lives his life based on social expectations and others' approval. He also encounters unsavory characters who are associated with business and the busy city life, such as Bartley Hubbard, the English businessmen, and Hen Dewey. The behavior of each of these characters suggests an atmosphere of corruption or decadence in a unique way.

    By comparison, the country is presented as a humble and honest place. It is where Silas begins, raised on "the simple virtues of the Old Testament and Poor Richard's Almanac" (5). It is also where Silas must cyclically return at the end, when he remembers his true roots and the importance of his moral compass and family life. Additionally and interestingly, those who live in the city use Silas's country origins as an excuse to dislike or act unsympathetically towards him—providing further evidence that those in the city have a certain corruption to them that those in the country resist or fail to adopt.

  6. 6

    Discuss the narrative voice of The Rise of Silas Lapham. How are characters and events described and relayed to readers?

    The genre of Howells’ novel as a Realist novel deeply impacts the narrative voice used. As a text that aspires to be as close to reality as possible, the narrator acts as invisible as possible, since to acknowledge a narrator would be to acknowledge the novel as an object and piece of fiction. Therefore, while the narration is omniscient and we do get insight into certain characters' thoughts, relatively little of the psychology of the characters is revealed outside of their speech. Further, Howells's narrator shuns the clunky narrative device of exposition in favor of something more realistic—specifically, the opening scene with Bartley Hubbard where Silas’ past is revealed through an interview.

    The narrator is not completely invisible, however, announcing their presence with an "I" pronoun in the novel's concluding chapter. Even so, this deployment of the first-person pronoun is mainly to expose the limitations of the narrator's knowledge of the characters' thoughts and future events. Additionally, though, one cannot help but notice the narrator's presence in the tactfulness with which certain ironies unfold and are relayed to make certain characters look absurd or misguided. Still, a great deal of value judgements and personality analysis is left for readers to conduct themselves, studying what each character says and drawing their own conclusions.