The Rise of Silas Lapham

The Rise of Silas Lapham Summary and Analysis of Chapters 24–27


Chapter 24

Chapter 24 opens with James Bellingham paying a visit to Tom Corey on Silas' behalf, urging him to not put money into the paint business on account of Silas' financial difficulties. James remarks that, in this instance, Silas is behaving like a proper gentleman. When Tom questions whether Silas is truly in such a difficult place, James informs Tom that it is likely that Lapham always overestimated his worth from the beginning on account of his naiveté. However, even though it is very possible that no sum of money will get Silas out of the hole he is in, James will assist him in figuring out his finances to the best of his ability. Tom wonders if Penelope has knowledge of the financial offer he made to Silas. Coincidentally, at the same time that he wonders this, Persis is just telling Penelope about the offer.

Penelope tells Persis that she thinks Tom's offer is particularly silly, but she seems won over by how sweet Tom is acting. A particularly comedic moment then follows, when Persis tells Silas that if Tom were to repeat his offer (of marriage), she thinks that Penelope would marry him. Silas, however, mistakes Persis' use of the word "offer" to mean the financial assistance that Tom had suggested providing to the Lapham family. A letter then comes from Irene, which aptly tells Penelope that she should move on from Tom and not "be foolish" (302). After Persis and Penelope talk about this letter and Tom's financial offer over, Penelope then goes to her room and writes two letters to Tom, one long and flattering and one short and curt. She ultimately destroys both of these, however, and chooses to speak with Persis about how best to respond. When Penelope tells Persis about the note she wrote to Tom, urging him not to come again unless called, Persis yells at Penelope and says that she is acting like a "disgusting simpleton" with regards to her own interests (304). Penelope can only meekly respond to these accusations by saying that she thought Silas would already be bankrupt, and that she told Tom to stay away because she realized that there was no chance for them if Silas was poor. Moreover, she adds that her common sense of what is right and wrong completely fades away when she is acting in her own interest, as opposed to acting for others' benefit.

Penelope dashes out a third, short note to Tom thanking him for the offer but urging him to think about the impossibility of their relationship should Silas be poor. Tom replies that evening, only saying that he loves Penelope regardless of her father's financial circumstances. Still, Penelope replies to this letter rejecting Tom and urging him never to call on her again. Persis then tells Silas of this interaction, and in response, he says that he understands Penelope's mood in the context of their financial uncertainties. In reading her last note, the Coreys themselves even acknowledge that Penelope is behaving "very well" (306). A lengthy section then begins detailing the gradual and steady disintegration of Silas' remaining wealth, comparing it to the slow process of someone dying from a chronic illness. Despite the adversity he faces, however, Silas still hopes to set all the financial and personal issues in his household right. Moreover, Persis and Silas take consolation in the fact that Irene is not there to weather the hardship with them and that Penelope was resilient enough to turn down Tom Corey.

Silas then begins to think about to how resolve his financial situation with the assistance of James Bellingham. James suggests that Silas use an assignment, but Silas is unable to agree to this. Silas thinks about all the predatory businessmen and creditors that he is surrounded by, and he decides that the best thing he can do would be to sell his new home. This, after all, will cause the least comment and make the smallest stir among the well-to-do. Silas goes to the broker just after leaving Bellingham, and he says that he will only put the house on the market if it is not described and if he remains anonymous as the seller. When the broker tells Silas that many others have made this same stipulation, Silas is comforted and does not feel so isolated in his poverty. Thinking he might eventually have the gall to go back and take the house off the market, he never does and receives almost immediate interest from a potential buyer. This discomforts Silas and brings him to think that, after all, he cannot part with the house. He goes after work one day to look at the house for a final time.

Once there, Silas then thinks at length about the symbol of the house, and how it seems to represent all of his pretensions and hopes to join high society and find success. He thinks about how Irene ominously said that she would never live there, and he also thinks about how the house served as his aesthetic education and first foray into ideas and concepts about design. He enters the home and looks around, noting among other things the scent of his own paint. He then looks out the bay windows and notes the Cambridge scenery, after which he resolves to test the chimney in the music room (since it had already been tested upstairs and downstairs). Thinking this test successful, Silas sits for a bit and thinks up a plan to buy out his competition in West Virginia. Suddenly, some police officers enter, thinking Silas an intruder, but they are quickly assuaged in their fear by Silas and exit.

