Debbie Bell Fish
Dr. Del Brennan
22 November 2008
Silas Lapham’s Deliberate Rise Down the Social Ladder
The issue of social class has often been cited as the cause of more
conflict than any other single issue. Indeed, the American dream, a move
from lower to upper class, is seen as the result of hard work, perseverance,
and determination, in order to escape one’s lowly past and rise to the upper
echelons of money and class. In the 19th century novel by William Dean
Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham, the title character applies the above
stated characteristics and does indeed reap the benefits of the American
Dream. But is this achievement, a rise in social status, really what Silas
In the 21st century, a noted educator and sociologist, Dr. Ruby
Payne, has written much about the issue of social class. She alleges that
there are substantial differences between people in those social classes, and
large gaps in values among them that will make it psychologically
uncomfortable to move substantially up or down the social ladder. An
examination of the social etiquette of the classes, called by Payne
the “hidden rules” of each society, the psychology of Silas Lapham, and
Silas’ behavior lead to the conclusion that he unconsciously sabotages
himself financially in order to return to his lower class beginnings, and be
truly socially and psychologically comfortable.
Societies through the ages always seem to arrive at some sort of
formal or informal “pecking order,” indicating that it is perhaps just the
nature of mankind. The nineteenth century was no different, and several
books of the time, in the style of the Realists, address the disparity in
status which we call “class distinctions.” Notably, Henry James’ novel The
American takes a close look at the more rigid and undisguised class systems
in the old country, and Howells’ characters, in comparison with James’
characters in Europe, seem more able to contain their feelings of class
distinction. Clearly, the new world of Howell’s Silas Lapham has a more open
system of rise and fall, as the reader soon discerns.
In spite of an ability to rise in the class system, it still seems
notable that Silas Lapham finds this transition difficult and confusing.
Ruby Payne, a 21st century educator, sociologist and writer has charted what
she calls the “hidden rules” of the various classes. She says:
Hidden rules are the unspoken cues and habits of a group. Distinct
cueing systems exist between and among groups and economic classes.
Generally, in America, that notion is recognized for racial and ethnic
groups, but not particularly for economic groups. There are many hidden
rules to examine. The ones examined here are those that have the most impact
on achievement in schools and success in the workplace. (Payne 52)
Silas has not been held back by his lack of knowledge of hidden rules as they
apply to “success in the workplace” and he has traveled upwardly in the class
system to a certain point, from lower class to middle class. Payne refers to
the three categories as “poverty, middle class, and wealth” (Payne 52),
analogous to the traditionally designated categories of lower, middle, and
upper socio-economic class. She additionally has issued a set of quizzes
designed to highlight the social differences between these groups, posing
true or false statements.
The test questioning one’s ability to survive in poverty poses such
I know how to get someone out of jail.
I know what problems to look for in a used car.
I can entertain a group of friends with my personality and my stories.
I know what to do when I don’t have money to pay the bills.
I am very good at trading and bartering (Payne 53-54)
Silas and Persis have come up from poverty, have survived it, and could
answer “true” to most of these questions.
As he tells his interviewer, Bartley Hubbard, Silas is one of
several children, all of whom go West to seek their fortune. Silas alone
returns to the Vermont homestead and attempts to make a go of it in post-
Civil War America. Before his marriage, he “came down to a little place
called Lumberville, and picked up what jobs I could get. I worked round at
the saw-mills, and I was ostler awhile at the hotel—I always did like a good
horse. …I got to driving the stage after while…” (Howells 8) Silas begins at
the bottom. While the reader sees no evidence of it in his recollections to
Bartley, one can certainly surmise that in those early days he would have
been good at trading and bartering, would have known how to forestall
collectors when he could not pay his bills, and while there were no
automobiles with problems to diagnose, he was good with horses, the
equivalent transportation of his day.
Upon his marriage to Persis, Silas begins his socially upward move.
He tells Bartley “well, to make a long story short, then I got married.
Yes,’ said Lapham with pride, ‘I married the school teacher” (Howells 9)
(emphasis mine). As he has just hedged with the interviewer about his lack
of education, his pride in marrying a school-teacher reveals that, in his
mind, he has risen socially by this marriage. Luckily for Silas, she is a
woman of considerable talent and grit, as her proud husband often reminds
Bartley and the reader.
