Critical Essays Technique and Style in The Rise of Silas Lapham


Is the novel presented dramatically or through summarized narration?

Howells employs both dramatic scenes and summarized narration. This might be exemplified by the first chapter of The Rise of Silas Lapham. Howells presents the interview between Bartley Hubbard and Lapham during which Lapham's past life is dramatically told in the interview and summarized by interspersing parts of Hubbard's report.

Does Howells employ humor?

Penelope, Bromfield, and Hubbard can be counted upon to give humorous accounts in many of the book's situations. Through them Howells brings humor to the novel. Penelope, for example, tells Tom that upon meeting his father for the first time after her engagement "he was sitting with his hat on his knees, a little tilted away from the Emancipation group, as if he expected the Lincoln to hit him."

When Bromfield refers to the occasion, he says, "Fancy Tom being married in front of the group, with a floral horse-shoe in tuberoses coming down on either side of it!"

In the first chapter, Bartley Hubbard is also used for comic relief. After Lapham names the various uses for his paint, Hubbard says, "Never tried it on the human conscience, I suppose."

Does Howells employ satire?

Satire, which is usually humor pointed at society, occasionally occurs in Howells' novel. In Chapter X, for example, the author says:

A man has not reached the age of twenty-six in any community where he was born and reared without having had his capacity pretty well ascertained; and in Boston the analysis is conducted with an unsparing thoroughness which may fitly impress the un-Bostonian mind, darkened by the popular superstition that the Bostonians blindly admire one another.

What artistic skills are apparent in Howell's dialogue?

To gain realism Howells attempts to fit his dialogue to his characters. Silas often says "aint't" and "hain't," whereas Bromfield Corey seldom makes a grammatical error. Conversations presented in this novel usually consist of short speeches which aid Howells in achieving a naturalistic effect.

What is one of Howells' special devices?

One of Howells' special devices is to leave some major aspects of his novel to the readers' conclusions. For instance, Howells never sets down an ultimate judgment on the morality of Laphams' maneuver to force Rogers out of the paint business. Persis claims, in the last part of the third chapter, that Silas has taken advantage of Rogers when he gave Rogers the choice of buying out or going out of the paint business. "You know he couldn't buy out then. It was no choice at all," she reminds him. "You unloaded [a partner] just at the time when you knew that your paint was going to be worth about twice what it ever had been; and you wanted all the advantage for yourself."

Silas maintains that he did not want a partner in the first place. "If he hadn't put his money in when he did, you'd 'a' broken down," Persis argues effectively.

"Well, he got his money out and more, too," Silas wearily defends himself.

"He didn't want to take it out," Persis answers.

In the next chapter, Howells casts a doubt over Silas' guilt so effectively maintained by Persis argument. Howells states:

As he said, Lapham had dealt fairly by his partner in money; he had let Rogers take more money out of the business than he put into it he had as he said simply forced out of it a timid and inefficient participant in advantages which he had created. But Lapham had not created them all. He had been dependent at one time on his partner's capital. It was a moment of terrible trial. Happy is the man for ever after who can choose the ideal the unselfish part in such an exigency! Lapham could not rise to it.

Whether Silas was guilty or not is never determined; Howells leaves this quandary open to opinions. He uses Silas' feeling of guilt about the matter, however, to determine the character change of this central character. Silas tries to make up the slight to Rogers by loaning him money.

This loan and numerous other factors make payment of debts impossible for Silas. His only hope is to transfer the mills Roger has put up for collateral to English settlers at a price which is more than the mills are worth. Recalling his possible injustice to Rogers, Silas considers the morality of selling the mills at an unfair price. He decides to free himself of any possible moral guilt and refuses to complete the transaction. Silas' character changes at this point, for he admits the possibility of guilt in forcing Rogers out of the business and will not multiply his guilt in a business deal that would harm others. Lapham says in the concluding chapter:

"It seems to me I done wrong about Rogers in the first place; that the whole trouble came from that. It was just like starting a row of bricks. I tried to catch up and stop 'em from going, but they all tumbled, one after another. It wan't in the nature of things that they could be stopped till the last brick went . . . Seems sometimes as if it [the English incident] was a hole opened up for me, and I crept out of it."

Although Howells leaves this question of morality open, he effectively shows that a modern businessman must still be aware of the saying, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Howells himself advocated a moral outlook on business ventures, but he left it to his readers to decide whether a strong sense of moral justice must be maintained in business matters.

The author leaves other more minor points to the reader's perception. He never tells whether Lapham accepted the railroad's offer. Silas does show the railroad's letter, offering to buy the mills to Rogers as an indication of his refusal to sell to the English. Yet, Howells never definitely says Lapham sold to the railroad. Neither does Howells give any indication that Lapham did otherwise.

One mystery Howells never reveals is the authorship of the note to Mrs. Lapham. The note simply says, "Ask your husband about his lady copying-clerk [typist]. A Friend and Well-wisher."

When Persis shows the note to Silas, he says, "I guess I know who it's from, and I guess you do, too Persis."

"But how — how could he — ," she replies.

"Mebbe he believed it," Silas answers. "You did."

Walker, Lapham's bookkeeper had been the one who hinted most of an illicit relationship between Silas and Mrs. Dewey. Still, the note is signed "A Friend and Well-wisher." Also, Mrs. Lapham says, "But how — how could he — ." These facts might point more to Tom Corey than to Walker. Whoever sent the note is not named, however; again Howells lets the reader decide.