After leaving the house, Silas goes home and tells Persis that he has a plan to save himself financially. In a brief moment of reprieve, he and Penelope go to the theater and enjoy themselves. After leaving the theater, however, Silas and Penelope come upon a stir in the area of Beacon Street. It seems that there is an immense fire, and Silas recognizes almost immediately that the fire is in his new home. Some pedestrians and onlookers comment derisively about Slias' failure to fireproof the home, and Penelope fails to whisk Silas away in a carriage. He walks home dejectedly and meets with Persis, who says that people are likely to think he burned the house down for insurance money. He tells Persis that this could not be the case, however, because his insurance policy on the house expired a week prior.

Chapter 25

Silas wakes the day after the fire in a depressed haze. The morning papers cover the fire at the Beacon Street house, and they even expose the truth about Silas' expired insurance policy. Silas visits the burned shell of the house, but he is still slightly optimistic. He has faith that he will be able to buy out the West Virginia competition, since they are naive and do not have much capital as of yet. James Bellingham, however, tells Silas that this is likely an idle hope and that he should sell his own business out to the competition. Silas rejects this idea, however, as part of "that conspiracy by which Lapham's creditors were trying to drive him to the wall" (316). He feels isolated and alone in the world and wishes to deal no more with aristocrats of James Bellingham or Tom Corey's ilk.

Impulsively, Slias goes to New York to meet with the West Virginia competition, two brothers who have an office there. He can read their naiveté and knows that they do not know what a bonanza their business is yet, so he makes them three offers. He offers to either buy them out, sell to them, or to join their business interests and form a partnership. They think on this for a while, and Lapham sees a great deal of himself in these rugged country men, who look at the world with the "same amused, undaunted, provincial eyes" as he once did (318). Pending the approval of a third brother at Kanawha Falls in West Virginia, they decide to partner with Lapham for an investment of capital. This soothes Lapham, who feels that in his old age, he cannot afford another ruin or great risk. He thinks to himself about all the immense personal and financial losses he has incurred recently. Upon going home, however, Silas realizes that he cannot raise the capital he needs to partner with the brothers, since his friends refuse to lend to him. His vanity prevents him from continuing to go around and ask for money, and he thinks even of selling both his house and the vacant lot as securities to raise money. He regrets his kindness towards others, since it has only brought him financial misfortune.

The next day, however, his luck seems to change when someone buys one of the patents of Mr. Rogers. Later, Rogers himself arrives to tell Silas that the English buyers are real and coming into town to discuss the mill properties with Silas. He says that they are willing to buy at full price, but also tells Silas that he has not told them of the railroad's potential interest in the area. Silas tries to rebuff Rogers, but he tells Silas that he must at least meet with the men at Young's, and give them a reason that he will not sell to them. Silas eventually assents and goes to meet the men, immediately telling them of Roger's scoundrel behavior. Shockingly, however, they do not believe him, do not care, or else see Silas' refusal to sell as a negotiating tactic. They plan on building a colonial commune by the milling properties and maintain interest for a fair figure, but Silas does not think he can trust these men. Something about them strikes Silas as incredibly untrustworthy, and he still cannot bring himself to deal with them or the wealthy patrons they represent. The men insist that Silas stay and drink a while with them, but he recalls the embarrassment of his drinking at the Coreys' and leaves without ceremony. On his way home, he reflects that this pivotal decision of whether or not to sell rests on him and him alone.

