The novel begins as the journalist Bartley Hubbard goes to interview Silas Lapham, a successful paint tycoon, for a newspaper series on the "Solid Men of Boston." Silas' warm, provincial, and upstanding manner immediately endears him to Bartley, who feels at ease "instantly" in Silas' presence. While Silas is sentimental in talking about his family, spending a great deal of time lauding his hardworking siblings and rugged parents, Bartley is more cynical and sarcastic. He even goes so far as to tell Silas that he only cares about his rise into wealth. To Bartley, Silas is "just one million times more interesting to the public than if [he] hadn't a dollar" (4). Before their interview begins, a brief description of Silas is given by Bartley, which continues throughout the chapter. Silas is described as a rugged and strong countryman, with red hair, blue eyes, "huge" feet, and "massive shoulders" (4). Throughout their conversation, Silas also speaks to Bartley with a country accent that makes heavy use of informal diction and contractions.
As Silas begins to explain the circumstances of his birth in rural Vermont, Bartley begins immediately to type him as a typical country bumpkin, growing up poor and running around barefoot on the farm. Silas begins to talk about his mother and contrasts her with the more vapid and bored aristocratic women of their time, but Bartley is uninterested, pivoting the conversation towards the origins of Silas' paint business. Silas explains that his father found the paint under a tree on their property by chance in 1935, though nothing was done with the paint early on because all of Silas' siblings, including himself, initially went westward to make names for themselves. Silas shows Bartley a recent photo of his extended family in front of their Vermont home, but Bartley only seems to be interested in the attractiveness of the young women—a move that is to be repeated later in the chapter when Bartley takes notice of one of Lapham's attractive young workers.
Silas explains that when he grew tired of the West (specifically, Texas) after a few months, he returned to Vermont and shortly thereafter buried both of his parents. After taking a series of jobs in nearby Lumberville, he met his wife, the prudent and ambitious Persis Lapham, who worked as a schoolteacher. Silas reflects on how he and Persis rented the Vermont home to a disappointing Canadian, and he relates the story of how he and Persis rediscovered the paint on the property in 1855. An appraiser tells Silas that the paint is 75% "of the peroxide of iron," a mineral quality that allows it to be mostly fire and weatherproof. Silas then gives Bartley a tour of his factory, where he shows off a variety of brands and packaging, including "The Persis Brand," a high-quality paint named for Silas' wife. Bartley attempts to relate to Silas on the assumption that they have married similar types of women, but Silas asserts the hardiness, sagacity, and loyalty of his own wife. The interview then turns to Silas' more recent successes. Silas describes how his paint has been used to decorate rocks and other elements of local Vermont scenery. He also explains how Lumberville changed its name to Lapham after a significant donation.
The dialogue returns to more discussion of Silas' personal history. After his young son died and Persis had their first child, Silas was called on to serve in the Civil War and turn away from the business he cared for so dearly. He was injured at Gettysburg and jokes that the ball of the bullet in his thigh is "a thermometer" (16). Upon returning from the Civil War, Silas was forced to briefly take on a business partner for financial reasons; this displeased him greatly because he felt that the partner lacked know-how and family investment in the business. Silas, on the other hand, reaffirms his devotion to and faith in his paint products. This concludes their interview, but Silas then offers to take Bartley home in his horse-drawn carriage. He explains that he is on his way to a house that he and his family are building in the "New Land" (18). On the drive over, Bartley again attempts to relate to Silas on account of the similarity of Silas' horse to one Bartley used to ride, and Silas tells Bartley that he shall let him ride it on a different occasion.
Snippets of Bartley's spot on Silas are then given, showing that Bartley effusively compliments Silas as a simple and noble-minded businessman, who is a pious Christian and a devout Republican. He paints him satirically as industrious and as a prototypical "rags-to-riches" figure, showcasing especially the exclusivity and luxury of the house he is building on "the water side of Beacon street" (21). The chapter ends with Bartley finding a gift to his wife from Silas, samples of the Persis Brand paint. Bartley's wife, Marcia, rejoices in this gift and says that it will keep her occupied while she works at touching up their own new home on Clover street. While Marcia praises Silas and suggests that he is a good man, Bartley ends the chapter a bit more cynically, calling him an "old fool" (22) and suggesting that he may still make fun of Silas, given the chance.
