Ethical Exegesis in Howells's the Rise of Silas Lapham

By Dooley, Patrick K. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Ethical Exegesis in Howells's the Rise of Silas Lapham


Dooley, Patrick K., Papers on Language & Literature


A keen sense of the ethical in both its personal and social aspects gave William Dean Howells's editorial commentary and fiction a clear purpose and a forceful goal: moral suasion. His adept moral analyses and his ability to dramatize the ethical dimension of human lives reached their high point in The Rise of Silas Lapham. The traditional reading of this novel regards it as classical loci for moral dilemmas, both personal and business, and for moral exemplars, both virtuous and vicious. Some recent commentaries on The Rise of Silas Lapham advance a line of argument that stresses the complexities, contexts, and contingencies that infect human lives to the point that, at best, moral accountability is severely compromised, and, at worst, it is fatuous and ultimately absurd.1 An examination of moral questions in this turn-of-the-century American masterpiece reaffirms the traditional reading. That is, although Howells was acutely aware of the maddening confusion and the painful ambiguity that surround ethical matters, and although he amply appreciated how a myriad of factors threaten to overwhelm moral decision makers and their actions, on the reality of the force, genuineness and validity of morality itself, Howells remained clearly affirmative.

Through the events of the story, Howells carefully considered the whole range of normative matters-morality, etiquette, aesthetics, and the supererogatory.2 He paid close attention to both motivation and consequences in moral questions as he explored ethical growth and stagnation as well as emotional and intellectual development in key characters. The central player is the paint king and millionaire Silas Lapham. His fortitude as well as his foibles, his ethical clarity as well as his moral confusion, his waffling as well as his resolve are deftly examined. Lapham's decisions, character, and actions become a backdrop for the rest of the moral, amoral, and immoral developments in the story.

All sorts of rises and falls-social, financial, aesthetic and moral-enliven Howells's story as he has nearly every character on a roller coaster ride. But above all the others, Silas profits from experience as he, paradoxically, recaptures a basic decency and a clear conscience.

Silas Lapham's baseline integrity

Repeatedly, Howells comments that Silas is a good man. He is described as shrewd, sensible, and sharp, but also a man of integrity, without guile. Tom Corey's assessment of him as a "very simple-hearted and rather wholesome" (59) person is widely shared.3 His business is paint; he is devoted to it, and his successes have been won without short cuts or ill gain.

Goodness and lack of duplicity are hallmarks of Silas's character.4 His rapport with people is free of staging or guise. The urbane and jaded Bartley Hubbard is struck by Silas's "free and unembarrassed interview" with him (19). Similarly the narrator describes the Laphams' marriage: "She knew that he would tell her if ever things went wrong, and he knew that she would ask him whenever she was anxious. . . . They liked to talk to each other in that blunt way; it is the New England way of expressing perfect confidence and tenderness" (29).

Silas is candid and unpretentious. For instance, in the introductions before the dinner party, Mrs. Corey addresses him as "'General Lapham.'" "'No, ma'am, only Colonel,' said the honest man" (167). Or when the Lapham parents call upon the Rev. Sewell for advice about handling the emotional pain that will follow from straightening out the courtship misunderstandings, we are told that Silas laid out all the facts with "a simple dignity" (211). Silas's straightforward approach prompts a similar directness from the Rev. Sewell: "I thank you for coming-for trusting your troubles to me" (212).

Clearly Silas is a solid, honest man. More so, at several points in the story, without much effort or deliberation, Silas goes beyond what is morally required. …

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