It is notable in Payne’s list of eighteen true or false statements
about life in poverty that there is not a question regarding a person’s
ability to influence or improve the appearance of anything. All the
questions involve the ability to survive. It is notable that Silas pays
little attention to the appearance of the hotel that he and Persis are able
to eventually buy until “my wife she was always at me to paint up. Well, I
put it off, and put it off, as a man will, till one day I give in and says
I, “Well, let’s paint up” (Howells 9). It is Persis’ insistence that urges
Silas again to move forward financially and socially, in her concern with the
appearance of their business. While we are told little of Persis’
background, one suspects that she was not raised in as great a poverty as was
Silas. Later in the novel, her knowledge of social matters furthers this
When Silas “gives in” and “paints up,” the fortunes of the young
Lapham couple take a decided leap upward. The paint mine is the gold mine
that Persis alleges it to be, and after having the paint analyzed,
Silas “went right back to Lumberville and sold out everything, and put all I
could rake and scrape together into paint” (Howells 13). It was a good
investment, and Silas further backs it by advertising, telling Hubbard “In
less’n six months there wa’n’t a board-fence, nor a bridge-girder, nor a dead
wall, nor a barn, nor a face of rock in that whole region that didn’t
have “Lapham’s Mineral Paint—Specimen’ on it in the three colors we begun by
making” (13). Clearly, Silas has not yet learned that appearances are
important, and thinks only in terms of what the cheap, and obviously
effective, advertising can do for him financially. It is an action that will
haunt him socially as long as the stalwart paint endures.
Payne further charts the priorities of the various class systems. In
poverty, or lower-class systems, emphasis is placed on people, language is
what she calls “casual register,” the family structure tends to be
matriarchal, and the here and now is far more important than the future.
She further states that the “driving forces” in most people in this class
system are “survival, relationships, and entertainment” (Payne 59). This
fits with what we know of the Lapham family in their early days: the couple
relies on each other, their language is casual and will remain so, and Persis
does indeed tend to be the dominant force in the relationship. However, as
we suspect Persis was raised in the middle-class, the future will become more
important than the present, as they begin their rise.
Silas and Persis move into financial success and the middle-class.
Howells relates to the reader that:
Their first years there were given to careful getting on Lapham’s part, and
careful saving on his wife’s. Suddenly the money began to come so abundantly
that she need not save; and then they did not know what to do with it. A
certain amount could be spent on horses, and Lapham spent it; his wife spent
on rich and rather ugly clothes and a luxury of household appointments.
Lapham had not reached the picture-buying stage of the rich man’s
development, but they decorated their house with the costliest and most
abominable frescoes; they went upon journeys, and lavished upon cars and
hotels; they gave with both hands to their church and to all the charities it
brought them acquainted with; but they did not know how to spend on society.
The Laphams are now squarely middle-class in their house on Nankeen
Square. Payne’s true-false test for the group includes:
I know how to get my children into Little League, piano lessons, soccer, etc.
My children know the best names brands in clothing.
I understand the difference among the principal, interest, and escrow
statement on my house payment.
I know how to decorate the house for different holidays. (Payne 55-56)
She also alleges that the values of middle class include material possessions
and achievement. The family structure of middle class tends to be
patriarchal, and the driving force is work and achievement (56).
Silas’ and Persis’ daughters, Penelope and Irene, have the
best names in clothing, and have doubtless had the appropriate lessons during
their youth. Silas clearly understands the financial terms of loan
management, and Persis’ has decorated their house, albeit with little taste.
They’ve worked hard and acquired many possessions. But, as Persis says
…we’re both country people, and we’ve kept our country ways, and we don’t
either of us, know what to do. You’ve had to work so
hard, and your luck was so long coming, and then it
came with such a rush, that we haven’t had any chance to learn what to do
with it…I don’t believe but what we’re in the wrong
neighborhood. (Howells 27)
The Laphams are suddenly faced with the inevitable next move in their rise.
The middle class home, and values, have served them well, but they still
desire to keep moving.
