William Dean Howells’s The
Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) was the
first important realistic novel to focus on an American businessman. The author
intended his highly regarded novel to provide moral education to the readers.
Early in the novel Howells presents an essential business-related moral dilemma
that has repercussions throughout the entire story. The main story depicts a
man’s moral rise while his prosperity is declining.
Silas Lapham is a man from a
humble background who has become rich through hard work. The story is set in a
time period when many old fortunes were diminishing and when the newly rich were
frequently wealthier than the old rich. Silas is a nouveaux riche, post-civil war millionaire, who, along with his
family, attempts to become part of Boston
society. He was determined to place his wife and his daughter among that city’s
aristocracy. The novel’s secondary but interrelated plot chronicles his
family’s awkward attempts to gain acceptance into cultured society.
The book begins
with reporter, Bartley Hubbard, interviewing Silas for an article on the
businessmen of Boston.
The self-assured Lapham is being profiled in this feature article and dictates
his biography to the newspaper interviewer. When the upper class Hubbard
returns home he ridicules Lapham for his crudeness, lack of breeding, and
simple upbringing. Hubbard’s wife asks him not to make fun of the uncultured
and inarticulate Lapham in the piece he is writing. Through this interview the
reader learns a great deal about Lapham’s past.
Silas had been a
poor child with a solid Christian background. He was raised on a family farm in
rural northern Vermont
near the Canadian border. His mother taught him the virtues of the Old
Testament and Poor Richard’s Almanac.
In 1835 Silas’s father, Nehemiah, discovered a mineral paint deposit. Nehemiah
experimented with the paint and thought it had the potential to be profitable
but unfortunately, at that time, people could not afford to paint their houses.
Silas travelled to
the West as a young man but returned to Vermont.
He first worked in sawmill and then as a stableman at a hotel. After his
parents died, Silas moved to Lumberville where he drove a stage, bought and managed
the stage line, and met and married the village schoolteacher, Persis. Silas
married his ideal woman. Throughout the novel, he displays respect and high
regard for all the women in his life—his mother, his wife, and later his
intelligent daughter, Penelope, and his beautiful daughter, Irene. He was proud
of them all.
Lapham rented a
tavern stand. In 1855, Persis urged him
to paint the tavern he rented in order to improve its appearance. As a result,
he investigated the paint mine on his father’s farm, mixed up some paint, and
tried it. He had the ore analyzed and found it that it was quite valuable. When
he had it tested he found that it contained 75 percent peroxide of iron making
it capable of withstanding fire, water, and acid. The demand for flame
resistant paint had soared after many passengers had been killed in boat fires
in the West. Silas returned to Lumberville after he received the test results,
sold out everything that he had, put it all into his naturally-superior,
weather-resistant paint, and become a prosperous paint manufacturer. Silas
named his brand of paint after his wife. After all, it was she who prompted him
to develop the paint. He became the proud owner of a paint company called “The
confident that his wife could handle any situation. She encouraged, helped, and
guided him in his various endeavors. Persis also acts as Silas’s moral
conscience throughout most of the novel. Her opinions carry great weight with
him. His actions are greatly influenced by what he believes will please his
wife. The value of her contributions and her moral assessments diminishes as
the story progresses.
When Silas left to
fight in the Civil War, she managed the paint business for him. During the war,
he fights gallantly, is wounded at Gettysburg,
and is promoted to the rank of full colonel. Silas’s friend, Jim Millen, died
saving his life in the war. Millen took a bullet that was intended for Lapham.
As a result, Silas felt an obligation to Millen’s wife (Molly) and daughter
(Zerilla). Later in the novel, we see Silas risks his reputation by supporting
the dubious, alcoholic widow and daughter of the man who saved his life in
combat. Rumor regarding Silas and two women led Persis to misread Silas’s relationship
with Zerilla, his typist.
suffered during the war. When he returned from the Civil War in 1865, he found
a changed business world characterized by rapidly changing dynamic markets,
large firms, international trade, and strong competition. After the Civil War
there were more interconnections with suppliers and customers because of
railroads, steamships, canals, etc., and distant and local events were
affecting one another. He wanted to expand his business, but was reluctant to
take in a partner—he wanted to keep the business to himself. Persis convinces
him to acquire a partner with capital to expand and to secure the company from
failure. Against his own better judgment, Silas takes on Milton K. Rogers as a
partner because he thought his wife always knew what was best.