Upon reaching his home, however, Silas is surprised to find Mr. Rogers crying to Persis and making a plea to her. Silas asks what Rogers is on about, and he tells Silas that, if this deal falls through, he and his invalid wife—as well as his children—will be ruined. Silas looks to Persis for counsel, but she seems swayed by Rogers or else still blames Silas for his earlier mistreatment of Rogers. He tries to send Persis to bed as Rogers tries to convince him that selling would be fair for all parties involved. When this does not work, Rogers appeals to the past and tries to guilt Silas into helping him out in this instance. When this too fails, Rogers himself offers to buy the property back at full price so that Silas would not have any legal liabilities, even if the sale goes poorly. At this, Silas commands Persis out of the room, since she seems curious at all that Rogers is saying. When Silas and Rogers are alone, however, Rogers refuses to tell Silas what he would do with the property if Silas sold it back to him. Silas asks for more time to decide, and Rogers leaves. Persis asks Silas throughout the night if he needs help or counsel, but Silas puzzles alone over the decision all night. In the morning, Silas goes into the office and finds the railroad's offer for the mills, which significantly lowers the value of the properties and also precludes Lapham's willingness to sell to the shady Englishmen. Rogers arrives and looks over the offer, then accuses Silas of ruining him again. As the chapter closes, Silas reflects again that his steadfast morals have brought him only the sensation of feeling "like a thief and murderer" (332).

Chapter 26

Chapter 26 sees Silas still struggling to raise the money to make out well with the West Virginia company. James Bellingham suggests that Silas go out to Kanawha Falls to see what he is getting involved with, but Silas tells James that he only has 24 hours to close the deal. Silas then rushes to go meet with the brothers again and ask for more time, and on his way out of the office allows Zerilla Dewey to work in his office. Afterwards, Persis arrives at Silas' workplace to apologize for her lack of support the previous evening. She feels that her innate tendency to judge people immediately as either right or wrong has blinded her in the specific case of Rogers, and she has decided that she wants to tell Silas of her support, no matter what he decides. She has not been to Silas' business in a while, and she yearns for the days of the past when she was well acquainted with his profession.

When Persis realizes that Silas is not there, she is incredibly disappointed. Additionally, she is furious at the sight of Zerilla, a young and beautiful woman, sitting familiarly in her husband's office while he is away. This is only made worse by Zerilla's indifference to Persis' presence. When Persis asks after Lapham, Zerilla is curt but springs to attention upon realizing that Persis is Mr. Lapham's wife. Persis leaves and is deeply suspicious of this young woman, and she wonders with a feverish passion about who she could possibly be and what Silas has to do with her. That night, Persis receives an anonymous letter saying that she should "ask [her] husband about his lady copying-clerk" (337). This sends her into even greater rage and suspicion that Silas is cheating on her, and she passes the night in a furious rage. The next day, when Silas returns from New York, Persis attacks him as soon as he enters the home, but Silas only tells Persis that he would never accuse her of acting dishonestly. He tells her further to investigate for herself exactly what Zerilla is doing at his office, which angers Persis even more.

After waking from a rage-induced faint, Persis finds that Silas has fled from the house hastily, and she rushes to his office in the hopes of catching him there. She thinks deluded, evil, and vindictive thoughts about Silas, but correctly connects Zerilla to the payments to Mrs. M. When Persis barges in on Zerilla a second time, however, she immediately recognizes her without her veil and is shocked to see her there. Zerilla tells Persis all about the help Silas has been providing to her and her mother, and she tells Persis about her recent issues with Hen and Mr. Wemmel. Persis is still shocked, since she had earlier made Silas give up helping the "hussy" Molley Dewey and her daughter, so long as she lives with her mother (340-341). Silas had been helping them because of Jim Millon's sacrifice, and had earlier told Persis that he had settled them in a port to make an honest living.

Upon realizing that Silas was deluding her only out of kindness and good intent, Persis forgives Silas internally and chats at length with Zerilla. After leaving Zerilla, Tom Corey sees that Persis is faint and escorts her to a carriage. Persis then weathers the rest of the day thinking about Silas' pure heart and worries about where he might have gone. She tells Penelope to reach out to Tom and ask him where Silas has gone. Tom in turn asks the bookkeeper and finds out that Silas is in Lapham at the works. Penelope and Tom then spend the evening sitting and chatting together, and it would seem that their relationship and intimacy have improved greatly, with the two even holding hands. Suddenly, as Tom is about to leave late at night, the doorbell rings and Irene herself enters. Irene is quite cordial towards Tom and tells her mother and sister that her Uncle William told her of Silas' financial issues. Accordingly, she came back as quickly as she could to help the family.

