Lifestyles of the Rich and Not-So-Famous:
The House as a Social Symbol in The Rise of Silas Lapham
Howell's The Rise of Silas Lapham is full of elements which represent more than what a reader might expect at face-value, typically symbols which further the overwhelming themes of greed versus ethics and the Laphams' inability to assimilate into "civilized" society. Perhaps the strongest symbols which portray the numerous themes and stages of the novel are the houses of the Laphams and the Corey house. Even more central to the novel is the house on Beacon Street, which alone symbolizes nearly all events which create a "rise" for Silas in the novel and creates a parallel between the primary plot and the secondary love plot between Penelope and Tom.
Following the tradition of realism, Howells uses symbolism sparingly. Rather than creating figurative language in the text to suggest meaning, the symbolism in The Rise of Silas Lapham is used "as a way of defining the thematic function of objects in the fictive world in relation to the general meaning of the story" and draws only on realistic symbols within the story itself rather than those of mythic proportion (Fischer 16). For instance, the Beacon Street house, which is the "symbol on which the structure of the novel is erected," is an important part of the story as well as the setting, yet it serves as a symbol by representing, throughout the different stages of the novel, several major themes involving opposing factors of society, most notably that of urban propriety versus rural comfort (Wasserstrom 366-367).
The three houses owned by the Laphams create a social roadmap of the family's status at different points in the novel: The small farm in Vermont represents the beginning and end of Silas Lapham's moral growth, the Nankeen Square house the Laphams' immergence into urban society, and the Beacon Street house their failed attempt to submerse themselves into civility. The story of Silas begins at his father's farmhouse in Vermont with the rediscovery of his father's mineral paint. The paint creates for Silas the choice to live amongst higher society by increasing his monetary wealth while taking away his moral integrity, which becomes obvious in his dealings with Rogers and his strong desire to fit in with other upper class citizens, especially the Coreys. Lapham's outlook after leaving the Vermont farm is established in the first chapter of the novel when he explains to Bartley that his views of nature and his paint:
I never saw anything so very sacred about a big rock, along a river or in a pasture that it wouldn't do to put mineral paint on it in three colors. I wish some of te people that talk about the landscape, and write about it, had to bu'st one of them rocks out of the landscape with powder, or dig a hole to bury it in, as we used to have to do up on the farm; I guess they'd sing a little different tune about the profanation of scenery. There aint any man enjoys a sightly bit of naturea smooth piece of interval, with half a dozen good-sized wine-glass elms in itmore than I do. But I aint a-going to stand up for every big ugly rock I come across, as if we were all a set of dumn Druids. I say the landscape was made for man, and not man for the landscape. (Howells 15)
It is made pressingly clear in this excerpt that Lapham, though he proclaims to have a connection to nature (as he probably did while living in Vermont), no longer respects any form of nature and instead views his paint in a much higher regard. Though the reader does not witness this transition first hand but rather through Silas' report to Bartley, it becomes obvious that the "insensitive pride of the self-made man and the dominance of the business ethic" have become the dominant characteristics of Silas Lapham's character (Tanselle 436).
Once his paint business becomes a success, Silas moves his family to the house in Nankeen Square, where their lifestyle changes in a variety of ways. However, though the Laphams have no trouble spending large amounts of money on "rich and rather ugly clothes and a luxury of household appointments" and on "the costliest and most abominable frescoes" and expensive road trips, they soon discover that "they had not had a social life" (Howells 25). This finding becomes a driving force that takes hold of the remaining chapters once Silas suggests building a house on his Beacon Street property. Silas falsely suggests to his wife that they "live as well as most of em now, and set as good a table," so moving to an upper-class neighborhood would put the family, he thought, into the center of like society (Howells 33). The "poison of ambition" thereby instilled in his wife'sand already in his ownmind thus takes hold of the rest of the Laphams' activities until the end of the novel and the return to the Vermont farmhouse.
Because Silas believes "that property symbolizes propriety," he immediately begins construction of the Beacon Street house, which becomes not only a symbol of Silas Lapham's downfall but also embodies each of the phases of Silas' social life, from his rise in wealth to his gaudy lifestyle to his financial downfall and moral rise (Guttman 20). The idea and beginning planning stages offer a parallel to Silas' introduction to the paint business. The construction continues the parallel by mirroring the growth of Silas' financial and social status. Though he pours all of his wealth into the house, however, the construction is never completed, just as his rise in social status never culminates in equality with the Coreys, whose tastefully decorated home represents the upper-class society which the Laphams are never able to reach (as is made apparent by the dinner party and Silas' failed attempts to fit in). Finally, the destruction of the house marks the end of Silas' attempts to climb the social ladder, and out of the ashes of the destruction comes a new sense of ethical and social awareness. Therefore, as long as the house on Beacon Street remains standing, "it impedes any progress in moral awareness the protagonist might make" (Wells 13).
