The Rise of Silas Lapham By William Dean Howells Character Analysis Silas

As a tragic hero, Silas must be presented as being a better than average man. His great wealth places him out of the ordinary realm of men. Additionally, he must have a tragic flaw; Silas fulfills this by having a desire for wealth above all considerations and by having an exalted pride in his wealth. As a comic character, he must display some quirks that are not moral flaws or characteristics that are not damning. Silas likes to brag, for instance, about his family, his paint, and his new home. He, also, has false social aspirations, as illustrated by his building a new home which he thinks will put him on the same social level with the Coreys.

As a tragic comic hero, Silas finds in his middle age that he cannot attain his romantic but impossible social aspiration. His comic traits do not make him a comical butt, and his tragic downfall does not make him an actual hero; but, instead, he is a man much like ourselves. The psychology of his makeup is presented realistically, and in the end, he is "sadder but wiser," chastened but not totally defeated.

He is romantic in regard to the wealth that has made his life dreamlike and immediately makes the mistake of matching his beautiful, instead of his intelligent daughter, with Tom Corey. His realism grows as the novel progresses, for he later faces the reality of his moral fault of taking advantage of Rogers, the reality of his social position as a crude, uneducated backwoodsman, and the real necessity for Penelope to marry Corey.

Silas has few aesthetic values, for he covers the New England landscape with advertisements for his paint. His plans for a home are ugly, and he has no appreciation for art, as shown by his saying that the quality of a painting depends solely upon the price paid.

Like the people on the boat that he takes to his summer home, he is a commonplace man with nothing but the American poetry of vivid purpose to light him up. Uncultured, he prefers newspapers, theater, and lectures to books. He does not like to see tragedy on the stage because there is enough of it in real life. The Coreys he finds to be offensively aristocratic, and he does not consider associating with them until he needs to introduce his daughters to society. Because of his great wealth, he takes a condescending attitude toward them, not realizing his money is all he has. His money, he believes, makes him equal if not better.

A hard worker, his wife says he slaves harder every year. Of course, this is the only way he knows to make more money. Walker, his bookkeeper, says that Silas knows what he wants and goes after it. Even though a stubborn, natural-born businessman, he does have trouble working out complicated arithmetical problems. Sharing management with Rogers or anyone else is more than he can endure. Standing alone, he believes every man should be able to take care of himself rather than to be taken care of like a woman. Although not brilliant, he is intelligent, shrewd, and sensible.

His relationship with his wife has degenerated from one of sharing to secrecy about his business. Yet, they like to talk to each other in a blunt way: "it is the New England way of expressing perfect confidence and tenderness." Whenever anything goes wrong, Mrs. Lapham can still expect this broad-shouldered, square-chinned man to tell her.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

At the conclusion of the novel, which of the following statements is not true?




Quiz