Romanticism and Realism in The Rise of Silas Lapham
William Dean Howells, an early advocator of realism, wrote novels that supported his beliefs. He included romantic elements in his novels, however, to show how they can be harmful in real situations. The rise of Silas from a barefoot farm boy to a millionaire is a romantic story which ends in financial disaster. Money and business are closer and more comprehensible than God to Silas, who needs a shower of cool moral realism. Silas' moral rise fulfills Howells' desire to present an anti-romantic novel.
The secondary plot of the Irene Penelope Corey triangle love affair gives Howells another opportunity to defeat romantic ideas. The assumption that Tom loves Irene for her beauty rather than Penelope for her wit is a romantic notion held by both the Laphams and the Coreys. Howells shows us of course how unrealistic this notion is when Tom declares his love for Penelope. Additionally, he shows us how harmful it is to all the parties involved. Irene suffers humiliation, Penelope is placed in a frustrating position, and both the Laphams and the Coreys are forced to make major readjustments.
Penelope's desire to be heroic by giving up Tom is likewise romantic, for it shows her to be excessively self-sacrificing. She is not sparing her family from sorrow, like Irene, by re-establishing herself as a stronger person. As the minister Sewell points out in discussing the novel Tears, Idle Tears, "Old fashioned heroines are ruinous." Penelope's romantic and excessive sisterly love and self-sacrifice only make a realistic situation worse. She cannot realistically bring everything to a happy conclusion, as does the passive enduring, sweet coquette of the romantic novels.
Howells' realism extended beyond simply showing the ill effects of romantic notions. As a realist, he asked himself, "What can be known?" and turned to the average, commonplace lives of simple, individual human beings for an answer. He tried to look at each person in his novel with as much objectivity as possible, using realist dialogue and sensory images that would help the reader see the character more concretely. He knew the background of his characters and setting, and presented both good and bad aspects of each. His view of morality was realistic, seeing that the new world of business had to continue to base its morality on concern for other human beings. He wrote of men and women as they really were, often offending the romantic woman by teaching her to be more honest, more mature, more realistic, and healthier but usually making her lovable. In his stories, the male characters, who sorely need a woman capable of dealing with real problems, were also taught to be less greedy and more humanitarian.
Although his realism was not an infallible experiment to present the too-variable human nature factually, Howells did attempt to paint life as it is by presenting human feeling in true proportion, as Sewell recommends. He dealt with the commonplace — the aerial essence of life which, when interpreted, reveals the riddle of the painful earth, according to Bromfield Corey.
A note should be made indicating that Howells' realism is not altogether like that found in today's modern novels. For example, he avoids any sensual love scenes; his lovers seldom touch. Howells tells a story of people who fall in love, get married, have children, but never go to bed with one another.
Howells' ability to mix comedy and tragedy was, then, necessary when writing a realistic novel, which was in 1885 the most representative of this kind of writing. Establishing the concept of Howells' work as realistic is important, for it must also be considered as a realistic version of a morality play. Silas is a modern-day Everyman, who, like the figure in medieval English church drama, must face temptation and overcome it.