As Chapter 20 opens, Persis has just returned from her week in Lapham with Irene. She tells Silas that Irene remained mostly stoic and silent after they departed Boston, and Silas says that he will take Irene with him when he heads to the West for business in the coming days. When Persis inquires after Penelope, Silas tells her that Penelope still seems hesitant to yield to Tom's advances. Persis then herself sees Penelope in person, and Penelope tells her mother that she and Tom are engaged, though she is not excited about it in the least. Persis mentions this inactivity on Penelope's part to Silas and contrasts it with Irene's constant activity when he returns from work. The two then formalize their plan for Silas to take Irene west, where Silas will be made to deal with Mr. Rogers' latest business failure (for which Silas lent him money).
Explaining this failure further, Silas tells Persis that Rogers had sold him some milling properties on the P. Y. & X. Road. Silas anticipated being able to fetch a decent price for the mills eventually, but the G., L., and P. Railroad recently purchased the P., Y., and X., essentially leaving Silas at the mercy of the railroad to sell the mills for whatever price they will offer (thus making Silas lose money). Silas suspects that Rogers knew about the railroad's plans for the road when he offloaded the mills on Silas. Persis tells Slias that she wonders if Rogers would have ever entered into such shady business practices if it were not for Silas' earlier mistreatment of him as a partner. Silas responds coldly by telling Persis to ready his bags.
The narrative point of view then switches to the Corey home, where Tom accosts his mother one evening on her way up to the bedroom. They discuss Tom's engagement to Penelope, an event which Anna seems to fatalistically accept. She inserts some brief points about her disappointment regarding the Laphams' upbringing, but she has resigned herself to making Tom happy, even if it will bring her personal difficulty. Tom then tells his mother about the Laphams' mistaken assumption that he was interested in Irene all the while. Anna responds by saying that all the Coreys thought this to be the case as well. Tom is shocked, telling Anna that he was only nice to Irene for his mother's sake and explaining that he loves Penelope for how true her heart is and how unsparing she has been in her self-critique. Anna closes by telling Tom that she will discuss the engagement with Bromfield.
When Anna does eventually talk to Bromfield, he too seems fatalistically resigned to letting the marriage happen. He says that they can rationalize Tom's love for Penelope and not Irene as a kind of "second marriage" to make it seem more socially acceptable in their minds (268). They then change the topic of conversation towards their outstanding dislike for the Laphams' conversation, background, and upbringing. Bromfield even laments the marriage as a personal failure, saying that he feels as if his entire aristocratic upbringing, living "upon the earnings of somebody else," has been a failure in leading to this (268). They then become more optimistic—yet also vain—in suggesting that, while Irene's saving quality would have been her beauty, Penelope's might be her brains. Bromfield then accuses Anna of liking the Laphams, after all. As the chapter closes, the two discuss when they might meet Penelope, as well as whether Penelope has told Tom about Anna's bad conduct on the day of her visit to Nankeen Square.
Two weeks later, Silas returns from the West in bad spirits. At his office, Walker tells Tom Corey about the economic "cold wave" that is sure to come for their business (271). The paint business is seeing shrinkage and economic losses, and—on top of this—Mr. Rogers' latest venture has caused Silas additional money troubles. After hearing about these issues, Tom is surprisingly anticipatory and happy, thinking that he can perhaps ingratiate himself with Penelope further by offering her family financial help. Walker closes by saying that another reason Silas' business is in trouble is because of his upstanding character and refusal to fire anyone or cut pay, regardless of circumstance.
Later that afternoon, Mr. Rogers himself arrives at Silas' place of work and asks to see him. Tom notes that, despite his economic imprudence, he appears to be the picture of sagacity and good judgement. After initially being turned away, Rogers is eventually shown into Silas' office, where Silas flies into a fury and confronts him about the railroad. Silas tells Rogers that he will ditch the milling properties and sell off Rogers' collateral, and to show that he is not bluffing, he calls a worker in to send the securities off to the broker. Rogers' only rebuttal of Silas' rage is that there is some potential interest in the milling properties from some English buyers, but Silas himself is skeptical of this assertion. Towards the end of the day, Silas appears to be even more despondent and leaves the office as a sense of "trouble" establishes itself (276).
