Critical Essays Morality in The Rise of Silas Lapham


Silas Lapham might be described as a "man who lived to himself without the knowledge of social good and evil." A prideful materialist, Lapham must learn that he has to act without sole concern for himself. Living in a world where the code has become "every man for himself," Silas has to learn the moral need for self-sacrifice. His rise from self-centered egotism to concern for another, to concern for the group, to concern for society completes his destruction as a materialist. By refusing to unload his mills on the unsuspecting society of English settlers, he completes his moral rise and concludes his business failure.

Outward signs of Lapham's corruption are evident throughout the novel. His attempts to buy his social position with a costly house and his attempt to buy his way out of moral responsibility with a loan to Rogers are both comments on Lapham's low moral condition as well as a reflection upon the society in which he lives. Bromfield Corey recognizes the quandary of Silas' position, for it is caused by the society which Corey represents. His elegant but sterile society must make room for the progressive, rising business — man but it can only admit these people on the basis of their material fortunes. Bromfield condemns his society for not helping morally isolated people like Silas with the struggle of good and evil. Lapham, uneducated and unrefined, must struggle with the temptation to maintain his social position by wealth or to lose it and return to his crude beginnings.

Lapham's moral rise and business failure, however, help him to make a social adjustment, even though it is a step back. Silas, at least, realizes that there are social differences between himself and the educated Coreys. Before his fall, he believes himself to be their equal, if not superior, in dollars. Later, he sees that without his money be is nothing, while the Coreys can survive socially without it.

His step back into the land of his origins re-establishes stronger roots for his family and gives them the dignity of a tradition not entirely based on quickly earned money. In his moral rise, Silas' pride is stifled; he denies the temptation to seize every possible opportunity of trampling on others to gain material prosperity for himself. Bound again to his society, he learns to live for others. He outdoes even the Coreys as civilized man, for he triumphs over barbaric isolation. He learns to face the new set of values of the modern age by conforming to the old, basic rule of morality: Love Thy Neighbor. This humanitarian act of devotion is the only way to conceive of an all-loving God, bringing Lapham into contact with the spiritual world.

The moral rise of Silas Lapham, sparked with its elements of comedy and tragedy, told romantically and realistically, is made more pointed by Howells' use of symbols, which will be considered next.