"I guess you wouldn't want my life without the money."
This quote from the novel's first page is spoken by Silas to Bartley Hubbard at the beginning of their interview (3). It is significant because it sheds early light on the public's fascination with Silas' wealth, as well as Silas' growing awareness of how he is perceived in public. Later, this same awareness of public interest in his wealth will lead him to make ostentatious displays of his money, brag, and talk of virtually nothing else while in the company of other wealthy people—things he does not realize are unfashionable. However, though Silas develops into a case study of how one might act poorly when exposed to the social and financial pressures of high society, this quote shows that, at a basic level, he is at least aware of the fact that his life is different now that he has wealth—and that others will view him differently on account of this wealth.
"But if the girls are going to keep on living in Boston society and marry here, I presume we ought to try to get them into society, some way; or ought to do something."
In this quote, Persis tells Silas of her desire to get the girls into high society after her interaction with the Coreys at Baie St. Joan (29). First, this quote is significant for the way in which it paints the Laphams as ignorant of social customs and unsure of how to use their newfound wealth and privilege. Persis only knows that young women ought to enter high society if they have the means; she does not know, however, what the best way to do so is, other than the vague idea of marriage. Second, the fact that Persis aims to advance her daughters in Boston society sheds light on the ambition and social pressures that accompany the acquisition of wealth, in line with the "poison of ambition" that we are told Silas instills in Persis (33). Third and finally, that Persis can only think of marriage or high society for her daughters shows that women during the time of the novel's publication had few options available to them in life, regardless of the degree of privilege they possessed.
"But the suddenly rich are on a level with any of us nowadays. Money buys position at once. I don't say that it isn't all right. The world generally knows what it's about, and knows how to drive a bargain. I dare say it makes the new rich pay too much. But there's no doubt that money is to the fore now. It is the romance, the poetry of our age. It's the thing that chiefly strikes the imagination."
This quote is spoken by Bromfield to his son Tom as they discuss marriage and whether it is suitable for an old money heir to marry a woman of new wealth (64). It is key because it sheds light on how important wealth is in shaping social intercourse in Gilded Age America—putting new money families into the same spheres as old money families with whom they might earlier have only dreamed of interacting. At the same time, however, this idea of money as supremely powerful is also grim: after all, if money is truly the romance and poetry of the time, money is the primary factor that comes into play when talking about love and courtship. This two-sided view of money as both liberating and constraining explains Bromfield's later attitudes towards Lapham and his daughters, as well as towards his own dissolute and aristocratic past.
"It appears that he wishes to do something—to do something for himself. I am afraid that Tom is selfish."
This quote is spoken by Bromfield to his wife Anna as they discuss Tom's choice to work with Slias Lapham in the paint industry (96). It is significant because, besides shedding light on aristocratic cultural and lifestyle norms, it also provides a great deal of insight into Gilded Age family dynamics, as well as how these differ among classes. The Coreys, for example, prioritize their cohesion and wealth as a family unit because they see their old money name and public reputation as their most important possessions. This is why they disdain Tom for his choice to make something of himself in a low or base industry. Contrasting with the Coreys, then, the Laphams see making their own way in the world as the pride of their family, and they are devastated when individuals' dreams are ruined (such as Irene's love interest in Tom and Silas' business empire).
"All civilization comes through literature now, especially in our country. A Greek got his civilization by talking and looking, and in some measure a Parisian may still do it. But we, who live remote from history and monuments, we must read or we must barbarize. Once we were softened, if not polished, by religion; but I suspect that the pulpit counts for much less now in civilizing."
This quote is spoken by Bromfield Corey to Tom when he and Tom are speaking of Tom's role in recommending books to the Lapham family (118). This quote is significant for a variety of reasons. First, its elitist and essentialist discourse sheds light on how many contemporary Americans viewed themselves—as part of a new society that is not to be constrained by the values or customs of the Old World, but rather be tempered or "softened" by the controlled consumption of limited knowledge. The fact that Bromfield suggests that religion used to be important in civilization but now is not so important as literature particularly reflects post-Enlightenment American thought and rationalism. Second, this quote frames the discussion of literature and Realist literature that will occur later at the dinner party. While Bromfield feels as if Romantic fiction like Tears,Idle Tears is successful for its lessons that are far-flung from common concerns, as he seems to also say in this quote, others (like Reverend Sewell) advocate that such idealism in literature is useless and elitist, not intimately concerned with portraying real life and teaching people how to navigate life. Thus, this quote in particular frames Bromfield not just as a socially regressive or stubborn thinker, but also a regressive or obstinate mind in a literary sense.