The narrative point of view then switches for a final time to Tom and the rest of the Corey family. Tom tells his mother that he intends to marry Penelope after all, and they think of the best strategies to make their affair public. Anna seems to be giving Penelope the benefit of the doubt and commends Tom on how she has been acting. Part of the Coreys' recognition of Tom and Penelope's union, however, requires that they pay the Laphams a visit. Tom leaves, and Bromfield comes down to discuss this very thing with Anna. They seem fatalistically resolved to accept their union, and they comment on the irony that they now must accept Penelope even though she has no more wealth behind her. They close the chapter by remarking that, though they find a great deal about the Laphams intolerable, they will go all-in on the relationship for Tom and pay the Laphams a visit.

Chapter 27

The final chapter of the novel opens with Irene telling Persis that she will not marry Will, since he already is engaged. Persis notes that Irene's will and demeanor have toughened significantly since she first went away. Persis catches Irene up on what she has missed in Boston; meanwhile, Penelope receives the Coreys alone in the Nankeen Square home. Their encounter is awkward and jocular, but both Bromfield and Penelope feels as if their acquaintance was somewhat pleasurable, since they both have a tendency towards joking. Bromfield and Anna do remark in private, however, on how tacky they think the Laphams' home decorations to be. Upon returning to their home, Anna even tells her daughters that Bromfield liked Penelope.

Back at the Lapham home, the narrator informs us that Irene's arrival and the visit of the Coreys proved to be a welcome distraction from their impending financial ruin. Just then, Silas arrives back from Lapham and seems to be in terrible spirits. After briefly commenting on his joy that Irene is home, Silas tells Persis that he will give everything up to his creditors the next day, and that he is ruined. He tells Persis that he got an extension from the West Virginians but also took a different, interested New York party up to the mill in the hopes of selling it. However, Silas' upstanding business morals compelled him to tell the New York buyer about his financial difficulties, so Silas of course failed to sell the mill to this New York figure. He has lost his last chance to save himself and tells Persis that they will lose everything. For her part, however, Persis is just glad that Silas' heart and soul were never compromised by the shady and uncompromising business world. Persis asks Silas about Zerilla, and he tells her that he always supposed Persis would come by sometime to inquire after the business and find out for herself. This makes Persis ashamed that she was out of the business for so long, and she is further ashamed that she ever thought Silas was having an affair.

Silas' final bankruptcy comes as a relief to the family. Since James Bellingham is interested in Silas' troubles, Silas tells James all about his failed negotiations with the West Virginians. Where others are concerned, the public is shocked and amazed to find that Lapham has acted with such integrity throughout his professional life. Eventually, the family plans to sell the house in Nankeen Square and move back to Vermont to live on their original farmstead. Since it is late spring, this at the very least provides them with the appearance of stopping in the country before summering at sea, which will not bring undue attention to them as they move out. Persis recalls the good and bad memories of Nankeen Square and is glad to leave Boston. Silas, for his part, knows he will not have a new start in Lapham and is sad that his massive successes are over.

Back in Lapham, Silas becomes friendly with the West Virginians and continues to make his Persis brand, since the West Virginians cannot produce this quality of paint. Their friendly relationship with Silas allows him to get Tom in with their company, and Tom is sent to Central and South America to sell and the market the West Virginians' product. Before Tom leaves, however, he comes up to Lapham and asks Penelope, who is still indecisive, to formally marry him and come with him on his journeys. Penelope still cannot make it seem right, despite Tom's protestations, and she tells Tom that she worries about the wedge that Silas' poverty will drive between her and Tom's family. Tom tells her only that they will reconcile with time, and he tells Penelope repeatedly that he will love her no matter what. She turns Tom down and sends him away, but immediately yields and says that she will go with him. After he returns to Boston to inform his parents of the good news, Penelope is left to tell Irene of her marriage to Tom. Irene only tells Penelope not to worry, and that she would be a fool to turn Tom down. Silas and Persis are proud that Penelope is marrying Tom, but only because they are in love and for no ambitious reasons. They still cannot make it seem right with Irene in their minds.