Back at home, Silas tells Persis over dinner that he is in quite a "fix," though he will not elaborate or explain how serious it is (276). This time, Persis herself accepts responsibility for getting Silas back in with Rogers, but he too wants to claim some of the responsibility. Silas tells Persis that they are in such dire straits that he will need to freeze construction on their new home. They then discuss the potential of Rogers to recover Silas' money, and they talk about whether his offer of English buyers is true or false. Persis remains optimistic, while Silas remains skeptical, more scared in his middle age of financial ruin.
Later, in bed, Silas and Persis stir "in the middle of the night" to talk about the English buyers (279). Persis tells Silas that it would be immoral business to sell to the Brits while knowing that the railroad is about to come in, and Silas agrees with her—his conscience will not allow him to engage in shady business to save his own finances. As the chapter closes, Persis asks Silas if he has considered asking a friend or family member for money, but Silas tells her that he would be too embarrassed to do so.
The next morning, Persis receives a letter from Irene, now in Dubuque, telling of her possible interest in her cousin Will. Persis asks Penelope how she would feel about Irene marrying a cousin, and Penelope is nonchalant and apathetic. This causes Persis to fly into a rage at Penelope's brooding inaction and melancholy, and she tells Penelope that she needs her help to cheer Silas up in the face of their economic hardship. Penelope finally yields and says she will come down, but before she does so, she writes a note to Tom telling him not to call on her again until she says so.
At supper, Penelope is able to raise her father's spirits, and they take a trip to the theater as a nice distraction from all the trouble they are facing in both the business and personal spheres. Persis tells Silas of Irene's letter, and a brief glimmer of hope appears to them with this news, as well as Penelope's resumption of her normal behavior. Walker, too, notes this brief reprieve in the office. However, alternating bouts of good and ill fortune begin to wear on Silas over time, just as the winter weather fluctuates, and he becomes irritable and even more secretive. Meanwhile, Penelope wonders to herself whether Tom is obeying her letter, and if so, when he will call again.
Penelope assumes a greater role in the business, with Silas bringing home papers and figures for her to do arithmetic with, since he does not want to show them to Persis. This, combined with fluctuating news of Irene in Dubuque, contributes to the greater linking of Silas' personal and business lives; when one feels a shock, so too does the other. Amidst this chaos, Silas wavers on his moralistic decision to not sell the mills to the British without informing them of the railroad, but Persis talks him down from this. After doing so, however, Persis discovers a paper on the floor with payments being made out continually to a "Wm. M." As the chapter ends, Persis is initially suspicious of Silas and keeps the paper in a "work-basket," but she eventually forgets its existence, and so does Silas (285).
As the winter weather remains bitter, Silas' business and personal life continue to take hits. Silas notes that Tom has not been calling as frequently, and he notes Penelope's superficial happiness, so he opens up to her about his troubles. The narrator informs us, however, that Silas does not notice Penelope's severe mood swings—providing evidence that Penelope is not as unburdened as Silas thinks. Silas asks Persis why Penelope does not simply marry Tom, and he confesses that he has even thought of asking the Coreys' for financial help. They debate selling the mills once again, and then move their discussion to the new house, which Silas says has "got to go" (287). Persis knows that this has been weighing heavily on Silas' heart, though she has not spoken a word to him about it.
Silas goes on to tell Persis that he will have to shut down the works, and he tells her that the paint industry is saturated with competition from West Virginia that can put out an equal paint at a lower price. After Silas storms away from the table, Persis remembers the paper in the work-basket, and she retrieves it to confront him. Persis asks Silas directly who Wm. M. is, but he refuses to say, tearing the paper up and putting it into the fire. Still, Persis retrieves one of these pieces from the fire and notes that the paper says "Mrs. M." (289). She is even more suspicious of Silas and grows to wonder if he is having an affair with another woman. She confronts Silas about this, and he is again vague. Persis grows incredibly angry with Silas as a result.
