The Rise of Silas Lapham

The Rise of Silas Lapham Themes

Social Standards, Manners, and Decorum

Social standards in Howells' novel revolve around knowing what clothes to wear, where to travel during the holiday season, and the topics to approach in a dinner party setting. The Coreys represent how one should act, and the Laphams represent naiveté of the rules and ignorance of how one should not act. For example, instead of a fashionable holiday home in a faraway destination, the Laphams own a humble cottage in nearby Nantasket. At the Coreys' dinner party, Silas spends an embarrassingly long time researching whether to wear gloves, eventually deciding to and ending up with hands like "canvassed hams" before taking them off in shame when he sees Tom Corey is gloveless (188). Later at the party, Silas gets drunk for the first time in his life and acts inappropriately in his interactions with higher-class gentlemen. Still, despite being clueless to the Boston standards that their newfound money subjects them to, the Laphams are fundamentally good in moral standards. This might be contrasted with the initial behavior of Bromfield and Anna Corey, who act coldly and condescendingly towards the Laphams in the name of appearing properly in the public eye. Howells therefore suggests that upholding social standards is sometimes not as important as doing the right thing, as is further evidence by the eventual yielding of the Coreys to Tom's legitimate love interest in Penelope.

Chance, Will, Fate, and Luck

Howells' novel embodies traits of Literary Realism, as opposed to the Romantic genre that was also popular during the Victorian era. In Romantic fiction, most events seem to be connected as if by destiny in a manner that produces outcomes unrealistically ideal, both positive and negative. In Howells' novel, on the other hand, many events all independently contribute to Silas' downfall, but many of these events occur by accident and are not linked to or dependent on one another. For example, the interest of the G., L., and P. Railroad in buying out the milling properties and the burning of the house on Beacon Street seem to happen purely by chance, catching Silas off guard but nonetheless significantly shaping his destiny. One positive accident that has the opposite effect is the very discovery of paint on the family property that catapulted Silas into wealth and high society. At the same time, however, Silas and others claim that a great deal of the things in the novel are accomplished by will and self-discipline. Silas says as much about his business successes after discovering the paint, for example. Consider also how Penelope tries to will herself out of love with Tom for Irene's sake, only to realize that this is a futile exercise. For Howells, then, the dynamic interplay between will and chance—as well as people's self-inflated sense of free will or discipline—is perhaps a way of truthfully reflecting reality as significantly influenced by chance and independent events. This interplay comes out especially strong at the novel's end, when Silas asks Reverend Sewell if he thinks that all the trouble with Rogers might have been set up from his initial mistreatment of Rogers as a partner.

Love and Courtship

Love and dating are not the central themes of The Rise of Silas Lapham. Rather, they are instead used as devices to highlight the complex factors at play—particularly, class differences, social standards, gender, and morality—in situations other than Silas' business. Love is first shown to be highly contingent on external social circumstances, as is evidenced by the way that both the Coreys and Laphams mentally rule out Penelope as a potential love interest for Tom and think of Irene for this role. Later, love is presented as unnecessarily sacrificial and idealized, rather than dependent on rationality and common sense, in the romance novel Tears, Idle Tears. Ironically enough, this novel also foreshadows how Penelope later attempts to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her sister. Further, when Tom reveals his choice of Penelope rather than Irene, everyone's shock—as well as the way that both the Coreys and the Laphams attempt to rationalize this choice in private discussions—highlights the gender stereotypes prevalent in nineteenth-century America, as well as the difficulty in finding a way to free one's self of these stereotypes. Still, it would seem that Howells envisions the union of Tom and Penelope to be a kind of way forward, advancing past many of the issues present in America during the Gilded Age. Reasonably, then, one may also contrast Penelope with Persis Lapham and Anna Corey, who represent a more dated and perhaps even obsolete approach to wifing and love. Neither woman is overly affectionate with her husband, and each acts either with ambition for her children or as a commentator on her husband's businesses. This deprivation of agency and lack of sentimentality for their partners—though this changes for Persis at the end when the Laphams go bankrupt—also sheds light on how class, privilege, and the urban environment play a role in shaping love and relationships.

