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From Rags to Riches: The Rise (and Fall) of Silas Lapham The pen is mightier than the sword. And those who have mastered the pen are able to use their literary pieces to either paint a picture of reality hiding under the guise of fiction, or send a message to its readers without blatantly doing so. This is what William Dean Howells, author of the novel The Rise of Silas Lapham, was able to achieve. Through his works, Howells was able to portray reality through the lives of fictitious characters and, at the same time, convey his message with regard to the theme of the story. In the late 1800 s, Howells came out with The Rise of Silas Lapham, a story of a self-made man who was able to elevate himself and his family to millionaire status.
Initially, the novel seemed like a typical rags-to-riches story, with all the conflicts that may rise in between. However, what is interesting about this particular novel is that even though Lapham was able to climb the social ladder, with him and the rest of the Lapham's being nouveau riche, he still can't seem to penetrate the social circle, with all the old rich in it. Howells also digresses from the typical formula by starting off with Silas at the peak of his professional career and material wealth, only possessing weakness when it comes to social graces. Silas Lapham was able to make his fortune because of his paint business, which he took over from his father. And though he looks as if he's getting the upper hand, it appears that he is actually going down.
Though he is considered materially wealthy, Silas Lapham's ascent still does not give him what he really needs. The Lapham's still aren't considered part of the upper-class society. He tries to reach particular social standards by trying to give his daughter's hand in marriage to the son of an old-rich family, the Corey's. On his way up, Silas commits a very common mistake of an individual who has his eyes set on his goal. He uses his former one-time partner in order to get to the top. Typical crab mentality, which, when one really thinks about it, is actually a rapid climb to the top and yet will ensure an even quicker fall.
The novel opens with Silas granting an interview to a journalist. As a whole, the first chapter is actually one of the most revered in the novel, as one will witness Silas pouring out his thoughts and emotions, to a somewhat total stranger nonetheless. Towards the end, one will see that though Silas lost his money and his material possessions, even if he has in fact fallen socially, everything he thought that made him wealthy, he has actually gained more than what he thought. His rise in morality enabled him to make the right moral decision, most especially in the scene where his partner proposed the selling of the mills. The main characters in the novel are composed of two major families: the Lapham's and the Corey's. Silas, who is the head of the Lapham family, is the owner of a mineral paint business and has attained his wealthy status through this.
He moved to Boston together with his family, so that his wife and his daughters can immerse themselves into the aristocratic society, and for his daughters to find themselves noble men to give their hands to in marriage. Persis, the wife of Silas, has always been supportive of her husband. She is always included in any business decision that Silas has to make, which makes her not just a partner in life, but in everything else as well. Just like her husband, she wishes nothing but the best for her two girls.
Penelope is their oldest daughter and is considered the more uninviting than her sister, and so Silas and Persis feel that they will have a more difficult time looking for a man for her. However, she reads a lot of books in the hopes of having the upper-class society members accept her. Irene, the youngest daughter, is very attractive, though not as smart as her sister. She is extremely polite and is more mindful of the rest with regard to their social class. The Corey's, on the other hand, are considered one of the noble families of the upper-class society.
Bromfield, who is the head of the Corey family, is an artist who did not follow the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who were both very successful businessmen in their times. Surprisingly, he is more unprejudiced with regard to social classes. He only wishes for his son to establish himself career-wise and to be able to find a suitable wife. Anna, the wife of Bromfield, could be described as a typical high-society individual.
She is against her husband's hope for their son, Tom. She wants Tom to marry someone of either the same class or higher, and will not allow him to work beneath his status. In the story, Howells actually uses Anna's character to portray the upper-class society. She still believes in tradition; that women in the family should not be allowed to meddle with business matters. She is strongly against their son, Tom, wanting to marry or have a career outside, most especially below, their own class. She believes that a woman should learn, at an early age, the duties of a wife and a mother, and that doing so will be the only way one will become suitable for marriage...
considering that the woman is of the same stature in society. Her husband, however, constantly reminds her that times are changing, and she should not be so uptight about the rules of society, so to speak. Tom, the son of Bromfield and Ana, is the heir to the Corey's fortune. He is at this point in his life where he is still uncertain of what he wants to pursue professionally. So when he finally decides to join Silas Lapham, and shows interest in the Lapham's daughter, Penelope, his mother shows distaste for the choices he made, which he obviously does not agree with. The younger daughters of the Corey's, though they may seem to play minor roles in the story, are actually employed to enhance and highlight the difference between the two families.
Persis Lapham was already established as being more than a life-partner to Silas. She also acts as some kind of a conscience and intermediary. During the time that the novel was written, women are considered to have a more submissive role in relation to their husbands, and to men in general. This was shown in the story, through Persis' genuine support for her husband.
However, Silas does not take Persis' role in his life for granted. Whenever he has a decision to make, even if it is business-related, he confides with Persis and asks for her opinion and on her stand on the matter. They make the decision together, which is an important factor. The Lapham's and the Corey's could be considered as families that are on opposite sides of a pole.
On the one hand, you have the Lapham's, who have just recently acquired wealth because of the paint business that Silas inherited from his father. A family who is almost desperately trying to fit in, to penetrate the high-society circle. On the other hand, you have the Corey's, an aristocratic family who deviates from the typical upper-class members, as not all of them are fans of the social class divisions. However, despite the differences, their major unifying factor is Tom Corey and Penelope Lapham, and their undeniable attraction and love for each other. Tom, in actuality, meshes the Lapham's and the Corey's, through his professional career and his romantic feelings for the Lapham's daughter. When looked at in its entirety, the novel is actually divided into five major sections, according to critic G.
Thomas Tanselle. He believes that the first four chapters were devoted to Silas Lapham's business and his materialistic rise. The following chapters until the 12 th is about social rise, love, and marriage. Chapters 13 to 15 actually balance out the entire novel, showing the equilibrium of all the events. The next few chapters until the 19 th is again about love, but now, it also talks about the fall of Silas socially. And, lastly, from chapter 20 until the end, one will encounter the materialistic fall of Silas and how he learns to make ethical and morally correct choices.
It has been discussed and argued that the novel, in fact, should be entitled The Rise AND Fall of Silas Lapham, as he experiences both rising and falling in order to actually make it above the rest and, more importantly, himself. It's ironic that as he experiences materialistic rise, he also goes through a social fall; and vice-versa. It is important to note that being materially wealthy is not all that it is hyped up to be. That, more often than not, people have the tendencies to forget everything else as they try to reach their goal of being rich, but only in terms of money and material possessions. One should always keep in mind that as one goes up the ladder, one should make sure that he or she is not stepping on other people, just to be successful and rich; he or she should not forget about every other aspect in a person's life. Being rich is good; being materially wealthy helps you in a lot of things.
But then as soon as one forgets about the other facets, the bigger picture so to speak, then eventually, the fall will happen. In this particular novel, Howells was able to impart realism, by showing to his readers what really is going on in society at the time. How certain people are still trapped by their social class division mentality. How some will not stop until they reach the top, and until they are accepted by society, most importantly the upper-class people. How you can't impose your beliefs and certain traditions on your offspring, no matter how much they love and respect you, as they have minds and hearts of their own. How traditions are sometimes broken because of the changing times.
How certain lessons in life are timeless, because they can be applied to anyone, at any time, and at any place. When reading a work of realism, it is necessary to pay close attention not only to the dialogue, the characters, and the setting. More importantly, one should observe the non-verbal dialogue that is going on throughout the story, as these will...
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