The Rise of Silas Lapham

The Rise of Silas Lapham Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4–8


Chapter 4

Chapter 4 opens with a meditation on the nature of marriage. Specifically, the narrator reflects that marriage is not an institution without faults and goes on to suggest that a marriage is such that it endures strain unlike any other human relationship. Turning special attention to the marriage of Silas and Persis, the narrator then reflects that when they first married, Silas respected Persis' work ethic. Soon thereafter, however, their marriage faced strains in the form of their son's death and Silas' possible mistreatment of his business partner, Mr. Rogers. Still, the narrator comments that Persis eventually came to rely on and make excuses for Silas' business practices, putting faith in the true passion he had for his paint.

The narration then turns to the present moment of the first three chapters, as Silas and his family remain in Boston in the early summer during the building of their Beacon Street home. Silas takes Persis and the girls to the construction site, where Persis disappears with the foreman while Silas and his daughters sit at a bay window. Suddenly, a young man dressed in very new and fresh clothes appears, and he greets Silas and his daughters. It is Tom Corey, who inquires after Persis. While Persis is indisposed with the foreman, however, he offers to take Tom up to the girls' future room and show him the view of the skyline. Notably, when entering the girls' room with Tom, Irene finds it a bit too intimate and blushes—however, no one else, including Tom, does so. Silas then passes a bit of time bragging to Tom Corey about the expenses he is undertaking to build his lavish home. He defends the new money Beacon Street site over the old money site of the Hill.

Persis appears, and she and Silas invite Tom to return and visit them at their house whenever he likes. As the group leaves the construction site, Irene lingers with Tom for a brief moment, and Tom mentions that the women in his family are at Bar Harbor in Maine. On their way home, Silas decries Tom to the rest of the Laphams, saying that he thinks of him merely as a dissolute young man who does not work for his money and who idles for long periods in exclusive clubs. Penelope speaks up on Tom's behalf, however, saying that she would be liable to act similarly if she were a young man of Tom's upbringing. Later that night, Penelope and Irene make fun of Silas for his bragging nature. They also talk about the appearance of Tom's Roman-like nose, and Penelope teases Irene that her last initial will one day be C, implying that Irene will eventually marry Tom. The chapter closes as Silas hears his daughters' teasing from downstairs, and he tells them to be quiet for the night.

Chapter 5

Chapter 5 opens with a shift in the narrative's perspective, switching from a focus on the Laphams to one centered on the Corey family. Tom Corey returns home and lets himself into his father's study, where his aristocratic and old-style father (named Bromfield) is seen reading a French publication. The two converse about the family's dwindling fortunes, how resilient young men must be to stay in Boston while women retire for the summer, and the possible directions that the prodigal and adventurous Tom's career might go in next. They also discuss Tom's eventual marriage, which Bromfield insists should be to a rich woman. When Tom suggests that Bromfield might prefer that he marry a rich woman of status, Bromfield responds by saying that it ought not to matter, so long as the woman Tom chooses to marry is, after all, very rich.

The conversation then turns to Silas Lapham, who Tom suggests has been so focused on earning money that he has not had time to learn to be well-mannered and "grammatical" around others (64). Tom tells his father of Silas' plans to build on Beacon Street, and he goes on to say that he actually enjoyed Silas' company a great deal, despite his bragging. He suggests that Bromfield ought not to judge Silas by the standards of Boston high society, but Bromfield is steadfast that the Bostonian standards are the only ones that can be trusted. The two have a brief back and forth about whether bragging is justified in Silas' case, but the conversation once again quickly turns to Silas' daughters. There is a bit of equivocation and uncertainty as to whether Tom prefers Irene, the prettier daughter, or Penelope, the more clever and "interesting" daughter (67).

Bromfield comments that he dislikes Silas' business because his paint has been used to deface the natural world, but Tom comments that he might like to go into mineral paints like Silas. Bromfield responds by saying that he wishes that Tom would never have to work in his life, but Tom remains steadfast in his interest in working with Silas. Before Tom leaves, Bromfield speaks briefly about his adventurous India merchant father and how Tom would have been in the China or India trade back in the day on account of his thirst for adventure and work. Tom indicates his desire to get a character reference for employment with Silas, and then says he will pay a visit to his mother in Bar Harbor before he makes any decisions.