Materialism, Wealth, and Bragging

These three factors are clearly a central concern of The Rise of Silas Lapham, since the novel's protagonist rises from a rural paint farm in Vermont to the industrial successes and high society of Boston. As he acquires additional social clout through his rapid acquisition of money, however, Silas also becomes materialistic, bragging extensively about his business and how he has more wealth than even the older gentry like the Coreys. Indeed, Silas has the money of the gentry, but he lacks the manners of the bourgeois class and is constantly put down by others for his misunderstanding of how to properly show off. The teasing and derision of Slias for publicly displaying and performing his newfound wealth even extends to his own family members, as is seen when Persis reprimands him for such displays and when Irene and Penelope make fun of Silas and do impressions of him in private. Consider also Silas' approach to his new house on Beacon Street, a literal symbol of his wealth and the desire to show up others. He only wants the finest finishes, and he brags at the Coreys' dinner party about the art and books with which he will furnish this home. In such scenes, what Howells calls "the poison of ambition" is clearly at work and comes about as the natural result of increased wealth (33). However, in order for Silas' family to heal and for his own spiritual rebirth to occur at the end of the novel, this materialism and wealth must be rejected as he returns bankrupt to his Vermont farm. Still, it is important to note that Silas continues to brag about his paint and business once he recovers a modicum of financial security, even when he only produces paint in partnership with the West Virginians. Thus, for Howells, materialism is displayed as a dangerous side effect of acquiring new wealth, but it is also perhaps depicted as an easy and natural consequence—and one that should be avoided, at that—of doing business during the Gilded Age.

Moral Ambiguity

The exploration and interrogation of moral standards occurs consistently throughout the novel. Towards the novel's beginning, for example, we are told that Silas took advantage of his former business partner, Milton Rogers, and left him penniless. While Persis seeks to atone for this wrongdoing time and again, Silas fails to ever accept that he did something wrong, even asking Reverend Sewell in the finial chapter if he thinks that his treatment of Rogers was wrong. This morally uncertain behavior and dubiousness is therefore part of the standard of morality we come to expect from Silas, despite his reputation among the wealthy as a honest and simple businessman from humble origins. At the same time, however, Silas also behaves extensively with honor at other points, refusing to sell his depreciating properties to anyone without full disclosure of his financial situation. Further, Persis is only initially shocked when she discovers that Silas has been contributing money to Zerrila Millon, the daughter of the man who saved his life in the army. Ultimately, it would seem that Silas remains true to his upstanding and simple morals by the novel's end, but the conflation of city life and business success with moral trials ought not to be ignored.

This dissection of topsy-turvy morals also extends to "civilized" standards of constructed and artificial morality. For example, Penelope believes it is right to deny Tom Corey's love for the sake of her sister; however, this is ridiculed and despised by virtually every other character since, in doing so, she causes pain and only prevents healing in the name of a Romantic ideal. Therefore, although a certain moral idealism is striven for in the spiritual rebirth of Silas at the novel's end, the novel is also peppered with a sense of realism and common sense that prevails when adhering to idealistic moral standards is not the correct thing to do.

Industry, Cover-Ups, and Corruption

Industry is an important part of the novel, as it allows Silas to rise in social class and also presents a platform for his moral and personal corruption. Silas clearly believes the world is made for man's industry from the moment his wife Persis describes the paint mine in Vermont as a "gold-mine" (10). Further, Silas's "enhancement" of the natural environment by putting his paint and advertisements on rocks and other elements reflects his belief that man and his industry are of greater importance than the integrity and cohesion of the natural world. Notably, this is one of the reasons that the Coreys—most prominently Anna—see Silas' business as vulgar. Fundamentally, this gripe with Silas' business is on account of the nature of paint to cover things up—to make certain things look different or better than they truly are. Thus, on a deeper level, one of the fundamental issues that people have with Silas' business is that it hides or clouds the truth. This is directly parallel to the novel's engagement with corruption in business, such as the kind pressed by Mr. Rogers. It is no accident, however, that after retiring from large-scale production in the paint industry, Slias escapes the world of corruption. Industry, obscuring the truth, and corruption are all linked in Howells' novel. This is, further, an important consideration because of Howells' own social activism and socialist leanings that rejected the big business practices of the era.

Family Life

The inclusion of both Silas Lapham's family and Tom Corey's family presents each character as multi-faceted, as both gentlemen involved with industry and family life. Tom Corey must fight against the expectations of his Father, Bromfield Corey, to marry a fashionable girl and go without working for a living; meanwhile, Silas must continue to fulfill the expectations of his family and seeks to earn them upward social mobility now that he is a top businessman. However, Howells' novel shows that the failure to clearly delineate family life and professional life leads to immense and unnecessary difficulties. Silas' possible personal and ulterior motives for taking Tom Corey into his business, for example, contribute to the fallout that occurs when Tom reveals he is not interested in Irene. Moreover, his exclusion of Persis from his business, where she used to be a cooperative partner, contributes to her suspicions of Silas' affair and initial anger with Zerilla Dewey. For Tom, on the other hand, being interested in the daughter of his boss also comes with a wide variety of repercussions—both within his family, as he causes friction with and between his parents, and outside of his family, as he also contributes to the Laphams' discontent and internal strife. In showing how the boundaries between family and business can often be porous and difficult to maintain effectively, Howells thus presents a realistic picture of the difficulties of balancing family life with the demands of business.