In Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham, the protagonist tries, and ultimately fails, to ascend in the class structure. The women in the novel also try, but fail, to reimagine gender roles (see the source by Powell, below). Silas Lapham, born in Vermont in a lowly class, works his way to prominence and wealth in Boston as a paint manufacturer. His wife, Persis, tries to be a new kind of woman who is socially adept and modern, but she ultimately fails, as do her daughters, Irene and Penelope.
At the beginning of the novel, when Silas Lapham is being interviewed by a reporter, Silas says, "I guess you wouldn't want my life without the money." In other words, Silas knows that he is only interesting to society because of the money he has made. During the interview, Silas also describes his old-fashioned mother in the following way:
"She cooked, swept, washed, ironed, made and mended from daylight till dark--and from dark till daylight, I was going to say; for I don't know how she got any time for sleep."
Silas Lapham comes from old-fashioned stock, and his mother was a traditional woman who carried out the old-fashioned gender roles of cooking and cleaning.
However, when Silas Lapham and his family become rich, the gender roles and the social structure of the world around them change. Howells describes the lives of Persis Lapham, Silas's wife, and his daughters, Penelope and Irene, in the following way:
"They were not girls who embroidered or abandoned themselves to needle-work. Irene spent her abundant leisure in shopping for herself and her mother, of whom both daughters made a kind of idol, buying her caps and laces out of their pin-money, and getting her dresses far beyond her capacity to wear. Irene dressed herself very stylishly, and spent hours on her toilet every day. Her sister had a simpler taste, and, if she had done altogether as she liked, might even have slighted dress. They all three took long naps every day, and sat hours together minutely discussing what they saw out of the window."
Lapham's wife and daughters have abandoned the traditional ways of his hardworking country mother now that they live as wealthy society ladies in Boston. They are self-indulgent and lazy, and they make their mother into a kind of doll, with laces and caps. Irene spends all her time on fashion, while Penelope disregards it. Both extremes are out of the norm for women from the class to which Silas Lapham originally belonged. It is clear that by changing their social class, they have also changed the way they operate as women. The older daughter, Penelope, is in particular very different from a traditional woman in that she reads and has no apparent interest in men, unlike her sister, Irene (see the source by Powell, below).
When the Laphams lose all their money at the end of the novel and must leave Beacon Hill to return to the countryside in Vermont, they find it a relief. Howells writes:
"Mrs. Lapham found it easier to leave it for the old farmstead in Vermont ... This home was haunted with such memories to each of those who abandoned it that to go was less exile than escape."
Just as the Lapham family's rise in social class is only temporary—as their privileged status came only from their money and not from being born into the elite—the women in the family also lose their sense of being more modern women at the end of the novel. Mrs. Lapham returns to Vermont to be a country wife, and her daughter Irene reverts to probably being an old maid. Penelope loses her zeal for life and marries Corey, and she also becomes a domesticated woman (see the Powell source, below). Therefore, Howell's reimagining of gender dovetails with his reimagining of social structure.