Alone, Bromfield looks at a portrait he painted of his merchant father. He meditates on the family's Salem heritage, then thinks about how his father and Tom have a similar, Roman nose—which Bromfield interprets as indicating their shared thirst for adventure and hard work. Bromfield then thinks about how he does not have this nose, and how he spent his youth and early adulthood traveling around Europe, squandering his family's fortunes. In Rome, he trained as a portrait painter, but upon returning home, he was unable to pursue painting as a career for reasons of status.

The chapter closes with a very quick cut back to Silas and Persis, just after he had "quelled the disturbance in his daughter's room" in the previous chapter (71). Silas thinks that, given the right opportunities, he could turn Tom into a proper businessman, but Persis insists that paint is too lowly of an industry for Tom to get involved with.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6 opens with a description of how the Coreys sold their home on Nahant because of Tom's concern for the family's dwindling fortunes. It then turns to Tom's arrival in Bar Harbor to visit with his mother Anna, who voices significant disapproval of both Silas' "distasteful" business and advertising, as well as for their unfashionable address in Nankeen Square (72).

Tom then returns to Boston, where he shows up unexpected at Silas' place of business and is greeted by Silas, informally dressed in his shirtsleeves. Tom asks Silas to take him on in the mineral paint business, but Silas expresses confusion at exactly what Tom expects to be hired for. When Silas expresses concern that perhaps Tom had gotten a wrong picture of his business from Bartley Hubbard's article, Tom replies that he has not read the article but rather was interested in a circular that Lapham put out. When Tom suggests that he put in some capital, Silas rebuffs him, but Tom is able to get Silas' attention when he says that he'd like to use his multilingualism to bring the paint to other countries. Specifically, he attracts Silas' attention by asserting his strong belief in the product. Silas shows Tom the location of the paint well on the family property, and he tells the whole story of the paint's discovery by his father.

Running out of time to get to the boat that will take him to his family's cottage in Nantasket, Silas suggests that Tom come with him and stay the night so they might continue to talk about business. Tom assents, and the duo buys two newspapers and gets on the steam boat. On the boat, Silas asserts the importance of giving the mind a break from business and the simple joys of reading the newspaper and looking out at the crowd of faces to see what secrets might lie just below their surfaces. Silas states that, only so long as someone has not been completely figured out by another, they have a chance of doing something for themselves.

Silas and Tom arrive in Nantasket, where they are greeted by Penelope. Penelope and Tom sit in the back of the carriage while Silas drives in front, where he comments that he was tired of hotels and decided to rent a cottage near the sea. Penelope reports that Irene is suffering from a headache. The chapter closes as the trio arrive at the Lapham's Nantasket cottage, where Persis greets them in shock.

Chapter 7

As Chapter 7 opens, Persis is confronting Silas about the reason for Tom joining them at their cottage. Silas insists that Tom approached him about getting started in the business, but Persis believes that he pressured Tom to come.

The focus then rapidly shifts to Penelope, who goes to Irene and informs her that Tom Corey is presently in their cottage. Irene believes it to a rude trick of Penelope's, but Penelope continues to assert the truth of her message, saying that Irene ought to come out at some point and greet Tom. Persis enters, and Penelope tells her of her belief that Tom is here as part of ploy to court Irene and that his business ambitions are "nothing but a blind" (87). The three resolve to go back and greet Tom and Silas in the parlor after two hours.

When the five meet in the parlor, Tom asks Irene whether she likes George Eliot's Middlemarch, which is sitting on their table, but Irene is ignorant of the book. After the Laphams assert that Penelope is the one who does most of the reading, the discussion turns away from fiction, which Silas sees as impractical, and towards theater. Silas also mentions that the family has a large number of expensive volumes, but that they get most of their novels from the library. As a means of getting himself alone with Persis, he then suggests that the girls take Tom down to the rocks to view the hotels from their property.