The upper class society in the novel is personified by the
Corey family. Dr. Payne alleges that upper class values include a preference
for “one-of-a-kind objects, legacies, pedigree,” a belief that personality is
best used towards “financial, political, and social connections,” and that
the past is important for its sense of tradition. Their language customs are
usually the formal register, and they use very correct standard English.
Finally, Payne asserts that “love and acceptance are conditional and related
to social standing and connections” (59). Her true or false quiz for
surviving the upper class includes:
I can read a menu in French, English, and another language.
I have at least two residences that are staffed and
I know how to host the parties that “key” people attend.
I support or buy the work of a particular artist. (Payne 57-
One main point of the novel is that the Coreys are of
old “upper crust” Boston society. Bromfield Corey is multi-lingual and
indeed looks cosmopolitan. He certainly has supported the work of a
particular artist, himself, and some of his portraits hang in their home. In
actuality, the support of his art has been the only thing to which he has
invested much effort during his life. Although the family
no longer has at least two homes, they once did, and Howells tells the reader
a lot about the Coreys’ falling financial situation as “The Coreys had always
had a house at Nahant, but letting it go for a season or two they found they
could get on without it, and sold it at the son’s insistance” (63). Indeed,
had the Coreys’ financial situation not dictated a sale of the Nahant summer
home, they would have never met the Laphams, as the illness which brought
them together occurred at the Canadian vacation spot.
Another telling scene in the story deals with the dinner
party that Mrs. Corey feels compelled to give for the Laphams. While she
clearly knows how to host a party that the “key people will attend,” she is
somewhat flummoxed by hosting one that will include the Laphams. After much
conversation with her daughters, she announces the plan to Tom, who says,
ironically, “I suppose what you wish is to give them a pleasure” (Howells
154). A mere family dinner might have “implied a social distrust of them;
and we couldn’t afford to have that appearance…” (155). It was a party which
would highlight the social differences between the two families, and bring
little pleasure to either clan.
While it is clear that the two families conform to the
various outer characteristics alleged by Dr. Payne to be indicative of the
socio-economic groups, certain personal traits are displayed as well. The
language of the characters points out the wide disparity between them in a
way little else can. Tom and his father, in one of their earliest
discussions of the two families, openly speak of Silas’ lack of proper
grammar, with Bromfield saying of a prospective daughter-in-law “I suppose I
should like her people to be rather grammatical” (Howells 56). His son
replies, realistically, “How can you expect people who have been strictly
devoted to business to be grammatical? “Isn’t that asking rather too much?”
and goes on to tell his father that while the women of the family are “very
passably grammatical,” the “father isn’t” (56). Bromfield later tells his
wife in regard to the Lapham family’s behavior at the dinner party: “Their
conversation was terrible” (237).
Howells explains that the two adult Laphams “liked to talk to
each other in that blunt way; it is the New England way of expressing perfect
confidence and tenderness” (Howells 29). The Lapham’s New England country
ways are very evident in their speech patterns, which are clearly what Payne
terms “lower register” and largely lacking in formal, standard English
Their deeper values conform to Payne’s theory as well. The
lower class’s stress on values of relationships and family can be seen by the
family dynamics of the two opposing clans. The Lapham adults evidence much
more concern about the well-being of their family than do the senior Coreys.
George N. Bennett, in his article “Family Unity in The Rise of Silas Lapham,”
alleges of Bromfield that he is “the aristocratic dilettante who has
deliberately withdrawn from the active commitments of life,” and that he
is “gracefully witty at the expense of those who take life seriously”
(453). Having been raised with comfort, ease, and privilege, he shows none
of the concern for the family’s financial well-being that Silas does.
Howells also contrasts the two couples discussing the future
marriage plans of their children. When the Coreys discuss Tom’s plans, the
reader senses that Mrs. Corey’s main concern is that he choose a girl who
will not embarrass them socially, with little genuine care for his
happiness. Indeed, when the misunderstanding about Tom’s love for Penelope
instead of Irene is revealed, the Laphams agonize over what to do, and seek
the counsel of a minister, with Mrs. Lapham in tears. In stark contrast,
Bromfield “laughed now when his wife, with careful preparation, got the facts
of his son’s predicament fully under his eye” (Howells 235). The heartbreak
and angst of the youngsters’ dilemma have little meaning to Mrs. Corey, who
states “I could almost wish the right one, as you call her, would reject
Tom. I dislike her so much.” Bromfield replies that perhaps Penelope “may
not be quite so unacceptable as the others” (236). Clearly, the Corey’s main
concern is social status, while the Lapham’s is the best way to proceed in
order to alleviate the children’s pain.
