One simile that recurs in Howells' novel compares Silas' paint to his own blood. Silas is the first to make this comparison, saying in his interview with Bartley Hubbard that "That paint was like my own blood to me. To have anybody else concerned in it was like—well, I don't know what" (16). This sets the stage for paint to be understood as a kind of blood relation of Silas, which makes sense based on his initial reluctance to let anyone besides his family into the business.
However, as the novel progresses, this idea of paint as Silas' blood takes on another meaning. We have seen how paint is used in the novel to evoke pretense and falsehood; that paint runs through Silas's veins would thus seem to suggest that he has been infiltrated by the same kind of falsity that he disparages in others of high society.
Moreover, when this simile is explicitly repeated by the bookkeeper Walker later on, it takes son a different meaning: "Well, you see, this paint of his is like his heart's blood. Better not try to joke him about it. I've seen people come in occasionally and try it. They didn't get much fun out of it" (105). Here, the blood simile seems to emphasize the importance of the paint industry to Silas, rather than its reliance on familial closeness.
Thus, the blood-paint simile sheds a great deal of light on Silas' evolving subsumption by business, as well as his gradual exclusion of the family from this business that turns catastrophic at the novel's end.
The Smell of Beacon Street (Simile)
When Silas takes Persis to the construction site of their new house on Beacon Street, just before they encounter Mr. Rogers, the neighborhood is described in unflattering terms: "The neighborhood smelt like the hold of a ship after a three years' voyage. People who had cast their fortunes with the New Land went by professing not to notice it; people who still 'hung on to the Hill' put their handkerchiefs to their noses, and told each other the old terrible stories of the material used in filling up the Back Bay" (43). Here, the pungent malodor of a ship's hold is used to emphasize the real undesirability of living in such a place as Beacon Street. This sheds light on the constructed nature of the trends and class concerns that occupy the Laphams and the novel's other central characters. Moreover, this bad smell is also evocative of the misfortune that will befall the Laphams as their ambitions regarding the house blind them to a series of personal and professional missteps. Finally, the specificity of the timespan of three years—especially when considering the fact that this is how long Tom and Penelope go to Mexico at the novel's end, as well as how long Zerilla endeavors to be without her husband Hen—forebodes and foreshadows multiple dimensions of personal complication and misfortune that will result in part from the move to Beacon Street and the corresponding obsession with status and wealth.
Penelope as Cat and Irene as Mouse (Simile; Extended Metaphor)
One particularly dramatic and highly figurative moment in the novel is when Tom Corey arrives at the Laphams' Nantasket cottage, surprising Irene, Penelope, and Persis. After receiving Tom and her father at the docks, Penelope sees them back to the cottage, after which she goes up to her room with Irene and teases Irene "like a cat playing with a mouse" (85).
Then, for the next few lines (continuing on to page 86) after this initial simile is offered, Penelope is called explicitly as "the cat" and Irene is renamed as "the mouse." This extended metaphor emphasizes Penelope's active nature and superior intelligence, while also emphasizing Irene's meek passiveness and weak defenses. While powerful enough on its face, however, this extended metaphor becomes only more powerful when taken in the context of later events in the novel. Might Penelope be a cat, for example, because she knows that Tom cares for her and not Irene and chooses to tease Irene about Tom nonetheless? And, moreover, is it the same mouse-like behavior of Irene that allows Tom to win her over so easily, despite the preponderance of evidence that suggests he does not care for or think of her?
Self-sufficiency as a Gym Workout (Simile)
When Bromfield Corey pays his visit to Silas' workplace, Silas simultaneously condescends to Bromfield while also flattering him immensely for Tom's tenacity and determination to succeed. In no place is this more clear than when Silas compares working for a living to working out at a gym:
Why, when I started this thing, I didn't more than half understand my own strength. I wouldn't have said, looking back, that I could have stood the wear and tear of what I've been through. But I developed as I went along. It's just like exercising your muscles in a gymnasium. You can lift twice or three times as much after you've been in training a month as you could before. And I can see that it's going to be just so with your son. His going through college won't hurt him,—he'll soon slough all that off,—and his bringing up won't; don't be anxious about it. I noticed in the army that some of the fellows that had the most go-ahead were fellows that hadn't ever had much more to do than girls before the war broke out. Your son will get along. (142)
In this quote, Silas explains how the positive feedback loop of ambition and pride works, a key dynamic to understand why Silas acts in the way that he does throughout the novel. For the man of little means, each difficult opportunity to gain more wealth and repute becomes a necessary challenge, and the virtue that Silas believes he has achieved through "exercising" himself in this way leads him to brag and act out as he does in public. Moreover, this is a particularly apt analogy because it tracks with the events of the novel when it is followed to its logical conclusion: that is, if working hard at business and testing one's self is like exercise, then the cost of overdoing it is the same as the cost of overexercising one's muscles—injury. Thus, unknowingly, Silas provides a blueprint for better understanding his own motivations, as well as the natural consequences of these motivations when pushed to an extreme.
Prestige as an Intoxicant (Simile)
At the Corey dinner party, one of the things that makes Silas feel out of his depth is Anna Corey's conversation with him about her illustrious ancestors, which include the Copleys. After she starts to talk to Silas about her ancestry, we are told that "these names, unknown to Lapham, went to his head like the wine he was drinking; they seemed to carry light for the moment, but a film of deeper darkness followed" (196). Not only is this significant because it speaks to Silas' general ignorance of the ways of high society, but also because it plays into the novel's massive fascination with lineage (specifically, who has which qualities, either physical or intangible, of their ancestors). That Anna can rattle off all this information about her ancestors seems to have a great deal in common with Bromfield's fascination with Tom's nose, as well as the narrator's assignment of certain qualities of Irene and Penelope to their parents. Specifically as it pertains to this simile, however, this scene is important because it showcases both the short-term elation and long-term ruination that result from Silas' contact with prestige and status. While it, like alcohol, gratifies him in the moment and inflates his confidence, by the time its effects wear off, he has both a literal and figurative headache.
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...