The Rise of Silas Lapham

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Helped along by pluck and luck, Silas Lapham has traveled the road from poor farmer to successful businessman. He has made his fortune by manufacturing a useful product (paint) and by selling it at a fair price. Having tasted success, Silas grows greedy. He squeezes his partner, Rogers, out of the business and then rationalizes his action as having been for the good of the company. Lapham subsequently turns from the hard work that has contributed to his rise in the world to stock speculation, an activity that will contribute to his downfall.

Written during a time of unprecedented growth and vulgarity in America, THE RISE OF SILAS LAPHAM dramatizes the moral dilemma that Howells found at the heart of that change. Silas is representative of the self-made man, the rugged individual as entrepreneur, so prevalent in the boom times of late-19th century America. Like those he represents, Silas finds himself between states: the old and the new, rural Vermont and cosmopolitan Boston, and more especially between the Puritan morality of his wife Persis and the social Darwinism of the robber barons.

If Rogers and Persis represent Silas’ past, the original sin and his guilt over that sin which taints his present success, then the house he builds in Boston’s Back Bay area represents his ambiguous future. On the one hand the house suggests the worst in Silas: an expression of the parvenu’s faith in conspicuous consumption. On the other hand, it implies a latent aesthetic sensibility still in need of considerable guidance and...

(The entire section is 629 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Boston. Massachusetts city in which the action of the novel unfolds. Having lived in Boston, Howells was familiar with the city and deftly portrays the social divide that existed there in the late eighteenth century between America’s aristocratic patricians, represented by the Coreys, who inherited their wealth and do not have to work for a living, and the rising tide of the newly rich, represented by the Laphams, particularly Silas, the self-made man. In the post-Civil War America Howells portrays, as industrialization increases and people like the Laphams move from farms to cities, the patrician class of Boston is being physically displaced. Along with this physical displacement comes the possibility of the displacement of spiritual and moral values brought about by excessive materialism. With its Puritan background and position as America’s cultural center, Boston is the perfect setting for this clash of values.

South End house

South End house. Home in which the Laphams have lived in an unfashionable South End neighborhood for twelve years. The furnishings of the house reflect the garish taste of the uncultured Laphams, and this bad taste signifies the possibility of a deficiency of character because it reveals values generated by excessive materialism. Silas is particularly materialistic. Ambitious to move up in society, Silas wants to live in the Beacon Hill neighborhood to display his monetary...

(The entire section is 558 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Carrington, George C. The Immense Complex Drama: The World and Art of the Howells Novel. Columbus: Ohio State University, 1966. A classic study that remains influential in the field. Analyzes The Rise of Silas Lapham in relation to Howells’ other novels. Considers theme, subject, technique, and form.

Eby, Clare Virginia. “Compromise and Complicity in The Rise of Silas Lapham.” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 24, no. 1 (Fall, 1991): 39-53. Analyzes the use of class, privilege, and the businessman in The Rise of Silas Lapham. Argues that in his depiction of the conflict between the Coreys and the Laphams, Howells advocates greater flexibility and compromise between class groups.

Pease, Donald E., ed. New Essays on “The Rise of Silas Lapham.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. A stimulating collection of essays on the novel. Includes topics ranging from Howells’ treatment of the middle class and suffering under capitalism to a reexamination of realism and Howells’ relationship with Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).

Tanselle, G. Thomas. “The Architecture of The Rise of Silas Lapham.” American Literature 37, no. 4 (January, 1966): 430-457. A structural analysis of the novel that notes two separate plots (the bankruptcy plot and the love plot) and diagrams their intersections and parallels to argue for the overall unity of the novel.

Vanderbilt, Kermit. The Achievement of William Dean Howells: A Reinterpretation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. The chapter on The Rise of Silas Lapham examines revisions of the novel and personal letters to show Howells’ concern with social eruption, class, and ethnicity in Boston during the Gilded Age.