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Reading Questions for The Rise of Silas Lapham

1. The first chapter is one of the most admired scenes in the novel, and it is the first scene in which Howells indirectly comments on the literary forms of his day. What conventions of journalism, advertising, and the rags-to-riches success story popularized by the Horatio Alger series are brought up and gently parodied here?

2. In what way does the first chapter establish the themes and plots of the rest of the book? How does Bartley's underestimation of Silas's intelligence and ethics set up the other characters' responses to him?

3. How is nature used in this novel? Note the paint and Silas's horse in discussing this question.

4. Persis Lapham is established early in the book as functioning as a kind of conscience or moral arbiter for Silas. How does this coincide with the traditional function of women in the domestic sphere in the nineteenth century? Is her judgment accurate? inaccurate? how can we tell?

5. Look at the four Lapham family members. What traits do they share? What does Silas's red hair, for example, signify, since Irene shares it? Do any of the family members except Penelope have a sense of humor?

6. What does a sense of humor signify in this work? Howells uses this in much the same way that James uses intelligence and artistic taste in The Portrait of a Lady, so which characters have--or lack--humor?

Why does Howells use humor instead of a different standard by which to judge the characters? What cultural connotations does it have? Not all the humor is the same, of course. Look at characters such as Bromfield Corey, Nanny Corey, Penelope Lapham, Persis Lapham, and Tom Corey in thinking about this question.

7. Discuss the ways in which Howells compares and juxtaposes the Corey family and the Lapham family. What markers of social class and taste does he use to differentiate them? In what ways do Tom Corey and Penelope Lapham transcend the limitations of their respective social classes?

8. Discuss the character of Bromfield Corey. What does he represent? How does he differ from everyone else in the novel, including his wife and children? In what ways is he a James character in a Howells novel?

9. Among the markers of taste and culture in this book are the many references to literature, prominent among them the discussions of George Eliot's Middlemarch and the "sentimental slop" Tears, Idle Tears. What do these discussions reveal about the characters' perspectives? about Howells's view of realistic fiction? about his purposes in this novel? Note other references, such as those to Gibbon, Cooper, "Daisy Millerism," and circulating libraries and the "three-decker" novel.

10. Although the novel is set in New England and the Laphams share "a New England way" of talking, Howells uses specific geographic areas, especially in pairs, to make his points. Look up and explain the following:

11. When Bromfield alludes to Giles Corey, he mentions "holding one's tongue" and "peine forte et dure." Accused as a witch in 1692, Giles Corey was pressed to death under a pile of stones at the Salem witch trials because he refused to answer the charges against him.  In what ways does this fit in with the books' theme of suffering and the "economy of pain"?

12.  For many years,  critics dismissed the "romance plot" as extraneous to the novel.  In what ways do the business plot and the romance plot intersect? Is the Zerilla Millon plot important?  How do the events in one "plot" parallel the events in another? In what ways do the business plot and the romance plot intersect in this novel?

Critic G. Thomas Tanselle proposes the following schema:

I. Chapters 1-4 Business. Materialistic rise. Discussions about house
II. Chapters 5-12 Love. Social rise. Discussions about marriage
III. 13-15 Dinner. Equilibrium of elements
IV. 16-19 Love. Social fall. Ethical choice: Penelope
V. 20-27 Business. Materialistic fall. Ethical choice: Silas
13. Rev. Sewell's "economy of pain" idea  is a central ethical premise in the novel. How consistently is it followed? rejected?

14. What is Silas's "rise"? If the concept of rise implies a fall, what is his "fall"? Is his an ironic "rise"?

15. Look at the central scene of the dinner party. In what ways is Silas's blunder due to his own actions? to the actions of those around him? Does Howells attempt to excuse Silas? to blame him?

16. Critics have noted that the novel's two central metaphors are paint and architecture. Discuss the connotations of each and the ways in which they are used in the work.

17. Does Silas act ethically or foolishly in his behavior to Rogers? to the Englishmen? Does ethical behavior require the kinds of extremes that Silas believes in?

18. Silas's speculating on the market parallels what the Coreys believe Penelope is doing by putting off Tom. Note other instances of gambling and speculation. How does Howells use these concepts?

19. How is Howells carrying out the "realism war" in this work?

20. Discuss the following comment by William Manierre and illustrate its use in The Rise of Silas Lapham:  "The technique of The Rise of Silas Lapham  is that of discussion in retrospect by various interested characters of specific incidents which have already been presented in staged, set scenes.  These incidents, in turn, will usually have been foreshadowed by the generous use of anticipatory detail.  ... This sequence of foreshadowing followed by incident and retrospective discussion occurs so often in Lapham as to create a kind of double anticipation in the reader who, caught up by the specific patterning, looks forward not only to the foreshadowed scene but with equal interest to the ironic counterpoint of the subsequent discussions."

21.   Howells describes a great deal of nonverbal activity--for example, the scene with Irene, Tom, and the shaving.  Choose one or two such scenes and show how they enhance a particular idea in the novel.

22.  Is Silas a hero?

Comments to D. Campbell.