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William Dean Howell's The Rise of Silas Lapham

William Dean Howells was the most prominent author in the school of realism, and The Rise of Silas Lapham is his most prominent work. The book has been described as a paradigm for the United States in the late 19th century, as the Industrial Revolution took hold, fortunes were won and lost, and America searched for a new identity. This paper will analyze Howells' seminal work and how it fits into the Realist tradition that the author helped create.

Silas Lapham as a Man and as a Symbol

A cursory plot summary would seem to indicate that The Rise of Silas Lapham details Lapham's rise from a man of few means to a wealthy business owner. After all, that is the American myth, the idea anyone can become rich if they work hard enough or are lucky enough. The title apparently confused some, such as one English reviewer who admitted puzzlement that The Rise of Silas Lapham detailed a financial catastrophe (Carter 165).

Howells' title refers not to that rise but to what happens later, after Silas achieves financial success, loses his business, then rises again, though not in an economic sense. Lapham's rise is from a greedy man with too much pride to a sadder but wiser man, one who is much more thoughtful and considerate and appreciative of life's gifts. That rise is what Howells is celebrating.

Silas' rise parallels that of his house. After becoming wealthy, he sets about building a grand house that ôbecomes, in almost every respect, neatly symbolic of the moral rise and material fall of its builder, Silas Laphamö (Carter 164). Lapham's transformation the day he drops by the building site with his wife. Who pops up but Rogers, Lapham's old business partner. Lapham took advantage of Rogers in the early days of business, so when he shows up, Lapham does not speak to him.

But Rogers' arrival reminds Persis, Silas' wife, of what Silas has done. She declares that the new house is built with blood money and that she wi...

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William Dean Howell's The Rise of Silas Lapham. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 23:02, November 30, 2021, from