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William Dean Howells Essay, Research Paper

In the novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham, William Dean Howells makes a particular point about the morals of an individual in the business world. His point is that an individual, such as Silas, must check their morals at the door if they have any plans to make it in the business world. The novel has always been popular, partly because it presents Lapham’s financial and social failure as “consciously and deliberately chosen” when he has to decide whether he shall cheat and stay on top in business or tell the truth and fail irrecoverably (Gibson 283). The Rise of Silas Lapham is a novel that deals with the potential moral corruption of a man by money. The outward signs of Silas Lapham’s corruption are his attempts to buy his way into social acceptance with a costly house and to buy his way out of moral responsibility through the deliberately unwise loan to a former partner and victim. The loan, made with money that his wife prevented him from spending on the house, is a complication that is neither accidental nor trivial. His eventual “rise” is a moral one resulting from the rejection of a legally sound but purely materialistic standard. It is accompanied by a corresponding adjustment in his understanding of the meaning of social differences, and a return to the “tradition” which had given his own family life solidity and dignity (Bennet 150). By using setting, symbolism and characterization, William Dean Howells writes about the conflicts of an individual and the world of big business, in the 19th century.

The setting is a crucial part of the story. The Rise of Silas Lapham is set in the city of Boston, Massachusetts in the late 19th century. If the story where set anywhere else, like maybe in a small town somewhere in suburban America, the plot would not have the same affect. Obviously the pressures of big business would be much tougher to deal with in a big city, like Boston, than in a small rural farm town, because the competition to be the best is much greater in the urban areas. The time period in which the story is set, the late 1800’s, is also a crucial part of the puzzle. All throughout the early 1800’s up until the present, big business has been on the rise. When large companies started setting up in cities, people moved to where the jobs were, and soon small towns became gigantic urban metropolises. The big business is what ultimately causes Silas’ moral rise and financial fall, and that is a crucial part of the plot. If the story where set in a different time period it would not have as big an impact. Also during the late 1800’s, social standing was very important. In those days a person was measured by their social standing, so it meant everything. The reason this is important is because, interwoven in the main plot is a secondary plot. This secondary plot has to do with the love triangle between Penelope Lapham, Irene Lapham, and Tom Corey. Everyone seems to think that Tom and Irene are in love with each other, while in actuality it is Tom and Penelope that are in love. This secondary plot only adds to Silas and Mrs. Corey’s inner struggles. If the story where not set in this time period, the social impact on the plot would also not be as great. Another aspect of the setting is the house that they currently live in, and the house they are building to live in. Mrs. Lapham feels that their current house is not good enough for their social standing. Because Silas is now a wealthy entrepreneur, they should be living in the upper class neighborhood. When Silas goes and has the house built, Mrs. Lapham is not impressed with the house, and wishes they could stay in their old neighborhood with their old friends. This causes part of Silas’ decline. It would not have happened in another time period, because in another time period a family would not have to change houses every time its social status changed.

Symbolism is also a very important part of the novel. The Rise of Silas Lapham is a comparatively short novel for Howells, and Howells achieved this brevity through the use of symbols which reinforce or give emotional dimension to some deeper meaning already incorporated within the framework of the novel’s narrative (Johnson 938). In the story, there are many uses of symbolism. One of the major symbols in the story is the new house that the Lapham’s are building on the water side of Beacon Street. They are building the house, because they feel that their old house is not in tune with their new social standing. In a way, the house symbolizes the Lapham’s move out of the middle class and into the wealthy upper class. It also symbolizes their future and how the Lapham’s are going to be living in the future. When Silas accidentally burns the house down, things start to head downhill. After the house is gone, the wealth starts to disappear and so does their social status. So when the house burns down it foreshadows the beginning of the end. Howells most dramatic use of symbolism to reinforce an already apparent meaning may be found at the climax of the novel when Lapham, after pacing the floor all night, decides on a course of action which is morally sound, but which will ruin him financially (Johnson 938-939). This action by Silas symbolizes the good versus evil struggle that appears in most stories. It also shows that the good inside of a person will usually win out over the evil in a person.