Silas saw Rogers as unknowledgeable about
the paint business and as never having added value to the firm. His intuition
was that Rogers
would seriously harm the business if he remained with the company. After
benefiting from the use of his partner’s capital, Silas gave Rogers the chance of either buying Silas out
or selling out to Silas. Rogers was unable to
buy Silas out so Silas bought out Rogers,
paying him more then he originally invested. After Rogers left the business, Lapham became a
millionaire during the post Civil War period.
that her husband used Rogers‘s capital to get rich and accuses him of unloading
Rogers just before the price of paint soared. She thinks that Silas mistreated Rogers and never lets him
forget that she is disappointed regarding his treatment of his former partner.
She never truly forgives him for being unfair in crowding Roger out of the
business. Persis believes that her husband had stolen the future profits that Rogers’s investments had
made possible. Throughout the novel she endeavors to make Silas see his “moral
failure” and to pay back Rogers
in some way. Persis thinks that Silas ruined Rogers’s life through this transaction.
In no way is it
self-evident that Lapham had been unfair to Rogers—at most we could argue for an ambivalent
interpretation with respect to his behavior. The business prospered but the
partnership did not succeed. Rogers
had an option and received a good deal more than he had invested. Lapham
contends that he did nothing wrong in buying Rogers out just before the business took off.
He says that it was a prudent business decision. Silas thought that Rogers was a hindrance
and that he had paid a fair price. Persis tried to make Silas feel guilty but
it is uncertain as to whether or not there was any moral wrong to feel guilty
his paint manufacturing company in Boston
while maintaining the mining portion of the business on the family farm near
Lumberville. Once his business is a success, the Laphams buy a house in Nankeen Square in the
South End and their daughters, Penelope and Irene, attend public school.
Penelope, the eldest daughter, was smart and witty, plain in appearance, liked
to read and attend church lectures, and had no interest in high society. The
beautiful Irene was three years younger, loved to shop, also (at first) had no
interest in society, and was not as smart or witty as her sister. As the story
progresses, the Laphams become social climbers.
Irene and her
mother vacation on the St. Lawrence where they meet Anna Corey and her two
daughters. Anna becomes ill and Persis cares for her until the doctor arrives.
Anna’s son, Tom, joins his family on vacation and appears to be captivated by
Irene. On her return home, Persis tells Silas that she was impressed with the
aristocratic Corey family. The chance meeting with the Coreys leads to a
reevaluation of the Lapham’s lifestyle, and Persis becomes conscious of the
difference between her family and members of Boston’s upper class society. The barely
educated, uncultured Silas has no personal interest in culture and society but
loves his wife and daughters, wants them to be happy, and encourages them to
The Coreys are a
prestigious, traditional, old money family who initially associates with the Laphams
because of Persis’s kindness to Anna on the Canadian trip. Anna’s husband,
Bromfield, is a snob who does not work and who has never worked a day in his
life. He had inherited wealth from his father, Giles Corey, a merchant who
imported goods from India to
New England. Anna had never been in the
Laphams’ undesirable part of town. She is afraid that her son might marry one
of the Lapham girls. Both Bromfield and Anna do not hold high opinions with
respect to commercial people. The Coreys’ fortune had dwindled and the Laphams
were actually in much better financial standing than the Coreys. Rather than
enter the business world, Bromfield sells a house and cuts back on some of his
family’s social activities.