When the stricken Irene hears the news, she
characteristically takes her keepsakes to her sister, and then asks to walk
with her papa. While we see little of Bromfield’s interactions with his own
daughters, it is almost impossible to imagine the family members engaging in
the close emotional sharing that we see from the Laphams. They are simply
more distant with each other, and what discourse we do see between Mrs. Corey
and her girls pertains to social matters, and social status.
Silas and Persis have moved up from the lower to the middle class,
and while they have added material possessions and achievement to their main
concerns, they have never lost an emphasis on two of the three main values of
poverty: survival and relationships. When times get tough, Silas still knows
how to survive, and relationships, especially familial ones, are still of
vast importance. As Silas is in aggressive pursuit of a still higher climb,
he gets a chance to view the life-style and values of the upper class Boston
society, embodied in the life-style and values of the Coreys. After seeing
it closely, does Silas wish to continue his climb? Since the continued move
upward will cost him in terms of both psychological and moral comfort, the
answer, as evidenced by his actions, is that an entry into the upper echelon
of polite Boston society is not worth it. He simply has too much old
fashioned common Vermont “horse sense” to sacrifice himself for the unworthy
goal of an upper class existence, especially after seeing it for what it
Silas’ early goal has blinded him to where his true values lie. Jeff
Todd, in his article “The Mineral Paint Man” alleges that “As he remakes
himself in the image of society, Lapham loses sight of the best interest of
his family. Because of his jealousy of the Coreys, he wants to ‘live to see
at least three generations of his descendants gilded with mineral paint’”
(3). Silas’ obsession with moving up the social ladder is driving him into
psychologically uncomfortable territory.
It is on the evening of the interminable dinner scene that the
reader sees the change begin. As Everett Carter says, in his article “Silas
Lapham and the Public Morality”: “This moment, at the Coreys’ dinner party,
was the hub around which the structure of the novel turned. It was the end
of Lapham’s dreams of success in Society and the beginning of his realization
of the demands of society” (460). An astute reader will wonder why the
Laphams attend, as they receive the invitation for the dinner party at their
own dinner table, shortly after Mrs. Lapham has revealed to Silas the details
of the Corey women’s call at the Nankeen Square house. “She was here this
afternoon, and I should have said she had come to see how bad she could make
us feel. I declare, I never felt so put down in my life by anybody.” Silas
is “ready, in his dense pride, to resent any affront to his blood” (Howells
157) and will find that his pride will soon endure many more affronts.
The Laphams spend countless sums and hours in preparation for the
party, with the exception of Penelope, who refuses to attend. As Todd
states: “With his attempts to move into Boston society, Lapham tries to
conceal his up-country Vermont heritage by altering his and his family’s
appearances. At the Coreys’ dinner party, Lapham fusses over whether to wear
gloves” (3). The stress and ado “made Lapham sick, and he despised himself
and all his brood for the trouble they were taking” (Howells 164).
He will soon be sickened by his own behavior, and his intense
humiliation at the party will haunt him for days. In apology to young Tom
for his drunken rant, Silas says “Will you tell your father… that I had a
notion all the time that I was acting the drunken blackguard, and that I’ve
suffered for it all day? Will you tell him I don’t want him to notice me if
we ever meet, and that I know I’m not fit to associate with gentlemen in
anything but a business way, if I am that?” (Howells 186) As George N.
Bennett says, in his criticism of the novel titled “Family Unity”: “His
apology to Tom Corey is in one sense as excessive as the conduct that
necessitated it, but it has its roots in a renewed sense of humility, a
renewed sense of distinction between himself and his money” (454).
Silas has halted his upward rise socially, and is beginning to wish
for a return to a socially comfortable existence. However, the romantic
relationship between Tom and Silas’ daughter make a continued existence in
Boston awkward. As Bromfield Corey states to his wife of the upcoming social
prospects with the in-laws to be: “They will probably come here every Sunday
night to tea. It’s a perspective without a vanishing point” (Howells 237).