The ensuing discussion between Silas and Persis mostly recapitulates what the reader already knows about Silas' business relationship with Tom. He tells her of his language skills, his interest in bringing the paints to South America, and his belief in the paint product. Persis, however, is still caught up in the fact that the business engagement could be a ploy to get into their home and close with Irene. Persis cautions Silas that, if he expects Tom to fall in love with Irene and goes out of his way to make sure this happens through a business partnership, that he will be especially disappointed if it does not work out. In general, she cautions him not to mix his business life with his personal affairs.

As the chapter closes, Silas gets up and stares out at his daughters with Tom from the piazza of his home. He reflects on how he knows a great deal about Phillips Corey, Bromfield's father, and how he always thought the Coreys to be the picture of entitlement and pretentiousness. He always looked at Bromfield's dissolution as the height of decadence, and he used to personally feel as if his family would not reach the same heights as the Coreys for a great while. However, now that he has come to think of Tom as a possible suitor for Irene, he is enraptured with his family's potential upward mobility and reflects on how much he has actually come around to Tom as an individual. He reflects that the last time he was this happy was when Persis agreed to be his wife.

Chapter 8

Chapter 8 begins by moving us out of Nantasket and situating us back in the Corey's own home in Boston. Anna has suddenly shown up before Bromfield and seems eager to know where Tom is. When he informs her that Tom is likely out with Silas, Anna snaps at him and continues to assert the vulgarity and lowliness of paint as an industry. Bromfield lambasts Anne for having shamed Tom's choice of future career, saying that so long as money is made honestly, it ought not to matter what industry it is in. Soon after, their conversation turns to Tom's love life. While Anna would have Tom marry someone from a good upbringing who is not "insipid," Bromfield seems only to care if Tom would be happy marrying one of the Lapham girls (95). Returning to his career prospects, Anna asserts that she would not have Tom work for a living, but Bromfield says that they ought not stand in the way of their son's "selfish" desire to work (96). The conversation then continues to alternate between the personal and the professional. Anna Corey has a brief reflective moment in which she thinks of the sacrifices Bromfield has made for their family among dwindling finances and how much the education and entertainment of their own children has cost them in both a literal and metaphorical sense. After this moment, Bromfield continues to talk about how the American method of high-class parenting requires that they not manipulate Tom's love life and take a "hands off" approach (97).

Tom returns and walks in on his mother and father talking. He says that he plans on taking up Silas in a business engagement, and that his Uncle Jim (Anna's brother) has approved his decision to do so. When pushed about their lack of culture and decorum at Anna's behest, Tom admits that he thinks of them as good country people with simple morals and a nice sense of family cohesion. Tom talks at length about how he finds Penelope to be entertaining and "humorous" (100). Tom tells his mother that he will start working tomorrow, and she asks him if he thinks there is any personal favor being done for him (i.e., whether Silas is hiring him simply to get him to marry one of his daughters). He rebuffs this remark. Once Tom is gone, Bromfield and Anna continue to talk, with Bromfield once again trying to convince his wife that they represent an outdated social convention that must yield in the face of new authority and power. He even goes so far as to tell a reluctant Anna to consult Jim about Tom marrying Irene.

The following afternoon, Tom sees Anna off at the harbor and tells her all about his excitement for his first day. He returns to Lapham's warehouse and meditates on how much he loves the work he has found for himself. He also thinks about how Silas has not left the office for lunch, though he himself has decided to take lunch at a "long counter of a down-town restaurant" (104). On his way back in, he encounters Silas talking with his attractive typist, Miss Dewey, telling her that she "better get a divorce" (104). They are embarrassed to be seen together, and Silas diverts Tom's attention by bringing up a business matter.

The following day, when Tom lunches with Walker, a bald-headed bookkeeper for Lapham, he is told all about how recalcitrant and independent Silas tends to be, and he also tells him that Silas usually gets what he wants. This naturally leads to a discussion about Miss Dewey, and Walker claims that she is a suspicious character that no one knows. He says that, though no one knows where Silas found her or what she is doing at their firm, she is a hard worker. Walker considers this, too, to be incongruous, since she is a pretty and intelligent young woman who ought to be married and do a different kind of work. Walker even goes so far as to suggest that Miss Dewey has been married before, saying that you can tell from a woman's face whether or not she has been married.