The Coreys, for their part, come around to Penelope and the rest of the Laphams for their upstanding morals and good conduct. The Corey daughters even remark that Penelope is sure to be a better conversationalist and member of the family once she picks up the Spanish charm of Central and South America. Moreover, the fact that the Laphams no longer live in Boston relieves the Coreys of the duty of having to associate with them, which also works out perfectly for both families. Penelope, meanwhile, is sad to not have Tom to herself, but recognizes that the cost of cultivated society is the sacrifice of personal qualities for public performance and decorum. Penelope and Tom stay away for three years.

Silas' high-end paint business is bought out by the West Virginians, and he is able to pay off his debts with the sum that this provides for him. His bragging habits come back, but primarily to speak of how he ended the whole situation by washing his hands clean of debt and dishonesty. Persis and Silas both are cognizant of their individual faults in what has happened to their family and become close once more.

Reverend Sewell and his wife pay the Laphams a visit on their way to Lake Champlain. They had earlier discussed the Lapham-Corey situation after Silas came to discuss it with him in Chapter 18, and Mrs. Sewell recognizes in hindsight that Tom always loved Penelope and saw it in the way he talked to Irene at the Coreys' dinner. They think of Irene moving on, but Irene does not marry even five years after the incident between Tom and Penelope. The Sewells are then given a tour of the property and admire its rustic and simple country aesthetic. Silas comes clean to Sewell about the incident with Mr. Rogers, and he asks Sewell whether he should feel guilty for anything he ever did to Rogers, as well as whether Sewell thinks all his misfortunes evolved from his initial treatment of Rogers. In response, Sewell tells Silas that it's possible that the first offense against Rogers only put him on his guard against future incidents.

This then segues into the novel's final lines, in which Sewell asks Silas very plainly if, despite everything, Silas has any regrets. Silas responds with the final words of the novel: "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" (365).


These final chapters of Howells' novel detail the acceleration and conclusion of Silas' fall from wealth and status. As Silas himself struggles to reconcile his personal and professional struggles, as well as understand the choices that got him into such a tough place to begin with, he touches on many of the prominent themes and conflicts that have been present throughout the novel. Chief among these are the difference between ethical and dubious business practices, the divide between the country and the city, the distinction between will and chance, and the relationship between people of different classes or socioeconomic statuses.

First, a primary focus of these concluding chapters is Silas' devotion to fair business and his upstanding morals, which ultimately proves to be both one of the things that ruins him as well as one of the things that salvages his public and private reputation. When Rogers offers Silas an easy out in the form of dealings with the Englishmen, for example, he will not do business with them because he thinks them to be unsavory characters. Further, Silas' eventual and official refusal to sell the milling properties even back to Rogers results in the latter's ruination as well. His magnanimous reluctance to let Zerilla and Mrs. Millon brave the world without his assistance causes a deal of anger and uncertainty on Persis' part. Finally, when the New York agent comes to examine the Lapham works with Silas, his failure to withhold the truth of his economic hardships also prevents this deal from moving forward and saving him from bankruptcy.

At the same time, however, Silas' inability to act in any morally gray fashion is what commends him to his creditors, his wife, and the public eye. When Lapham finally goes bust after his negotiations with the West Virginians peters out, for example, his "prudence [and] good sense" are some of the things that salvage his public reputation (352). Moreover, when Silas comes clean about Zerilla and her mother to Persis, Persis is left feeling not upset, but rather grateful that she was deceived, and she admires the purity of Silas' heart and spirit. It is also this same good heart and spirit that allows Silas to stay in close contact with the West Virginians, who eventually partner with him, provide him an avenue out of his debts, and give Tom good work abroad. Finally, Silas' commitment to honesty and integrity, which he also has instilled in Penelope, plays a key role in making the Corey family come around to the union of Penelope and Tom (such as when Nanny Corey quips of Tom, "if he had only married the Colonel!") (359).