Chapter 2 opens with a more intimate description of the Laphams' home life, starting with their house. The home is located in Nankeen Square in Boston's South End, and it was purchased from "a terrified gentleman of good extraction who discovered too late that the South End was not the thing" and who fled instead to the Back Bay (24). After this description, we are then told that the Laphams themselves first became aware of their house's unfashionable location and bad reputation among the elite the summer before the novel takes place, when Persis Lapham and her youngest daughter Irene went to Canada on vacation. While there, Persis took care of an ailing woman she met, also a mother from Boston there with her own two daughters. This woman's son, too, eventually arrived, and his urbane manner and attention to both Persis and Irene earned him favor with the Lapham women.
Attention is then given to the nature of the Lapham's social life and communal interactions—or, more fittingly, the lack thereof. Both Irene Lapham and her older sister Penelope went to school in the South End and did not attend a finishing school, putting them out of touch with other families of status in Boston. Moreover, while Irene is beautiful, shows a growing sexual or romantic awareness, and seems the type to want to participate in the courtship and social rituals of high-class society, her older sister Penelope is an autodidact who attends church lectures and prefers intellectual company to social company. Moreover, we are given a sense that the Lapham family is generally ignorant to the proper customs of Boston high society, since we are told that "the very strength of their mutual affection was a barrier to worldly knowledge" (27).
After this digression regarding the Lapham's social life, we return to the narrative shortly after the Lapham women encountered the other Boston family (later revealed to be the Coreys) in Canada and from them adopted many "novel point[s] of view" (28). Persis makes the case to Silas that the Coreys' manners were so polished and suave so as to make her feel "backwoods" and provincial (28). Silas responds with his belief that people like the Coreys are usually stuck up, but Persis shrugs this off as Silas tells her that they are far richer than the Coreys. That winter, the Corey women come to call on Mrs. Lapham and insinuate that the New Land or Beacon Hill are far more fashionable places to live. Persis relays this message to Silas, who reveals surprisingly that he has purchased land in the Back Bay and could be persuaded to build on it. Persis initially suggests that this might be the only way to ingratiate the girls into Boston high society and have them marry well, but then holds off on pressing Silas to build, citing the family's ruggedly individualist spirit as a reason.
Several months pass, and no communication occurs between the Coreys (who are still unnamed in the proper narrative) and the Laphams until, one day, the Coreys send the Laphams a "lithographed circular" that invites donations to "a charity of undeniable merit and acceptability" (31). Persis and Silas debate again the family's resources and how much money to give so as to seem both rich and unpretentious (i.e., how to give enough without showing off). This argument then leads Persis and Silas to once again discuss the merits of building a home on Beacon Street. Persis usually lays off of Silas and has "blind confidence" in his business acumen, but in this moment questions whether it is "unhealthy" in the Back Bay (32). Silas then gradually moves the conversation and argument towards moving to the Back Bay, and he suggests that they go to take a look at the lot. Importantly, Slias notes "the poison of ambition" that the move to Back Bay "instill[s] into [Persis'] mind" (33). Silas and Persis then gallop swiftly through Boston, see a stunning winter scene of high-class life on the Brighton road (35), and take a look at the lot. The chapter ends with the Lapham parents asking their daughters whether they'd like to move, and they seem to come to a resolution that they shall move to Back Bay.
Chapter 3 opens at the end of the winter, when Irene Lapham receives a newspaper from Texas, where the wealthy man who paid her a great deal attention in Canada (later revealed to be Tom Corey) is alleged to be staying. The Laphams wonder together if such a gesture can be taken as the high-class equivalent of a love letter, but their social isolation and naïveté leaves them uncertain.
What follows this brief section is then a lengthy interlude where Silas and Persis Lapham are actively engaged in the process of building their next home on Beacon Street. Silas enters the planning session having spoken with a master builder and having developed an interest in black walnut and other finishes he has seen in the houses where he conducts business. However, by an "obscure" process, Silas and Persis have wound up not with a master builder but with an architect, who gradually persuades them that everything Silas thought to be fashionable is out of date or regressive. Persis is quick to change her thinking to be in line with the architect, but Silas shows some initial resistance, especially when the architect suggests that black walnut is ugly and could be painted white to spruce up the home (42). Still, though the Laphams are ignorant in general of architectural fashions and styles, they quickly acquiesce to the architect and accept his suggestions for the home, after which a brief reflection on the architect's manipulation of upper-class intimacy is offered (43).