The prospect of continued social interaction is equally unpleasant to the now
Things have been going very badly for Silas financially as well. He
has loaned his old partner Rogers a substantial sum, and oddly enough, he
continues to “throw good money after bad” in contrast to his earlier, more
mercenary treatment of the man. He finds he must press Rogers for a
return. When Silas goes west to sell the property serving as collateral on
the note, he finds that the matter is worse than he previously thought and
the property is essentially worthless, due to the railroad’s influence.
Patrick K. Dooley, in his article “Ethical Exegesis in Howells’s The Rise of
Silas Lapham” alleges: “In fact, estimates Silas, the mills value is only
about $15,000, ‘worth ten cents on the dollar.’ And indeed, as Howells puts
it, the offer from the railroad proved to be “The verification of his
prophetic fear’ about his last shrinkage in values” (4). William R. Manierre
II, in “Retrospective Discussion” states that:
The social and business worlds of nineteenth-century America have no
guidance to offer him. Clearly the world of big business would consider
Silas’ scruples ridiculous. Is there ever any question in anybody’s mind as
to precisely what the Great Lacustrine & Polar railroad will do if it should
want Silas’ mill? It will simply steal it from him. Everybody expects this,
but nobody even suggests that there is anything remotely unethical about such
If Silas is to continue his upward path, he must abandon all scruples, as is
required for the world of “big business.” While he may have shaved close
morally in his early treatment of Rogers, his native Vermont values will not
allow him to comfortably ascend higher.
While the financial disaster looms, Persis and Silas enjoy a return
to a closeness in their relationship that is reminiscent of the earlier days,
and find some silver lining in the cloud that has descended upon them:
Even in the other moods, which came when everything had been going
wrong, and there seemed no way out of the net, there were points of
consolation to Lapham and his wife. They rejoiced that Irene was safe beyond
the range of their anxieties, and they had a proud satisfaction that there
had been no engagement between Corey and Penelope, and that it was she had
forbidden it. In the closeness of interest and sympathy in which their
troubles had reunited them, they confessed to each other that nothing would
have been more galling to their pride than the idea that Lapham should not
have been able to do everything for his daughter that the Coreys might have
expected. (Howells 270)
Irene has already returned to the Vermont homestead to which all, save
Penelope, will retreat. And fortunately, Silas’ pride has had some abeyance
from the unpleasant prospect of the blending of the two clans in the marriage
of Tom and Pen.
The matter of the house on the Back Bay remains, and one option is to
sell the house to recoup some of his money. He has invested $100,000 in the
property, a huge sum for the time and place, and the house has come to
symbolize his upward climb. To do the financial sensible thing, and continue
living on Nankeen Square, would be to totally admit defeat socially, an
action which is difficult for the aggressive Silas. Additionally, while this
solution offers the hope of financial stability, it also would entail great
social and psychological discomfort, as it would mean a continued close
relationship with the in-laws elect.
Silas’ actions regarding the new house are, at best, bizarre. He is
a businessman of the first order, yet he allows the insurance to lapse on his
dream house, also presumably his largest investment, aside from the paint
plant. It is unthinkable that he would allow this to occur, but even more
inconceivable that he would, shortly after the insurance has lapsed, set fire
to the house himself. When he visits it, he smokes a cigar and builds a fire
to “try the chimney.” After he had “stamped upon the embers that still
burned with his heavy boots,” he goes home and “was very cheerful at supper,”
telling his wife “he guessed he had a sure thing of it now, and in another
twenty-four hours he should tell her just how” (Howell 275). He and Pen go
to the theater, and “Lapham had no need to walk down through the crowd… to
make sure that it was his. ‘I guess I done it, Pen,’ was all he said”
(276). He has “done it,” indeed, and considering Freud’s assertion that
there are no true accidents in life, he has, more than likely, at least
subconsciously, done it deliberately to ease his now unbearable social and
John E. Hart, in “The Commonplace as Heroic in The Rise of Silas
Lapham” alleges that:
As Silas’ conquest takes him from bucolic innocence into the
intricate world of Boston, so his success in business shows his awkward
failure in the world of personal and social prestige. Yet the very
events that bring destruction serve as the series of tests and trials that
enable him to recognize the nature of pride and greed, and to understand
that real values come, not from external possession, but from moral and
spiritual resources that lie within man’s nature. (441)
Hart seems to think that Silas has great insight into his situation, that he
is aware of what is happening to him internally, and that he consciously
rejects a further social rise, instead using his own “moral and spiritual
resources” to reach the correct moral conclusion. But, at the end of the
story, Silas reveals his true confusion when he tells Reverend Sewell, who
has asked if Silas has any regrets: “About what I done? Well, it don’t
always seem as if I done it…Seems sometimes as if it was a hole opened for
me, and I crept out of it. I don’t know…” (Howells 321).