Second, it is no mistake of Howells' that Silas' commitment to a simple and virtuous system of morals is associated with the West Virginians and his return to the countryside. Indeed, the divide between the urban and rural is felt quite acutely on the issue of morals, and this tension is drawn out in a matter that recalls Bartley Hubbard's assertion in Chapter 1 that Silas was raised on "the Old Testament and Poor Richard's Almanac" (5). For example, Silas finds respite from the predatory creditors of the city in the brothers from West Virginia—not just because they are naive in business and treat Silas well, but also because he sees himself in them (318). Further, the connection and kinship among simple country people does not just benefit Silas Lapham—when Reverend Sewell and his wife come, for example, they are fascinated by the "moral spectacle" of his regression to his simple country roots (363). Or, in a less voyeuristic and more selfish sense, consider also how the widening of the divide between urban and rural folk—primarily in the form of Silas' move back to Lapham, Vermont—is one of the things that allows the relationship between the Coreys and the Laphams to remain cordial and unstrained (360). As additional evidence of this point, when Tom and Penelope threaten to upend this peaceful divide with their union, consider that their timely choice to go abroad allows these divisions to continue in a nonconfrontational fashion.

Third, many of these triumphs resulting from the urban-rural divide may also be considered victories that significantly rely on an equal mixture of willpower and good fortune. Appropriately, the dynamic relationship between what can be willed and what remains outside of our control is another central focus of these chapters. When Silas accidentally burns down the house on Beacon Street, for example, it calls our attention to both the fragility and contingency of Silas' fortune. At the same time, however, it also invites us to consider the discovery of the paint on the Lapham property—as well as the prosperity that follows—to be the result of good fortune, rather than hard work. Silas himself seems to admit as much in his final quote: "seems sometimes it was a hole opened for me, and I crept out of it" (365). One other thing to consider about the role of chance or accident in the burning of the Beacon Street home is that it particularly devastates the family insofar as their insurance policy has just expired the week before.

On a complementary note, while many of the characters in these last few chapters look backwards to understand events as the result of chance, they also accept fate as a sufficient justification for failing both to take action or to will a different result in the present. For example, even though Silas and Persis cannot seem to get it straight in their head that Penelope's marriage to Tom is just and correct, they resign themselves to accept the marriage and are proud that Penelope is marrying someone she loves (359). Additionally, while Bromfield and Anna have a significant amount of reservations regarding Tom's marriage to Penelope at the end of Chapter 26, they know that they can do nothing about it and that the two will marry regardless of what they do. This recalls Bromfield's earlier stated position in Chapter 20 that all of his aristocratic dissolution was in vain because things have "come to this [i.e., Tom's marriage to Penelope] at last" (268).

Finally, the issues mentioned above all touch deeply on the relationship of the different social classes in Gilded Age society. Importantly, however, just as many of these other conflicts in the novel remain ambiguous and unresolved, so too do we get little closer on the class front. Silas and the Coreys did not reconcile, after all, without Silas losing all access to upward mobility and moving far away. Moreover, even though Tom and Penelope provide a potential hybrid avenue for the different classes to get along and move forward, their post-marital relationship is not fleshed out by Howells, and it is not without its own troubles and issues. Thus, at the end of The Rise of Silas Lapham, we are made to wonder deeply about the nature of closure; whether such things as perfect heroism, morals, or closure even exist; and how Gilded Age America will reconcile the various and deeply rooted cultural and economic issues that have been traced throughout the course of this Realist masterpiece. While it is certainly a comedy of manners that lampoons the wealthy and advocates for the downtrodden, it is also a powerful statement about the limitations of poverty and the strong psychological compulsion to strive. These are the very same tensions that would carry literature out of Realism and propel it towards Modernism just a few short decades later.