When ground breaks on the Laphams' new home in late spring and early summer, many of the residents of the Beacon Hill area have already left for their summer homes, but the Laphams remain behind in order to watch the progress on their house. One summer day, however, Silas and Persis run into a Mr. Rogers, who is revealed later to be Silas' former business partner. The couple interacts with Mr. Rogers perfunctorily, during which he indicates that he and his wife are thinking of moving back to Boston from Chicago, where they have been until recently.
After their conversation with Mr. Rogers, Persis runs to shelter and is seen crying intensely. When Silas asks her what the matter is later in their carriage, Persis replies that she feels guilty for having financially ruined Mr. Rogers. It seems that when Silas took Rogers on as a business partner, Rogers was never welcomed properly, and Silas essentially only took him on for short-term financial assistance with the long-term goal of kicking him out of their business. Silas gave Rogers the option to either be crowded out or buy his way out of the business, but Persis suggests that this was a greedy move because it was unlikely that Mr. Rogers would have been able to buy his way out of the business at all. Silas asks Persis what right she has to meddle, and insists that it was he himself who made his successes.
As the chapter closes, Persis states her refusal to live in a home that will be built on success earned from Mr. Rogers' money, which she feels was unfairly taken without reward or recompense. In her own words, she refuses to live in the house because "there's blood on it."
As Kermit Vanderbilt writes in his introduction to the text, the first chapter of the text, which "has rightly been admired since the initial reviews and on to the present day," acts together with the other opening chapters as "an operatic overture" that foreshadows and lays the groundwork for the personal and social disputes that underlay the rest of the novel. Particularly evident among these are the role of the newspaper (and its representative, Bartley Hubbard) in making personal information public; an obsessive public focus on wealth, class, and status during the Gilded Age; the urge to fit someone or their story into a specific type or mold; the role of free will and determination in shaping success, as opposed chance and luck; the divide between rural and urban America; and the complicated nature of womanhood in Victorian society. From the very beginning of the novel, Howells deploys a variety of techniques to bring these themes and concerns to the forefront of his narrative. For example, while Bartley Hubbard takes care throughout the first chapter to describe Silas as rustic and unpretentious, yet strong and physically rugged, this appeal to Silas as a somewhat naive and hardworking man (who believes in "the simple virtues of the Old Testament and Poor Richard's Almanac") is complicated by a variety of factors (5).
First, the vision presented of Silas as an icon of rugged masculinity is complicated not only by the fact that it was not even he who discovered the paint on his family property (a distinction which falls on his father, Nehemiah), but also by the admiration that Silas reserves for his hardworking mother. Silas' simultaneous reverence for his mother and his reference to the fact that many Victorian women find their lives "stunted and empty" form some of the novel's first cues about the complex, diverse, and fraught status of women in Victorian society, especially as exacerbated by the issues of class and urban privilege (7). Importantly, too, Silas' discussion of his mother bores Bartley—whereas later, Bartley is intensely preoccupied with the beauty of Silas' daughter Penelope in a photo (8) and with Silas' attractive female assistant (18). This picture of Bartley as both nonchalantly dismissive of powerful women—including Lapham's own ambitious wife, Persis—and obsessed with beautiful women is especially significant because Bartley comes to be realized throughout the first chapter as a foil for Silas Lapham, particularly in moments where the two are physically close ("so near that their knees almost touched" (3)) and in moments where the two are linked by common elements of their life circumstances, such as the similarity of the horses they both rode (19). This picture of Bartley also makes all the more significant his description of Persis Lapham in the article that he writes: "one of those women who, in whatever walk of life, seem born to honor the name of American Woman, and to redeem it from the national reproach of Daisy Millerism" (21).
Later on in the opening chapters of the the novel, these comments on the nature of womanhood in the immediate circle of the Lapham family deepen as we get a first-hand look at each of the two Lapham daughters. Irene Lapham, the younger daughter, is presented as a very plain girl who only recently blossomed into mature good looks. We are told that she takes easily to domestic life and somewhat rejects the pursuit of intellectual knowledge, and her parents want her to marry well and help the family enter Boston high-society after a long period of isolation and independence. She stands in as emblematic of Gilded Age social conventions regarding well-to-do young women. Alternatively, her older sister Penelope, who is a bit more focused on intellectual life rather than social life, stands in as an emblem of Gilded Age heterodoxy, a forward-thinking and liberated woman who has the wit and adventurous spirit associated with the newly monied mercantile class. At the same time that we are given these portraits of the Lapham daughters however, we are also importantly given more information about the fraught nature of Persis' ambitions for her family. For example, Persis' continued assertions that Tom Corey "paid [her] as much attention as he did [Irene]," as well as her continued admiration for and desire to be ingratiated with the Coreys, suggests a hint of sexual jealousy on Irene's behalf and a possible attraction to Tom, something which gains later importance as Persis grows suspicious of her own husband (28). Moreover, when Silas first begins to come around to moving to Beacon Street in Chapter 2, he notes the "poison of ambition" in Persis' face (33). It is likely that this "poison," the desire to compete and scrape elbows with the wealthy in a public setting, is what Persis herself alludes to when she mentions that it is "unhealthy" on the New Land (32).
