(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Rise of Silas Lapham cover image

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...

(The entire section is 540 words.)