Right from the novel's opening, Howells uses imagery to paint Silas Lapham as an honest person. When Silas is being interviewed about his successful life, for example, a photograph of his extended family in front of their family property is brought up. The introduction of this thematic imagery is notable precisely because of the way it turns a usual sentiment on its head: “The photographer had not been able to conceal [emphasis added] the fact that they were all decent, honest-looking, sensible people” (8). This image situates Silas and his family as so inherently honest and decent that they cannot be otherwise seen, even if the photographer might have tried.
This idea of Silas as an honest and upstanding man continues throughout the narrative, all the way to its logical conclusion. It is Silas' honesty that makes him stand out at the Corey dinner party, precipitates his fall, eventually reconciles him to the Corey family, and fascinates the Sewells at the novel's close. Honesty is so prevalent in the Lapham family that it sometimes seems to be just as physical a quality as Tom Corey's nose.
Moreover, the way in which this honesty is conflated with stupidity or simplicity throughout the novel also reveals a great deal about the business world, where honesty runs contrary to success.
The Laphams' Dinner Dress
In their attempt to work their way into the upper society of Boston, most of the Lapham family—Silas, Persis, and Irene, specifically—attend a dinner party hosted by the Coreys. The imagery before and throughout this section, however, demonstrates how the Laphams are uncomfortable and unacquainted with even the most mundane elements of party etiquette, most notably what to wear. Silas' hands, for example, look like "canvased hams" in his gloves (188). Irene's dress, on the other hand, looks to be more of a "ball dress than a dinner dress," though this quality might be excused because of how beautiful Irene looks (188). What both of these images reveal is how out of place the Laphams truly are in high society, standing out from the norm in their attempts to fit in.
Decor and Facades
The gap between the place in society occupied by the Laphams and the place they desire to occupy is characterized through imagery related to the décor of their respective homes. The Laphams' current home is in Boston’s South End in Nankeen Square, precisely at the point where the "mistaken movement of society in that direction ceased" (24). Moreover, their home in Nankeen Square is decorated "with the costliest and most abominable frescoes," as well as an abundance of tacky religious statues and Americana that are described near the novel's end (24).
By contrast, the Corey family manse on Bellingham Place features simple yet classical touches like its "slender fluted columns, which have always been painted white," while other architectural reflect the authority of fact that "nothing could be simpler, and nothing could be better" (187). This is more in line with the facade of Silas' new house, which has "architectural beauty" and a high caliber of "finely felt detail" (245). This fixation on decor and appearances reinforces that it is external appearances and material possessions which are important to members of high society, rather the content of one's character.
The fall of Silas Lapham can in part be effectively marked by tracing the number of words appearing in italics or all capital letters (depending on the version) in his speech. Consider not just the emphasis, but the self-referential quality of Silas Lapham when giving Bartley Hubbard information about his prior business successes: "I was bound to be an American of some sort, from the word Go! That was about—well, let me see!—pretty near sixty years ago: this is '75, and that was '20. Well, say I'm fifty-five years old; and I've lived 'em, too; not an hour of waste time about me, anywheres! I was born on a farm, and—" (4).
Contrast this bombastic and visually overwhelming (in the case of capital letters) speech with Silas' final words before the novel ends: "Seems sometimes as if it was a hole opened for me, and I crept out of it. I don't know. I don't know as I should always say it paid; but if I done it, and the thing was to do over again, right in the same way, I guess I should have to do it" (365). In these quotes and throughout the novel, dialogue itself thus becomes imagery in showing Silas' transformation from a boastful braggart into a more self-consciously reflective man who has learned a valuable lesson about the costs of unfettered success.
The Rise of Silas Lapham Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Rise of Silas Lapham is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
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...