As the chapter closes, Tom and Walker witness a woman being accosted by a drunk sailor. While onlookers decide whether to intervene, the woman shoves the sailor into a gutter, then runs. Finally, upon returning to the office of Silas' firm, Miss Dewey looks up at Tom and Walker, then sets to work industriously on her typewriter.


The opening of Chapter 4, though it may superficially appear to be a non-sequitur, is actually masterfully crafted insofar as it foregrounds the theme of marriage, which runs throughout the remainder of Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8. Moreover, marriage as an institution fundamentally touches on many of the motifs and themes introduced in the first few chapters of the novel. During the time of the Gilded Age, the heteronormative status of marriage (i.e., between a man and a woman) makes marriage an apt lens for examining the nature of womanhood, as well as how men interact with and treat women. Moreover, since marriage in the Gilded Age was also fundamentally related to status and public displays of wealth, marriage and courtship as explored in these chapters also provides a narrowly tailored framework for exploring status, as well as the public pretentiousness or humility of wealthy people as introduced in the opening chapters. Finally, because marriages in the Gilded Age were often arranged by aristocratic parents in Europe and even in America, an understanding of marriage as either contingent upon chance (in the case of marriages for love) or on effort (as in the case of willing two people to marry through an arrangement) sheds light on the novel's central dichotomy of will versus luck, introduced in the opening chapters as early as the accidental discovery of the paint mine on the Lapham property.

Exploration of the multiple dimensions of marriage begins early on in Chapter 4, when Silas' marriage to Persis is classified as a "rise in his life" (49). Considering that the novel is entitled The Rise of Silas Lapham and mostly goes on to ironically detail the struggles Silas has in his personal and business lives when trying to assimilate into Boston's high society, one might think of the novel instead as a chronicle of marriages—not just Silas' marriage to Persis and how it evolves under pressure, but also the marriage of Tom Corey to one of his daughters. We importantly get a detailed look into Persis and Silas' marriage at the beginning of Chapter 4, where we are exposed to not only the reason Silas first fell for Persis—her hardiness and work ethic—but also the stresses that plague their marriage (i.e., the loss of their son and the treatment of Mr. Rogers) as well as their coping mechanisms for these stresses. The characterization of Persis as feeling intense guilt for the treatment of Mr. Rogers yet also making excuses for Silas on account of his passion for the paint industry is particularly strong (50).

As Irene is developed throughout these chapters as a potential marriage partner for Tom Corey, important information about class and gender is provided as part of her characterization. Irene has the red hair of her father and red coloring in her cheeks, but in her case, it is suggestive of "May-flowers and apple-blossoms and peaches," all short-lived signs of beauty that are also associated with purchase and consumption. Irene is not ruddy and hardy like her father, but rather described as a beautiful product to be marketed and sold. Later, when Tom enters the girls' room along with them and their father, Irene is the only one who blushes and averts her gaze out of embarrassment—even Tom "[takes] it all [...] as simply as their father" (54). This is our first cue as readers that perhaps Tom and Irene are not as well matched as her superficial beauty leads those around them to believe. Penelope, on the other hand, is foregrounded as a vocal and witty girl who both defies contemporary aristocratic gender norms and commands Tom's attention (as seen in his conversations with Bromfield and Anna); for example, her jocular conversation with her father in defense of Tom's participation in gentlemen's clubs is not only evidence of her care for her sister, but also her capacity to think critically and imagine freer social systems (i.e., "if I was a young man") (58).

Such conversations that shed light on the status of women in Gilded Age Boston also continue in later chapters as well. For example, in Chapter 7, consider the scene in which Penelope tells Irene that Mr. Corey is at their Nantasket cottage, which Irene originally interprets as teasing. Howells originally introduces the dynamic of Penelope's banter with Irene using the simile of "a cat playing with a mouse," but this simile quickly becomes real in a way that resembles pataphor (an extended metaphor where the figurative components become literal or real), with Irene being referred to exclusively as "the mouse" and Penelope as "the cat" (85). Further, this zoomorphic language (language that does the opposite work of personification and brings animal qualities to humans) paints the more conventional Irene as meek and the more iconoclastic Penelope as powerful and tactful. This is a further commentary on Howells' party regarding the antiquated gender norms of the time, which force certain aristocratic women into idleness or marriage.