But it is the curse of prosperity that it takes work away from us, and shuts that door to hope and help of spirit. In this house, where everything had come to be done for her, she had no tasks to interpose between her and her despair.
This quote is used in the narrator's description of Persis after Penelope tells her that Tom has offered himself to her (231). It is significant because it sheds light on the complex ways in which wealth can actually deprive individuals of satisfaction and agency. After all, the same logic of inaction being talked of here is what blinds Persis and Silas to the truth of Tom's love for Penelope. Further, it is also what keeps Persis distant from Slias' business and eventually puts additional stress on him when she suspects Zerilla of having an affair with Silas. That the central illusion of the novel—that is, that the Laphams are rapidly advancing or rising when in reality they are struggling—is created by wealth itself and ultimately comes down to the disempowering force of money is one of the novel's great, multifaceted ironies.
"As long as this crisis decently kept its distance, I could look at it with an impartial eye; but now that it seems at hand, I find that, while my reason is still acquiescent, my nerves are disposed to—excuse the phrase—kick. I ask myself, what have I done nothing for, all my life, and lived as a gentleman should, upon the earnings of someone else, ini the possession of every polite taste and feeling that adorns leisure, if I'm to come to this at last?"
This quote is spoken by Bromfield to his wife Anna Corey after Tom's revelation that he has loved Penelope Lapham from the very start of their acquaintance (268). Like many of his earlier quotes, this quote sheds light on the depths of Bromfield's absorption with the "proper" customs of high society. Additionally, in this quote, one keenly feels Howells' comedic sensibility at work—after all, why should Bromfield have reason to complain about his own personal lack of achievement in the face of his son's business and personal successes? Most importantly, however, this quote is significant because it also touches on the themes of fate and will that are so prevalent throughout the text. As is evidenced here, Bromfield is unable to disabuse himself of the Romantic notion that not every event is connected or dependent in a way that makes sense; as such, all he can do is resign himself to fate while puzzling over how such a fate befell him. This contrasts with Silas' approach to what he sees as personal failures, taking a more realistic view of life and accounting also for blind chance as well as personal will and determination in sorting out how things came to pass.
Our theory of disaster, of sorrow, of affliction, borrowed from the poets and novelists, is that it is incessant; but every passage in our own lives and in the lives of others, so far as we have witnessed them, teaches us that this is false.
This is the beginning of a lengthy aside describing the Laphams' response to Silas' impending financial ruination, the whole of which warrants reading and reflection (306–307). It is significant because it explains exactly why Silas' financial and personal hardships were so taxing on him and his family—because they came in bouts, at times letting up and creating a false sense of security and at other times bearing down hard on Silas and the Laphams. This, moreover, is in line with Howells' Literary Realist ideal because tragedy is rarely as spectacular in real life as fantastical accounts and Romantic fiction make it out to be. Rather, loss and tragedy of any kind is like the sense of bereavement—always looming, but fairly inconstant in its intensity.
This thing and that is embittered to us, so that we may be willing to relinquish it; the world, life itself, is embittered to most of us, so that we are glad to have done with them at last; and this home was haunted with such memories to each of those who abandoned it that to go was less exile than escape.
This quote comes towards the end of the novel, as the Laphams prepare to leave their house in Nankeen Square and move back to Vermont (352-353). It is significant because it emphasizes how traumatic the entire experience of life in Boston's upper echelon was to the Lapham family. Just after this quote is uttered, Persis goes up to the girls' room and remarks that she cannot view it without thinking of Irene's sadness at finding out Tom did not love her. Further, Persis cannot look at Silas' desk without thinking of how hard he worked to try and escape his debts. In the end, however, Persis and the family are of the opinion expressed in this quote because they have realized that the entertainments of the wealthy world are hollow and—more often than not—simply material comforts. What good is a house, after all, if one cannot bear to live there because of the weight of their history with the house?
"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."
These are the final words of the novel, spoken by Silas in response to Reverend Sewell's inquiry as to whether he has any outstanding regrets (365). This quote is significant because, in a matter of a few words, it lays bare the very complex moral and psychological calculus that the novel has been attempting to resolve throughout. In this short phrase, Silas acknowledges that his "rise" was not always so glamorous, that chance played a significant role in his ascension to and fall from wealth, and that he still considers class society to be elite enough that—despite everything—his brief moment in the limelight was worth it. When readers go back through the novel and attempt to square Silas' comments and actions with his true thoughts on class, status, free will, and chance, this quote should always be weighed and returned to as a counterpoint.
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...