In The Rise of Silas Lapham, which is set in Boston, Howells tells of the collapse and fall of the financial empire of rustic Vermont entrepreneur Silas Lapham. The title is ironic, for the “rise” with which Howells is primarily concerned is Lapham’s moral resurrection. This rise takes place when Lapham’s business fails as a result of his decision to abandon the elastic and self-serving business codes which have been instrumental in his financial rise.
There are, in effect, two plots developing simultaneously in The Rise of Silas Lapham. In addition to the main plot, which follows Lapham’s financial rise and fall, there is a subplot involving a triangle composed of Irene and Penelope Lapham and Tom Corey. In both the main plot and the subplot, the conflicts or dilemmas faced by those involved are resolved through the application of an “economy of pain” formula. This formula is introduced by the Reverend Sewell, one of the novel’s chorus characters. According to Sewell’s formula, conflict must be resolved by a choice of action which limits the pain inherent in the action to the fewest number of individuals. Lapham’s moral rise may be directly attributed to his acceptance of this formula, for the choice he makes in the end is one that will limit the pain associated with his decision to himself and a few other individuals.
The Rise of Silas Lapham is a comparatively (for Howells) short novel, and...
Silas Lapham is being interviewed for a Boston paper. The journalist is secretly mocking Lapham’s way of life, but Lapham is content with his success and pays little attention to his interviewer as he proudly exhibits a photograph of his two daughters and his wife. He tells how he had been brought up in a large family and had gone West with his brothers, how he had returned, bought a stage route, married the village schoolteacher, and finally hit upon the idea of making paint from a mineral his father had discovered on his farm. The story of his success is a story of determination and hard work. During the American Civil War, his wife kept the paint works going, and after the war, he had taken a man named Rogers as a partner for a short time.
After the interview, Lapham and his wife drive out to see the site of a house they are building in a more fashionable part of Boston. Although both look with pride upon the place soon to be their residence, they pretend not to want the house at all. They merely suggest the new home would be a greater advantage for Penelope and Irene when their friends visit. Neither Penelope nor Irene anticipates their coming change of living with great joy. They think the present house is more convenient for the horse cars. Secretly, both realize that their parents are awkward in social life, and they themselves have not been brought up to feel comfortable in the presence of people whose families had been accustomed to wealth for generations.
One day, as Mr. and Mrs. Lapham are dismounting from their carriage, Lapham’s former partner appears unexpectedly. Rogers had provided money to help get the business started, but Lapham had eventually bought Rogers out. Lapham insists that what he had done had merely been good business, but Mrs. Lapham maintains that she never felt quite right about what had happened to Rogers. Seeing him again takes all the happiness out of her plans for the new house.
The next time the family ventures out to visit the partly completed house, Irene is surprised by the arrival of Tom Corey, a young man who had shown some interest in her. Immediately, Mr. Lapham begins to dominate the occasion, and by his bragging he greatly embarrasses his daughters. That evening, young Corey talks to his father, Bromfield Corey, who does not agree with his son’s easy acceptance of the Laphams but does not object when his son announces his intention of applying for a position in Lapham’s firm.
Young Corey visits Lapham in his office to ask for a job. Lapham is so pleased that he invites Corey to go with him to Nantasket, where Mrs. Lapham and the girls are expecting Lapham for the weekend. At the Nantasket cottage, the girls and their mother cannot understand why young Corey is visiting for the weekend. They had thought Lapham’s bragging would have kept him away forever.
That evening, Lapham discusses Corey with his wife. Mrs. Lapham contends that Corey is interested not in the paint or the paint business but in Irene. Mr. Lapham says that if the young man is not interested in the paint he will never get a chance to be interested in Irene. When Lapham says he intends to give the young man a chance, Mrs. Lapham warns him that he is playing with a situation that is bound to bring trouble. Corey’s mother is concerned when she hears about her son’s new employment. She admits she would not object if he makes a fortune from the paint business, but she does not want him to fall in love with either of the Lapham girls.
After Corey enters Lapham’s employ, he is invited frequently to the Lapham home, for Irene is beginning to fall in love with him. Bromfield Corey grows more and more curious about the Laphams. He...