The next day, Silas meets with Tom at the company and tells him to give up on the paint business. On the contrary, Tom tells Silas of his increased faith in the business and his desire to invest $30,000 into it. Silas will not take Tom's money with a good conscience, even though Uncle Jim has tacitly approved by telling Tom that he can make his own financial decisions. Just after Silas' meeting with Tom, a haggard woman shows up with Zerilla Dewey and demands that Silas give them the money to pay their rent. Silas tells this woman, Zerilla's mother, that she has gone about getting this money in the wrong way and that he will have her arrested if she ever returns. This scene inspires great suspicion among Silas' workers, with Walker even going so far as to suggest that Silas is engaged in shady practices with the women, since he will not put Zerilla Dewey's name on the books. Tom rebuffs Walker's thoughts, however, by saying that Silas was not acting as someone who is in danger of being exposed for acting disgracefully. In fact, though it is not explicitly stated here, we know that Tom is right, since Zerilla's name not being on the books and "Mrs. M." are evidence that Silas is supporting these women financially for Jim Millon's earlier sacrifice during the Civil War. Their arrangement has the outward appearance of something unsavory, but it really provides evidence of Silas' upstanding character.
That evening, Silas speaks with Zerilla, who expresses concern about her husband Hen, a drunken sailor recently back from a voyage (reminiscent of the man at the end of Chapter 8). Silas and Zerilla talk about how, if he could just get Hen away for a longer time period, Zerilla's friend Mr. Wemmel would marry her and save her family financially. In the meantime, however, Hen and Mrs. Millon have been spending all of the family's money on liquor, an issue that Silas resolves to address.
At six o'clock, Silas calls on Zerilla and company, walking through their bad neighborhood of "depots, [...] cheap hotels, and 'ladies' and gents'' dining rooms" (295). He confronts Mrs. Millon about the bottle she has under her apron, and he argues with her about her and Hen's drinking habits. Mrs. Millon wavers on her support of Hen, at times supporting him and at others saying that, were it not for Hen, she and Zerilla could enjoy financial security at Wemmel's hands. She even asks Silas whether they should get Wemmel to pledge marriage to Zerilla in a morally dubious contract so that they can have promise of a wedding as soon as she gets divorced. Moreover, she guilts Silas about Jim's sacrifice, saying that Silas ought not to extort them in this way to earn his financial support. On his way out from this chaotic scene, Silas encounters Rogers but does not speak to him.
Back at home, Silas confesses to Persis that he has been playing the stock market and that he has been selling on margin, both of which have financially ruined him. Persis presses him to confess about the affair she suspects him of having, but he does not understand what she is pressing him over, and he tells her that he has nothing more to confess. Persis seems to forgive him, and they discuss Penelope and Tom once more. As the chapter closes, Persis resolves to tell Penelope of Tom's financial offer.
If The Rise of Silas Lapham can be said to ironically detail Silas' fall from wealth and status, rather than his rise, then Chapters 20–23 form an important part of this irony because they constitute the novel's own falling action. In other words, these chapters, set after the climax of the Coreys' dinner party, serve as the bridge between the climax (as well as the immediate fallout from that climax) and the conclusion that follows. Because of this, and because they attest to the growing dissolution of Silas' life in high society, these chapters primarily deal with the unmaking or falling apart of some of the themes that were earlier so central to Silas' ways of life. These include the crumbling of the family unit, the dissolution or cessation of courtship, the growing cost of maintaining secrecy, and Silas' ruination as a result of failing to engage in immoral business practices.