Characterization plays a big part in The Rise of Silas Lapham. Howells uses many characters in the story. The characters seem to be true to life, which makes for a much more enjoyable and believable story. It also helps show what the business world was like in the late 19th and early 20th century. Understanding the business world in those times, lets the reader make the connection, as to why Silas must stake his business to save his morals, or stake his morals to save his business. The central characters are steadily satirized for their foibles and stupidities, but at the same time they are all given a strong sense of responsibility and a feeling for decency (Carrington 78). The Rise of Silas Lapham is reassuring in some ways–the central characters are silly, but decent–and troubling in others–the world they live in is not a secure place. The Coreys build themselves a complete, graceful world, apparently based on solid investments and the hope of proper marriage for their children. But the investments mysteriously shrink; their daughters are homely and unsought; and their adored son marries the pert offspring of a Paint King. Lapham also builds what he believes is a complete, safe world; but he himself destroys part of it out of vanity (his lavish house), guilt (his clumsy retributory involvements with his ex-partner), and carelessness (he accidentally sets fire to the unfinished new house). The mysterious forces that rule the world take the rest: a depression weakens him, competitors crowd him, and the only bidders for his last bit of property are so obviously the devil’s emissaries that he refuses their offers and allows another financial group to swindle his interests away for him. Thus, the hubris in man and the malevolence in the world combine nicely to destroy mental structurings of reality (Carrington 78-79). The characters in the story try to control life; the harder they try and the more they need to keep their gains, the harder it is to keep what they have or to compress the spring more tightly; finally the situation escapes control, and life violently resumes its usual relaxed shapelessness (Carrington 79). Having lost his money and position, Silas is last seen pottering around the rocky family farm in northern Vermont; his shabby clothes suggest the change from pompous merchant to marginal farmer. Yet his triumph is the greatest a Howells character can have, and amply justifies the word Rise in the title. He has not only acted and risen morally, but he is aware of what he has done and he is consciously humble before the dark forces of the world. “Seems sometimes as if it was a hole opened for me, and I crept out of it,” he muses to Sewell, the Boston minister and active representative of the author. Here again is the surface image, this time from the point of view of the man who fell through and was allowed to climb out. As a farmer, Lapham is now passive, an assistant to the workings of alien nature, rather than its opponent; but he squarely faces, understands, and accepts them, and he is therefore an existential success (Carrington 80).

William Dean Howells writes about a man against the world of big business, by using setting, symbolism and characterization. In most of his stories, Howells writes about the morality of human beings, and their struggle to come to terms with it. In most cases the humans will realize that what is important is not always the most popular choice, nor is it the easiest one to make. The Rise of Silas Lapham is no different. The novel, while not extremely action packed or exciting, does have a point to make. The point is one that any human these days should understand. That is that money may control the world but it does not have to control an individual. If the individual chooses to be all about money, then it will ultimately lead to their downfall. If the individual chooses not to let it control them, then only the individual will be able to determine the outcome.

“Alienation Given Form: Part V.” The Immense Complex Drama: The World and Art of the Howells Novel. Ed. George C. Carrington Jr. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1966. 77-82.

Eble, Kenneth E., ed. Howells: A Century of Criticism. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1962.

Gibson, William M. “William Dean Howells.” American Writers. Ed. Leonard Unger. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974. 271-294.

Howells, William Dean. The Rise of Silas Lapham. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.

Johnson, Chandice M., Jr. “William Dean Howells.” Magill’s Survey of American Literature. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Vol. 3. Marshall Cavendice Corporation: New York, 1991. 932-945.

Kirk, Clara Manburg. W.D. Howells and Art In His Time. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1965.

Petry, Alice Hall. “William Dean Howells.” Critical Survey of Long Fiction. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Vol. 4. Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1983. 1,368-1,379.

Pizer, Donald. “The Ethnical Unity of The Rise of Silas Lapham.” Critics on William Dean Howells. Ed. Paul A. Eschholz. Coral Garden: University of Miami Press. 80-83.

“Portrait Of An American.” William Dean Howells: The Development of A Novelist. Ed. George N. Bennet. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959. 50-51, 80-81, 150-161.

Scudder, Horace E. “Recent American Fiction.” Critical Essays On William Dean Howells, 1866-1920. Ed. Edwin H. Cady and Norma W. Cady. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1983. 37-57

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