Lapham girls were uneasy in society, Persis and Silas thought that their
daughters needed to be introduced to society and that it would be best for them
to move from their old house in South End and to build a new house in the Back Bay area on the sophisticated and exclusive Beacon Street. They
decided to build a mansion on the water side of Beacon Street. To Persis and Silas, this
new house represented Penelope and Irene’s futures in upper class society. They thought that moving to an elite
neighborhood would place the family in the center of society. They did not
realize that it would take more than money to break social barriers. For
example, the resentful Mrs. Corey remarked that Back Bay
is being very common these days.
partner, the unscrupulous Rogers, shows up and asks for help. Silas lends money
to Rogers and
accepts as collateral land (i.e., a deed to mill property out West) and
questionable securities that he believes to be worthless. Rogers indeed has pledged worthless land and
watered stock as collateral. Overlooking the risks, Lapham makes this and
additional loans to Rogers
throughout the rest of the story. It is unclear if Silas makes these loans out
of a true sense of guilt and wrongdoing, or to gain approval from his wife.
Although Silas listened to his wife to lend Rogers money, it is not evident that down
deep he believed that he had done anything wrong.
Persis views the
income earned after Rogers had been “forced out”
to be a result of Rogers’s
capital investment. She believes that money was taken from him, and she
attributes all of Rogers’s
subsequent financial failures as due to her husband’s actions. Persis thinks
that Silas lends money to Rogers as an attempt
to ease his guilty conscience due to his forcing Rogers out. As a result, she begins to
forgive Silas and to view him as a moral person again. Over the years, she has
scolded her husband for his inability to share his paint company with anyone.
On the other hand,
Silas consistently maintains that his buyout of Roger was a business
transaction in which he acted justly. He explains that Rogers did not contribute to the business and
was not a benefit to it. It may be that he got involved with Rogers a second time because he wanted to
please his wife, who attempts to serve as his moral conscience throughout the
The Coreys and the
Laphams continue to get involved socially. Both Irene and Penelope are
attracted to Tom Corey. Because the Coreys were running low on money, Tom did
not want to continue drawing upon his father’s wealth and, therefore, told his
father that he is going to ask Silas for a job. Toms’s parents thought that his
desire to work for Lapham might be because he was attracted to Irene. The
Coreys thought that it wrong for Tom to be interested in the uninteresting,
dull, and socially-inept Irene. Anna does not want Tom to work for Lapham or to
marry one of his daughters. She perceives Irene as vapid and Penelope as
Silas, who does
not waste time and is devoted to hard work, criticizes Tom Corey for not
working. However, the uneducated Silas is impressed with Tom’s knowledge of
several languages. Tom had travelled extensively abroad and was fluent in several
languages. Tom believes in the paint business and asks Silas about his entering
the business. Tom wants to enter a profession that he can be passionate about.
He wants to do something with his life.
Tom asks Lapham if
he would permit him to invest in the paint company and to open branches outside
the United States, starting
There were emerging opportunities to export mineral paint to Spain, France,
Germany, Italy, and
other countries. Silas does not want a partner but he agrees to take Tom on as
an employee. The young Corey agrees to work for Silas and says the fact that he
had gone to college won’t hurt him. Silas was flattered when the young man from
one of Boston’s
leading families asks him for a job.
Tom had offered to
work for Silas on a commission only basis. He told Lapham that, given his
knowledge of foreign languages, he would be able to promote the paint products
in a number of different countries. Silas gives Tom a few months to learn the
business, lets him do office work and translate foreign correspondence, and
appoints him to be head of foreign paint sales.
The newly rich Silas
spent money on charities and church but not on social activities. He did not
learn to spend his wealth in the manner that accepted families of society did.
His language is not acceptable and he is somewhat boastful and obnoxious. Silas
flaunts his wealth and he is unfamiliar with social conventions. Lacking
manners, culture, and the social graces, he is shunned socially and deemed to
be socially inadequate. For much of the story he did not understand that his
own prosperity and crudeness could be inconsistent with culture, education, and
so on. Despite his deficiencies, Silas comes off in the novel as generally
smart, likeable, powerful, and just.