One final moment to keep in mind regarding the status of women in Gilded Age Boston comes at the end of Chapter 8, in which Tom Corey and Walker discuss Miss Dewey, then encounter a drunken soldier accosting a woman in the streets. Walker's comments about Ms. Dewey and the secrecy surrounding her interactions with Silas will come to play an important role in later chapters. Moreover, Walker's sexist comments about women in the workplace shed a great deal of light on prevailing gender norms at the time—specifically, how few women were expected to work for a living and the central role of marriage in women's lives at the time. As far as the sailor's interactions with the woman are concerned, we will see in later chapters how this uniquely relates to Ms. Dewey's own life circumstances. However, one thing to note immediately is that this interaction turns Walker's claims about women on their head: the woman who confronts the soldier is hardy and powerful, and Ms. Dewey's industriousness at the typewriter when they return to the office also demonstrates the strong work ethic of women. Howells' portrayal of women is thus complex and nuanced insofar as he provides readers not only with the prevailing stereotypes at the time surrounding aristocratic women, but also supplies evidence that these stereotypes are wrong in important ways.

On the point of the motif of status, many meaty scenes in these chapters shed additional light on this theme and show how the Gilded Age was a unique historical moment in which old forms of status and privilege were made to contend with newer ones. Our first picture of Bromfield Corey in Chapter 5, for example, provides an excellent illustration of how old money and ingrained privilege are made manifest: he reads a French publication, wears pince-nez instead of glasses, and comments on the family's ingrained New England and Salem roots by making a comment about the Corey's possible connection to Giles Corey. This is an allusion to the Salem witch trials, during which Giles was sentenced to "peine forte et dure" ("hard and forceful punishment") for refusing to speak about his wife's possible involvement in witchery. Beyond these details, however, we are also told throughout Tom's conversation with his father of Bromfield's dissolute youth traveling and squandering the family's fortunes in Europe, as well as the decorum of the time surrounding public boasting about wealth.

In later chapters, additional comments by Bromfield and especially Anna Corey continue to underscore many of these points about the nature of class presentation in Gilded Age America. Anna goes out of her way to constantly condemn the paint business as vulgar and low, and she puts down the Lapham girls for their lack of a "proper" upbringing and finishing. Moreover, the Coreys' internal discussion of the Laphams' literary and cultural tastes, even extending to matters like where they want to build their house, shows the haughtiness and entitlement of the aristocratic classes at the time. Interestingly, however, Bromfield's attempts to talk Anna down—which mostly center on the fact that money is money, regardless of how its earned—superficially reject this pretentiousness while also keeping elitism at their core. It would seem that the Coreys all fundamentally believe in Bromfield's earlier statement to Tom that money "is the romance, the poetry of our age" (64).

Finally, on the note of superficiality, an important thread to keep track of in these chapters is the motif and symbol of paint. As was explored in the opening chapters, paint is in its essence something that superficially spruces up appearances and covers up interiors. In these chapters, this valence for paint and painting continues to be reiterated, but it also takes on several important additional dimensions. When Bromfield reflects on his youth as a painter in Rome, for example, his inability to turn paint into a career for himself perhaps reveals a reason that he is not as cynical as his wife regarding Silas' business. Moreover, when Walker comments in Chapter 8 that Silas' paint is like "his heart's blood," an interesting additional interpretation of the paint symbol emerges (105). Blood is symbolic of the closeness of a family (as in the saying "blood is thicker than water"), so the idea that Silas treasures paint much in the same way that he treasures his own blood sheds light not only on the importance Silas attributes to paint, but also foreshadows the important ways in which the paint business will be intertwined with the complications of Silas' own personal and married life (e.g., Tom's access to the family through the business that he hopes will end in his marriage to Irene; the presence of Ms. Dewey at the paint business, which we will see has important consequences for Silas' relationship with Persis).