Second, the idea that Silas is naive and completely unpretentious as a member of the rising business class is complicated both by his vindictiveness against more established monied interests and by the shadiness of his business practices with Mr. Rogers. In Chapter 2, Silas makes clear to Persis that he believes the Coreys to be idle and overprivileged—"I guess he ain't in anything"—while at the same time asserting his own monetary superiority to the Coreys—"I could buy him and sell him, twice over" (28). Silas' eagerness to assert his own wealth also resurfaces when the Coreys send over their charity pamphlet (31) and when asserting his fancy for ornate embellishments during his conversation with his architect in Chapter 3. Also in Chapter 3, when Persis lambasts Silas for his earlier treatment of Mr. Rogers, far from being an upstanding and moral businessman, Silas is called "greedy" and hammers home his belief that he alone is responsible for having "made the success" he has enjoyed in the paint industry (47). Moreover, because the conflict over the nature of Silas' enjoyment and displays of his success necessarily touches on issues of status and the urban-rural divide, the scenes in which the Laphams discuss how best to use their money or how best to participate in elite Boston society necessarily also shed light on the divide between the modes of life between traditional, wealthy Boston society (i.e., "Boston Brahmin" society) who have always enjoyed privilege and new money families who have come into privilege more recently. A core symbol of this debate over status and how it is performed comes to reside in the Lapham's house on the New Land.
Third, this idea of success—as well as the debate over whether it is willed, gained through chance, or earned through collaboration with others—becomes an important motif in itself during the first few chapters. While it is clear from Chapter 1 onward that the fortune of the Lapham family rests on an accident (Nehemiah's discovery of the paint on the family property), less clear is the extent to which Silas' fortune in the paint industry is the result of hard work or of mere chance. Certainly Bartley Hubbard portrays Silas as someone who wastes not even a minute of his time as he attempts to capitalize on business opportunities (which is, again, itself part of the "rags-to-riches" stereotype), but there is a great deal of Silas' success and social mobility that cannot be explained by effort alone. His impending move to Back Bay is itself initially catalyzed by the chance encounter of his family with the Coreys in Canada, and the chance encounter with Mr. Rogers in Chapter 3 sheds light on the significant assistance that Rogers once offered to Silas' business.
Chance and luck are also explored in these opening chapters insofar as the successes and misfortunes of others are chalked up to either good or ill fortune. The Coreys' wealth, for example, is characterized by Silas as continued good fortune, since they do not have an active business to support their wealthy lifestyles and habits. Additionally, the gentleman whose home the Laphams purchased in the South End might be said to have made an unfortunate error in purchasing where he did without full knowledge of the neighborhood. Without either of these chance occurrences happening to others, however, the Laphams would not have experienced the trajectory that they do into high society from a humble origin in rural Vermont. The novel's exploration of these ideas and concepts at such an early stage thus sheds light on the precariousness and fragility of status in the Gilded Age, something which might otherwise appear sturdy or rigid on a surface level.
Finally, sitting at the intersection of all these central concerns is the highly symbolic motif of paint. Paint is described as the thing which allows man to exert his will over the natural world, as when Silas describes the decorative painting of rocks in Vermont (14-15), but it is also described as something that allows individuals to exert control over their fellow men. For example, instead of using black walnut to decorate the Lapham house, the architect suggests painting the wood to produce a more striking visual effect. More abstractly, when Bartley and Silas have their interview in Chapter 1, Bartley asks Silas whether he has ever "tried [paint] on the human conscience"—a direct inquiry into whether Silas is a manipulative or secretive business partner (12). Paint is the thing, discovered by chance, which creates a surface impression of wealth or status, but also the thing which can hide an unpleasant or ugly interior. Further, paint's association with specific individuals throughout the text (as in the case of The Persis Brand) and with religion itself ("you had made paint your god" (47)) sheds light on how the idea of concealment or distraction is to be developed further in relation to these characters and themes throughout the novel.