To speak to the first point, these chapters see a great deal of separation and dissolution in the Lapham family, the Corey family, and even the Millon family. Starting in Chapter 20 and continuing on, Irene becomes separated from the rest of the Laphams and is only heard from in the form of letters sent from Lapham and Dubuque. Starting in Chapter 22, Penelope tells Tom not to call on her anymore. Starting also in Chapter 22, Persis begins to suspect that Silas is having an affair with Mrs. M. Additionally, the business troubles that Silas experiences in these chapters become directly linked to his family troubles as he both brings literal business materials into his house (284-285) and figuratively carries the spirit of business into his home with his bad moods. The tight separation of the family and work spheres that both maintain an aristocratic family like the Coreys and was respected by the Laphams at the novels' opening here begins to yield, and both family and business begin to suffer as a result.
In these chapters, the Coreys and Millons also experience family troubles of their own, although their issues are of a totally different character. Bromfield and Anna struggle in Chapter 20 to reconcile their distaste for the Laphams with their love for their son, and they seem to be quite distant from Tom at the chapter's beginning. The Millons, on the other hand, experience a great deal of financial and personal trouble because of both Molly Millon's alcoholism and Hen Dewey's return from sea. Thus, no matter the circumstances, these chapters see a large curbing of family unity and cohesion that was once a motif and central to the novel.
It is also worth mentioning that courtship and romance, two central ideas in the novel's earlier portions, also reach a breaking point in these chapters. We have already seen how Penelope's cessation of contact with Tom damages their romantic relationship, but the issues run much deeper than this. Even before this cessation, for example, their relationship has taken a grim turn, with Penelope saying in Chapter 20 that she feels their engagement to be "a last will and testament" (259). Particularly interesting, however, is what happens to their relationship after they cease communications. After Tom and Penelope stop speaking, their relationship itself becomes economic, providing an opportunity for the Laphams to get out of their financial troubles as well as an avenue for Tom to win the Laphams over through charity. Here too, then, is another place in which the personal and business worlds leak into one another—to all parties' detriment.
Also in these chapters, the division of public and private that has heretofore centrally occupied Howells becomes heightened and fraught. Silas' continued ruination is partially due to his failure to ask friends and family for financial assistance (280). It is also partially due to Rogers' failure to disclose the railroad plan that threatens the value of the milling properties. Moreover, Persis' hatred for Silas and her suspicions of his affair are only deepened by her refusal to speak to him directly about it. Finally, on the note of Silas' dealings with Zerilla, these chapters represent the first instance of these private dealings becoming public when Molly and Zerilla storm in during Chapter 23. Thus, the secrecy that has heretofore been treasured and preserved in the name of decorum is here abandoned and troubled at a significant cost to the Laphams. It is also, of course, no coincidence that secrecy is threatened just as paint—heretofore symbolic of secrecy and maintaining appearances—and the house on Beacon Street—symbolic of these same outward performances and displays of wealth and status—are threatened by the marketplace.
On the note of Silas' business, these chapters are key in showing that, despite his inflated sense of self-worth and vulgar manners, Silas is an upstanding businessman who refuses to engage in the dubious practices of the Gilded Age. Though he wavers on the idea of selling the mills to potential British buyers without informing them of the railroad's plan, a great deal of attention is paid to Silas and Persis' ultimate refusal to do so. While others, like Mr. Rogers, are able to act less than truthfully in business and save themselves time and again, the Laphams' commitment to honesty and integrity stand out as unique. Moreover, it is this same unique commitment to honesty and morality that ruins Silas in the end, not only because of his refusal to sell the mills but also because of his refusal to cut wages or fire his workers.
Finally, because it develops importantly in these chapters as a key motif for understanding Silas' personal and professional struggles, it is worth pointing out the weather in these chapters. While more idyllic chapters of the novel are set in the summer or early fall, this most harsh recollection of Silas' misfortunes occurs during the winter, a season of loss and stagnation. Specifically, we are told that his winter is particularly bitter and also sees a great deal of oscillation or variation in its severity. This directly parallels Silas' consistently difficult experiences in these chapters, as well as the brief respites that punctuate his overwhelming disappointment in both the business and family realms.