The Coreys invite
the Laphams to attend a dinner party at their tastefully decorated house.
Penelope decided not to attend to event because she felt uneasy around Anna
Corey and because she thought her father might boast too much. In fact, Silas,
who was fearful of making social errors, drinks too much wine and talks too
much. As the evening wore on he became louder and more boastful.
Silas attempted to
apologize to Tom at work the next day. Tom brushed the apology aside and said
that Silas’s intoxication was the fault of Tom’s family, who knew that Silas
did not drink. After the dinner party incident, Lapham realizes that his pride
and ambition had overreached himself. At the dinner he was challenged to
understand that his habits, demeanor, education, and manners were inadequate.
After the dinner party, Silas becomes honest with his genuine self-identity and
self-interest. He sets aside the notion of social propriety for himself in
favor of his honest and self reliant personal pursuits of his own objective
values. Of course, he continues to support his daughters in their own efforts
to join the social elite.
expresses his love for Penelope rather than for Irene. No one had suspected
that Penelope was the sister that he was in love with. Tom desired a smart and
witty woman with depth and a good personality. Penelope also had feelings for
Tom but she feared that Irene would be devastated if she and Tom began a
romantic relationship. Penelope was pleasantly surprised when she learned about
Tom’s love for her, but she is hesitant and does not want to betray Irene who
loved Tom first.
Penelope informs her
parents about Tom. They speak about the situation to Reverend Sewell who observes
that Penelope and Tom would be doing no wrong. He explains that keeping
Penelope and Tom apart would only bring unhappiness for all concerned. Sewell’s
analysis was based on what he termed the “economy of pain” which stated that
pain should be limited to the fewest number of individuals possible. Sewell
says that Penelope and Tom should pursue their love. In that case, only one
person would be hurt. On the other hand, if Penelope gives Tom up, then all
individuals involved would be hurt. As expected, Irene takes the news hard, but
she tells Penelope that what happened was not Penelope’s fault. After learning of
the situation Irene departs to live for a while in the Lapham’s Vermont home. Penelope
initially refuses Tom’s proposal of marriage. This decision reflects the
mistaken ideal of self-sacrifice.
All the while, Rogers has repeatedly
been coming to Lapham to borrow more money to invest in his speculative,
unsuccessful, and sometimes scandalous dealings. Silas continues to rely on
Persis’s sentimental and mistaken judgments and lends Rogers more and more money.
business begins to deteriorate as the economy slumped, competition increased,
and his paint sales dropped. He encountered a keen competitor with respect to
paint production from a West Virginia
firm that could produce paint less expensively because the company owned
natural gas wells which brought down its fuel costs. The West Virginia firm has natural advantages
that Silas cannot compete with. The discovery of natural gas by the West Virginia company alters the relative
cost structure between the two companies.
Lapham has also
been supporting the family of Jim Millen who had saved Silas’s life during the
Civil War. He gives money to the wife, Molly, and hires the daughter, Zerilla,
to work as a typist in his office. Persis advises Silas’s not to give the Millens
any more assistance because she believed that Silas’s had already done enough
to meet his obligation to them. This is opposite of the opinion she had with
regard to Silas’s debt to Rogers.
The cost of the
home Silas is building has skyrocketed to more that $100,000. Silas considers
filing for bankruptcy or selling the house in order to escape financial ruin.
The young Corey offers Silas money, but Silas declines and decides to sell his
Silas receives an
offer to buy the lavish new house that he is building. He goes to see the house
one more time, makes a fire in the chimney, and decides not to take the offer.
