William Dean Howells

The Rise of Silas Lapham

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The Rise of Silas Lapham Summary

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The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), a realist novel by William Dean Howells, follows the main character Silas Lapham as he gains material wealth after many years living in poverty with his family, but feels that he doesn’t have the social etiquette necessary to become a true part of the upper class. Howells wrote the novel in opposition to sentimental romantic novels of the time. The book is centered on Silas’s morality and a realistic portrayal of American life – for this reason, Howells is often referred to as the father of American Realism.

Silas is being interviewed about his newfound wealth by a seedy journalist. This section introduces the background of the Lapham family – Silas and his wife, Persis, lived for many years on a New England farm, comfortably middle class though occasionally struggling to make ends meet. Then the family discovered a paint mine on their farm, and Silas went into the paint business – the family made incredible amounts of money very quickly selling paint, moved to Boston, and began to build a house on Beacon Hill.

Though Silas now has the money to afford life in Boston for himself and his two daughters, intelligent and fastidious Penelope and beautiful, frivolous young Irene, he doesn’t feel that he fits in with the elite people of the city. He begins to build a home on Beacon Hill because, according to everyone in town, it is “the place to build,” but immediately his naïveté is clear to contractors, who try to convince him to spend all his new money on unnecessary additions to the home. On one trip to the Beacon Hill building site, Penelope, Irene, and Silas run into Silas’s former business partner, Mr. Rogers, who helped Silas start up his business and whom Silas promptly dropped. Mr. Rogers makes it clear that he thinks Silas’s house is being built with “blood money” and denounces the family.

At the building site, Silas, Penelope, and Irene meet Tom Corey, a wealthy young man who becomes interested immediately in both of the sisters. Tom, from a blue-blood Boston family, has never had to work – Silas’s middle-class roots eventually influence Tom, who decides to go into business with Silas by selling paint in Europe for him. Persis warns Silas that if he wants Tom to marry either of his daughters they should not be in business together, but Silas ignores his wife’s warning.

As the house continues to be built, many things start to go wrong. Penelope and Irene both have feelings for Tom, and though it seems initially that Tom is interested in the more beautiful and younger Irene, he eventually confesses that he has feelings for Penelope, who is plain looking but intelligent, witty, and well-read. Penelope is deeply confused by this confession of Tom’s, particularly because she knows that her younger sister is madly in love with him. She worries about betraying her sister’s trust, and though she has feelings for Tom as well, she feels she can’t act on them because Irene would never forgive her.

Meanwhile, Silas is forced to shut down his paint factory after he invests in a series of schemes with which his old business partner Rogers approached him. Silas invests in Rogers’s schemes partly because of his guilt at pushing him out of the paint business. One of the schemes involving some mills proves to be completely worthless. Silas invests in the properties and then is propositioned to sell them at a much higher price to an Englishman who has never seen the land. Rogers encourages Silas to make money off the mills, but Silas’s morality ultimately comes through, and he refuses to trick the Englishman in order to save himself. Because of this, Rogers tells Silas that he has ruined his entire life.

Another tragedy occurs when Silas accidentally burns down the nearly finished Beacon Hill home in which he has invested an incredible amount of money. The insurance has just run out on the house, so the family’s investment is a total loss. Nearly out of money, Silas and his family are forced to return to their family home in Vermont, the current site of the paint mines.

The novel ends in relative happiness, despite the tragedies of the family’s short success. Penelope and Tom marry, and they go to Mexico to sell Silas’s high-quality paint, which he chose to keep after the closing of the factory. The rest of the mines Silas sells to a West Virginia company, so his family is now making a comfortable, though not extravagant wage, bolstered by Tom’s family wealth. Ultimately, morality wins the day, and the Lapham family end up happier back on their family farm then they ever were struggling to fit in Boston.