A more likely explanation for Silas’ behavior is that he has, at
least subconsciously, rejected the atmosphere and values of upper crust
Boston, primarily because of the psychological discomfort this rise would
bring. Also, Silas has seen enough of the dealings in what Manierre alleges
to be the unscrupulous world of “big business” to know that his Vermont
upbringing and the values learned in what Payne would call “poverty” will
only come into continual conflict with what will be required of him
financially. The combination of the two will lead him to destroy his chances
to enter that society through the uninsured fire loss and his business
choices concerning the sale of the mill and the paint factory.
While Silas does hesitate some over the financial dealings with
Rogers and the Englishmen attempting to defraud the investors, he eventually
refuses their offers. There are no legal ramifications looming, and he could
stop his financial free-fall begun by the loss of the house. But Silas will
not use the dubious scruples of the world of “big business.” When he is next
confronted with a similar dilemma in the sale of the Vermont paint mill, he
has no need to hesitate. His financial ruin is complete, with only the
Vermont home place and nearly worthless paint mill left (Howells 283-294).
Viewed in this light, Silas becomes considerably less of a moral
hero, and a more typical character, working at least partially for his own
comfort, rather than nobly sacrificing and shouldering the pain for the sake
of the innocent investors. Donald Piser, in Realism and Naturalism in
Nineteenth-Century American Literature, criticizes George Becker’s analysis
of literary realism, stating that “Howells, Twain, and James indicate the
ideal possibilities of action within particular social contexts, rather than
the way most men act within these contexts” (7). While it is true that
Silas’ actions may indicate that he is not typical of the businessman of his
day, in another way, he is typical of the Vermont farmer faced with his moral
dilemma. As a man born and raised in poverty, knowing little of the “hidden
rules” of the society of wealth and privilege, he is typically uncomfortable
socially and morally with the society he once sought to join. It is not
inconceivable that his moral rise is, at least partially, fueled by
psychological self-interest, rather than moral sacrifice. Looked at in this
light, he becomes far more of a typical representation of reality.
It is not uncommon to hear stories of the lottery winner who
immediately squanders the new-found wealth and returns to poverty. It is
also not uncommon to learn that those who have lost great wealth and are
facing poverty have committed suicide rather than undergo the upheaval and
social discomfort of adjusting to lower class life. Dr. Ruby Payne believes
that these stories are a result of the protagonist’s inability to adjust to a
social condition because of the “hidden rules” one must learn and adhere to.
The story of Silas Lapham demonstrates that he is typical of a man of his
upbringing in rural Vermont poverty, and that he will go to great lengths to
stay true to himself. He cannot bear to rise into the land of the upper
crust Bostonian, as his lack of knowledge of the hidden rules will continue
to bruise his pride and force him to face his inadequacies. For a man of
Silas’ ambition, this is unthinkable.
Silas is a man driven to achieve and rise. It is his nature.
However, once he has risen sufficiently so that the only remaining challenge
is a rise into upper class Boston society, he stops. Facing the prospect of
constant discomfort and second class status, he hesitates. Viewing the upper
class and its values, he recoils from them, and returns to the values he
knows best—those of lower class, rural Vermont. He has cut corners morally
in his quest to rise financially and socially, but he will do so no more. He
subconsciously rids himself of the money of which he was once so proud. The
baggage that went with it, the inevitable social rise, would take him where
he would not go. Instead, he went home, back to values of the farm people he
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and Social Complicity in The Rise of Silas Lapham and The Minister’s
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