He fails to completely extinguish the fire, which ultimately destroys the
house. At first Persis is afraid that Silas will be charged with insurance
fraud, but that would not be the case because the insurance policy had expired a
Lapham has loaned
money to Rogers
and has accepted as collateral a number of mills in the West that he knows to
be of very low value. Needing money, it appears that Silas will have to sell
out to a railroad company at a very low price because of his inability to
negotiate with the company. The property on which his mills are located is
served by a spur line of a railroad company that wants to purchase the property
at a bargain price. The owner of the railroad realizes that the company can
decrease the property’s value to whatever price it desires to pay by
restricting services to the land in question. The railroad company wants to buy
the mills and the mills are dependent on the railroad.
brings to Silas dishonest men who want to buy the land for unsuspecting clients
Rogers shows up
with an offer from some Englishmen who desire to buy the mills for a great deal
of money. Lapham assumes that the people with whom Rogers is dealing do not realize the
worthlessness of the land. Lapham has to decide whether to sell the land to these
supposedly unaware people, or to refuse to sell, thereby saving the other party
from losing money due to Rogers’s
In fact, the
Englishmen are Rogers’s accomplices who were to
be paid out of Rogers’s
share of the purchase money. These individuals are agents for a philanthropic
charitable group in England
that wants to establish a utopian community on the mill property. These agents
know that the mill property is worthless—they simply want to garner high
commissions for their work.
Silas did not want
to be a part of the swindle of Rogers’s
prospective buyers. He goes to these Englishmen to expose Rogers, but they said they are already aware
of the land’s value. They tell Silas that the loss will be borne by wealthy men
for whom they are working. They assure Silas that their principals are aware of
the potential risks and that they are ready to assume them. For a short period,
Lapham is ambivalent and undecided about doing business with the agents of the
British philanthropic society. If he would sell to the agents, both they and
Rogers would make money and his paint business would survive. The loser would
be the English gentlemen from the utopian charitable group. Silas realizes that
he would be cheating them.
Silas makes the
just and moral choice by refusing to sell the Western mill property to the
agents of the charitable organization. When Lapham decides that it is wrong for
him to sell to these men, Rogers offers an alternative. He suggests that Lapham
sell to him and he would then, in turn, sell to the agents. His presumption is
that such a tactic would absolve Silas of any personal moral responsibility. Of
course, Silas declines to accept Rogers’s
offer. Silas makes these moral judgments himself without the guidance of his
wife. He decides not to sell thus accelerating his impending bankruptcy. He
ends up accepting a low offer from the railroad. The morally righteous Lapham
was unwilling to stoop to deceit to save his paint business. As a free moral
agent, Laphan controls the probability of his own bankruptcy.
Lapham attempts to forge a merger with his West Virginia competitor. In order to go
forward with the merger he needs to obtain capital from another investor.
Shortly after Silas refuses to sell to the English agents, a potential New York investor offers
the needed substantial new capital in order to join Lapham’s firm. Facing
another opportunity to act honestly and justly, Silas resists the chance to
misrepresent his failing company to this interested investor. He completely and
objectively discloses all of the relevant financial details of his company and
makes it known that he intends to use the investor’s cash to effect a merger
with his West Virginia company thereby avoiding bankruptcy. The potential
investor withdraws his offer as a result.
Lapham files for
bankruptcy and turns his Boston
home, business, and other assets over to his creditors. After liquidating his
assets, he leaves Boston
as an honest man who has self-respect, self-esteem, and self-knowledge. Silas
and his family return to his homestead in Vermont where he continues to manufacture
his Persis line of paint but on a smaller scale.
Silas arranges for
Tom Corey to obtain a position with the West
Virginia paint company where he becomes part owner.
The young Corey goes to Vermont to ask
Penelope to marry him before he leaves for South America to be a salesman for
the West Virginia
company. Penelope ultimately decides to marry Tom.
younger Laphams do join the social elite, back in Vermont, Silas and Persis no longer are
concerned with culture and social etiquette. They have happily returned to a
peaceful and quiet country life where social position does not matter. Silas is
not broken. He knows that he is an honest, moral, and independent man who had
made something of himself through hard work. He is honest, both with others and
with himself, and possesses underlying dignity and decency. He knows that his
business and personal decisions had been made based on justice and fairness
rather than on emotion and sentiment.