The reader is introduced to Silas Lapham and his family at a point in his life when he has earned huge amounts of money, but he has little social knowledge on how to spend it fashionably. Therefore, the house Silas begins to build on Beacon Street becomes the ultimate symbol of new money; it is a property located in a place that Silas claims every fashionable person in Boston must build. The house is especially important as it is an outward statement to society that Silas has managed all he wishes to achieve in life. Beacon Street and its connotations become a fixation for Silas, and he spends ridiculous amounts of money on it. This includes a great deal of funds on exquisite finishes that, contrary to his initial wishes, are forced upon him by his architect Seymour. The house's symbolic nature thus changes—from something to prove his wealth to others to something that Silas must uses to prove his wealth to himself. As his business begins to crumble, the house becomes an imperative asset in his life to cling on to the dream he had of a future in it. Even when he resolves to sell the home, he is unable to do so. That the house is destroyed before it is even finished is the ultimate symbol of new wealth—a great deal of money with little idea on how to use it either fashionably or sustainably. That it is obliterated at the same time as Silas' hopes for a successful business only reinforces the symbolic association between the house and Silas' own new money status.
The House Fire (Symbol)
The house that Silas begins to build on Beacon Street burns down just as his company also begins to crumble. While they are completely unrelated events, the fire here works as the ultimate symbol of chance as well as renewal. Regarding chance, Silas accidentally sets the fire after testing the chimney in the house's music room, emphasizing the role of accident or luck in shaping Silas' ultimate fortune and fate. Regarding the nature of the fire as renewing and cleansing, it is only after the fire that Silas reaches acceptance of his impending bankruptcy and metaphorically rises from the ashes to begins a new life back in Vermont. This symbolic renewal is especially necessary to allow Silas and his family a new beginning, since their return to the countryside is only made possible once the possibility of selling the house to stay afloat in Boston is precluded.
Beyond these two associations, however, the fire is also symbolic in other ways. In burning the house down, Silas chooses to return to where it all began, on his father’s farm in Vermont; thus, the fire can also be symbolic of creation. This is in line with the classical ideal that fire was one of the first elements gifted to man by Prometheus, emphasizing Silas’ return to where he was "created" as a businessman and family man.
The Wood Shaving (Symbol)
When Tom Corey comes to Silas’ Beacon Street house to pay a visit (Chapter 9), he is left with Irene while Silas and Persis speak with the builder. During the conversation that follows, Irene constantly uses her parasol to toy with wood shavings at her feet. Eventually, Tom calls Irene out for this nervous behavior, and he helps her slice one in half using his feet. Following this intimate moment, he offers a different wood shaving to her like a flower, which Irene goes on to cherish as a souvenir.
This small wood shaving goes on to have huge symbolic significance in the subplot of Tom Corey and the Lapham sisters. First, such a small item, nonchalantly given, becomes a gesture of love when coupled with the social expectation of his affections. The shaving thus sheds light symbolically on the falsity and fragility of the family's assumptions (i.e., that Tom loves Irene and not Penelope). Second, because Irene is strengthened in her convictions by this small gesture, the wood shaving is also symbolic of her naiveté. Finally, because of the significance that others invest in the shaving, it becomes a symbol of Tom's love. This is why it is all the more dramatic when Irene rustles through her boudoir to find the shaving and drop it silently in Penelope's lap: in one gesture, Irene relinquishes her claim on Tom, her family's carefully laid plans and assumptions, and her own innocent naiveté.
Silas Lapham and his discovery of a paint mine in Vermont is Howells' take on a 19th-century "rags-to-riches" success story. As the product that allows this success story to play out, then, paint goes on to be highly symbolic. As we have seen, people see Silas' business as vulgar or inappropriate because of the nature of paint to cover things up—making certain things look better than they truly are while keeping the truth of their material constitution hidden.
Paint thus develops throughout the novel as a symbol of superficiality, vanity, and pretense. When Persis accuses Silas of acting selfishly and vainly with regards to Mr. Rogers, for example, she claims that he did so because he made paint his God—in other words, because Silas has learned to worship the pretensions of business and realizes that his vision had no place for Rogers in it. Moreover, both Silas and the bookkeeper Walker claims in conversations that Silas' paint runs through his blood: this, too, is evocative of Silas' absorption into the vain and self-obsessed culture of Boston high society. Further, when Silas enters his Beacon Street house for the last time before it burns, he encounters the "peculiar odor of his own paint," which is both symbolic of the idea that the house is both pure pretense and evocative of paint's association with Silas' declining fortunes that find embodiment in the burned house. Finally, Silas' return to the country to specialize in high-quality paints mirrors his own return to his country roots and shrinkage of his business practices to incorporate only honest, moral, or "high-quality" partnerships.
Books and Newspaper Articles (Motif)
In Howells’ novel, there are a number of published items, be they newspapers, popular novels, or classic works of literature. While each work is more or less insignificant, the way in which books and newspapers are used and deployed in social situations sheds a great deal of light on inter-class dynamics, the distinction between public and private life, and the debate surrounding Literary Realism in turn-of-the-century America.
First, newspapers—on account of their mass appeal and clarity—are disparaged by Bromfield Corey and many others as poor reading material, while Silas devours them ravenously. This idea that the different classes gather intelligence or knowledge from completely different sources helps to illuminate the massive gap in culture and customs that exist between the two class groups.
Second, both the exposure Silas faces as a result of Bartley Hubbard's newspaper interview and the similarity of Penelope's dilemma to the plot of Tears, Idle Tears reinforce the porous boundary between private life and public life in the novel. The former of these two events also heightens the reader's attention to the importance of gossip and rumors in the text.
Finally, to elaborate on the latter point, Tears, Idle Tears is not only meant to evoke Penelope's experiences but is also discussed at the Corey dinner party as evidence that authors should push closer to Realism. Those who disagree with this claim are represented less than generously.
Thus, these written articles within Howells’ novel are used as a series of structural pointers to analyze the characters that reacts to them as texts, rather than the writing itself.
The Rise of Silas Lapham Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Rise of Silas Lapham is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The houses have always represented a certain style of living and a certain "sensibility" that comes with "old money" and a lifestyle based on inherited money and grand living. As the money falls away and the people become poorer, the wealthy...