The Rise of Silas Lapham

The Rise of Silas Lapham Literary Elements


Realist Novel

Setting and Context

Mainly set in Boston in the decades following the Civil War, with a return to Vermont at the end of the novel

Narrator and Point of View

The narrator is a third-person omniscient narrator, who both gives us an internal and sympathetic look at the characters while also commenting on their more unflattering qualities.

Tone and Mood

The tone is set almost immediately with Silas' interview with Bartley Hubbard, detailing his rapid rise to success from lowly beginnings. This tone of success and excitement tempered by cynicism continues throughout the novel. Throughout, however, the tension that the Laphams have money yet know not how to spend or invest it grows increasingly problematic. This culminates in a few chapters written in an elegiac or lugubrious tone, mourning the loss of Silas' personal and professional gifts. By the novel's end, however, we are exposed to the Laphams quiet and content in Vermont, which is mirrored by a resolution in the earlier mood.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Silas Lapham and his family are the protagonists, with the Corey family as secondary protagonists. Mr. Rogers, Silas' greedy and corrupt business partner, is the novel's most clear antagonist.

Major Conflict

There are two major conflicts, one in business and one in romance. In terms of business, Silas struggles to maintain his family's wealth and his business while also staying true to his upstanding and virtuous system of country morals. The romantic conflict, on the other hand, consists of a love triangle between Tom Corey, Irene, and Penelope. Irene is in love with Tom, but Tom only feels for Penelope, and vice versa. The struggle on Tom and Penelope's part to gently and cautiously deal with Irene, as well as their families' misguided attempts at seeing Tom marry Irene, constitute the main tensions of this dynamic.


There are many moments in the novel which might be considered a kind of climax. One is the dinner at the Coreys' home, which exposes Silas to the public as a boorish character and sets the tone for the resolution of the romantic conflict in the novel. It also serves as a kind of temporal marker that delineates the beginning of Silas' troubles.

Another climactic moment in the novel is when Silas refuses to sell to Mr. Rogers' English businessmen, which marks him for bankruptcy and also reveals his fundamentally virtuous moral character.

One other moment that might be considered a climax comes towards the end of the novel, when Silas accidentally sets his house ablaze. This is the final nail in the coffin for Silas's financial solvency and potential elite status, and he shortly after retires to the countryside after other last-ditch efforts fail.


The novel's opening—the interview with Bartley Hubbard—enacts a kind of foreshadowing of the novel's plot. In the interview, Silas describes his ascent to wealth and notoriety, and Hubbard is cynical of his character and less than generous in his eventual portrayal of Silas. This cynicism and coldness on the public's part loosely foreshadows Silas' fall, which occurs at the behest of similarly cold businessmen and occurs just as swiftly as his climb.


Understatement is a key device in the novel because of Howells' obsession with the minute details of elite social practices. Especially when dealing with the Coreys, readers should pay close attention to what is said and what goes unsaid, as well as what is put delicately or euphemistically for fear of seeming vulgar. As a contrast to these euphemistic ways, however, consider how Silas is a fundamentally bombastic and overstated man—for example, profusely and pathetically apologizing to Tom after the embarrassment of the Corey dinner party.


Throughout the text, several allusions are made to cultural touchstones, be they newspapers, artworks, books, or even more popular elements like famous humorists. Interestingly, however, most of the allusions made in the text are not important insofar as they convey deep information on the line level; rather, their deployment is important in understanding the means by which the wealthy seek to distinguish themselves from the non-wealthy. Consider, for example, the Laphams' fundamental ignorance of literature and which books are fashionable to read. Further, consider the difference in the newspapers that Silas consumes versus those of a "discerning" reader like Bromfield Corey. As a final example, consider how Anna tries to contextualize Penelope's humor as "like Mrs. Sayre," mentioning someone obscure but who nonetheless "must come into every Boston mind when humor is mentioned" (100). Each is an example of an allusion that demonstrates the wide gap between common people and people of an elite social status.


Howells uses rich imagery to particularly startling effect throughout the novel, but one particularly strong dimension of this imagery is Howells' preoccupation with the weather. By detailing what the weather is like during the stultifying summer, the serene autumn season, and the blistering and harsh winter, Howells creates an evocative portrait of nature as mirroring the emotions and actions of the novel's characters, almost verging on what Ruskin called "pathetic fallacy" (i.e., attributing human emotions or actions to something inhuman in nature).

This parallel between weather and man in Howells' novel is even more detailed than these generalizations would suggest, however: even small variations in the weather mirror the specific ups and downs of Silas' personal and business enterprises, for example.


Much like the prevalence of understatement in the novel, the presence of various paradoxes in the novel are primarily meant to show how social pressures or expectations conflict with personal will or desire to produce a sometimes absurd effect. As such, paradox in the novel sheds a great deal of light on both the naiveté and foolishness of the characters, as well as the importance of acting properly or in accordance with decorum in Boston's high society. For example, consider the Coreys' confusion at how to react when they hear that Tom has been paying frequent visits to the Lapham home:

"I wish you were. And yet I can't say that I do. Those things are very serious with girls. I shouldn't like Tom to have been going to see those people if he meant nothing by it."

"And you wouldn't like it if he did. You are difficult, my dear." Her husband pulled an open newspaper toward him from the table. (161)

Here, Anna's personal desires conflict with social pressures to reveal that she is trapped in a paradox of conduct, with no proper way out. This is part of the reason that she and Bromfield resign themselves to the union of Tom and Penelope at the novel's end.


In particular, three parallels are set up to striking effect in the novel.

First, Silas is explicitly paralleled with Bartley Hubbard, the cynical journalist who interviews him in the novel's opening chapter. This is likely done to reflect how hungry young people are for success at any cost, as well as to show the irony of Bartley's cynicism. After all, he may wind up striving too hard and failing, just like Silas.

Second, Silas is also paralleled with Tom Corey because they share a strong work ethic. This explains one reason that Irene (who is more similar to Silas) fails in courting Tom where Penelope succeeds (since she is more like Persis, and more clever than Irene and Silas). Additionally, this parallel provides a pathway for explaining how Boston society might advance past its old money roots—with the effort of hard workers, like Silas (new money) and Tom (new thinking).

Finally, the correspondence between Penelope's personal anguish over the Tom-Irene situation is meant to parallel the conflict presented in the Romantic novel "Tears, Idle Tears." This not only shows the absurdity of Penelope's choices with regard to her love triangle, but also demonstrates that when personal conflicts arise, it can be hard to think rationally and act properly.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

Perhaps the most noticeable use of metonymy is with the term "Bostonians" in the novel. While the term properly describes those who resides in Boston, it comes to mean so much more in Howells' imagination. In the world of the Laphams and Coreys, being a proper Bostonian means one is an elite, truly belonging to and fitting the aesthetic of a fashionable and upcoming town. Silas may call himself a Bostonian because he moves there and works there, but the novel proves that he will never truly be one.