Once Silas begins to build the new house on Beacon Street, problems instantly arrive. For instance, in the planning stages, the building of the house brings in the know-how of a young architect who makes many changes to Silas' original and fairly tacky decorating plans. Silas initially envisions a gaudy interior he believes will enhance the family's already tasteless lifestyle. For example, Silas' idea of "high-studding" in the parlor makes the architect cringe before suggesting "low-studding" (Howells 40). The difference between high- and low-studding creates a symbol in itself, the high representing the status which Silas will not attain in society and the low representing that which he will gain socially. However, the architect knows well that the low-studding will create the most beauty, just as Silas gains, with his lower socio-economic status, higher ethics and a better mind at the end of the novel. In addition to the decorating, the bay window with which Silas becomes entranced also becomes a symbol for the life he cannot have. Before it is even finished, Silas sits musing at the opening, looking out over Beacon Street. The act of looking down on the street visually repeats Silas' intentions in building the house. This is also the first time that Silas looks down upon one of the Coreys, both literally and figuratively.
Perhaps the most influential phase of the novel is the accidental burning of the Beacon Street house. Just before the destruction takes place, Howells describes the "process of Lapham's financial disintegration," likening it to the feelings which it would bring within the characters: "the house of mourningis also the house of laughing" (Howells 306-307). Therefore, while the family may mourn over the loss of wealth and social status, the family will be better off because of it. One night Lapham returns to the bay window of the Beacon Street hosue, reminiscing of the first time he sat there with his daughters. The repetition of the bay window symbol furthers the idea of the figurative window from which Lapham can see his superficial goals of wealth and social prosperity but cannot reach them. In addition, the "perfect success" of the chimney adds to Silas' pride and leads him to the idea that "he would never sell [the house] as long as he had a dollar," which becomes more true than he could have thought (Howells 312). Rather than selling the house, he unintentionally burns it down before he is able to sell it. The act of burning the house, whether intentional or not, shows the final great change in Silas' existence before he essentially becomes a new man, aimed at moral justice rather than materialistic and social greed. Furthermore, the fact that the house is destroyed "through Silas' own actions is a prerequisite to his rise, both metaphorically and because it pushes him to the last extremity, setting up the proper conditions, as in a laboratory, for the final test," which culminates in his inability to swindle the British men who offer to buy mills from Lapham (Tanselle 456). Finally, just after the house burns, Howells mentions Silas' sleep that night, a "deep sleep which sometimes follows a great moral shock" (Howells 314). Howells does not use the word "moral" unintentionally; rather, the end of Beacon Street jolts Silas into ethical awareness which enables him to live happily and with a peace of mind at the end of the novel.
The Beacon Street house also serves as a bridge between the primary and secondary plots of the novel. In a literal sense, the double staircase that the architect plans for the house represents the double plot of the novel, and in its destruction the two plots merge and find the same moralized ending. Furthermore, it is with the beginning of the construction of the house that Penelope first meets Tom Corey, and the two are thrown into the beginnings of a secondary love plot to the novel which also parallels Silas Lapham's moral rise. Though she nearly rejects Tom by portraying herself as a pure and tragic heroine, just as Silas tries to blend in with civilized society, in the end Penelope lives happily with Tom because she realized the destruction of her own spirit had she not acted on her feelings for him. In the same way, the destruction of the house enables Silas to see his own virtue and emboldens him in his honorable actions in dealing with the sale of the worthless mills because he has nothingat least financially or sociallyto loose.
Following the destruction of the Beacon Street House, Silas returns to the Lapham farmhouse in Vermont that symbolizes the return to the purity of country life without the masks of social hierarchy and marks the end of Silas' ethical journey, which much resembles the "completion of the cycle" of the legendary phoenix in that, from the ashes of destruction, a new life is created (Wells 14). The return to the farmhouse and conclusion of the phoenix cycle also represents "a moral rise from barbaric isolation to civilized conduct," in which Silas can finally find true happiness rather than a false sense of comfort in the social subterfuges of Beacon Hill. Finally, the Vermont farmhouse is described as "plain" and "simpler," each of which are characteristics which oppose those of the earlier homes and lifestyles of the Laphams (Howells 363).
Each of the houses in Howells' The Rise of Silas Lapham represent a different stage of Silas' rise to social and moral awareness and the end of his drive for civility and financial gain. While the houses in Nankeen Square and Beacon Hill symbolize everything the Laphams were not or could not attain, the Lapham farmhouse in Vermont serves as a beginning and end for Silas, providing himas well as his familywith a simple but happy and virtuous life.
Fischer, William C., Jr. "William Dean Howells: Reverie and the Nonsymbolic Aesthetic." Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Vol. 25, No. 1. Berkely: University of California Press, 1970. 1-30.
Guttman, Allen. "Images of Value and the Sense of the Past." The New England Quarterly. Vol. 35, No. 1. Boston: The New England Quarterly, Inc., 1962. 3-26.
Tanselle, G. Thomas. "The Architecture of The Rise of Silas Lapham." American Literature. Vol. 37, No. 4. Durham: Duke University Press, 1966. 430-457.
Wasserstrom, William. "Howells' Mansion and Thoreau's Cabin." College English. Vol. 26, No. 5. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1965. 366-372.
Wells, Gerald K. "The Phoenix Symbol in The Rise of Silas Lapham." South Atlantic Bulletin. Vol. 40, No. 2. Atlanta: South Atlantic Modern Language Association, 1975. 10-14.