Howells's Rhetoric of Realism: The Economy of Pain(t) and Social Complicity in the Rise of Silas Lapham and the Minister's Charge

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In what a host of critics has identified as the "central statement" of William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham, (1) the Reverend Sewell answers his own question--even though that question is addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Lapham and ostensibly concerns the triangular love affair in which their two daughters are ensnarled. When Mrs. Lapham "falter[s]" and then "pause[s]" in her response to Sewell's hypothetical question, "If some one had come to you, Mrs. Lapham, in just this perplexity, what would you have thought?," (2) the minister goes on to complete her "thought" for her:

      "One suffer instead of three, if none is to blame?" suggested Sewell.
   "That's sense, and that's justice. It's the economy of pain which naturally
   suggests itself, and which would insist upon itself, if we were not all
   perverted by traditions which are the figment of the shallowest
   sentimentality." (241)

As the Laphams stand in confused silence, Sewell answers his question with yet another question--albeit an apparently rhetorical one. In fact, Sewell's answer-in-the-guise-of-a-question is not only a question to which no answer seems to be expected, but one which operates according to a rhetoric of self-assertion. Rather than reaching a solution dialectically with the party whom it concerns (as he comes closer to doing when advising a strikingly similar case in The Minister's Charge (3)), Sewell lets the question answer itself and bluntly appeals to "sense" and "justice," two words which reverberate equivocally throughout The Rise of Silas Lapham and which the Laphams repeat to one another as if to assure themselves of Sewell's good counsel. "He talked sense, Persis," Lapham says to his wife as they leave Sewell's home. "Yes, he talked sense," Mrs. Lapham replies. "I guess if he had it to do! ... It's sense; and yes, it's justice" (243).

Sewell's articulation of "the economy of pain" and the Laphams' apparent acceptance of it raise two fundamental questions that critics of The Rise of Silas Lapham have seemingly overlooked: has Sewell indeed "talked sense," and what position does "the minister" occupy in Howells's fiction? For a number of prominent critics, Sewell occupies the authorially endorsed role of "spokesman," and his "economy of pain" governs the logic of The Rise of Silas Lapham and, by extension, the logic of American literary realism more generally. This essay interrogates that conclusion through an analysis of Howells's fiction that centers on the minister's function in the two novels in which he figures prominently: The Rise of Silas Lapham and The Minister's Charge. Although Sewell's "economy of pain" in The Rise of Silas Lapham and his sermon on "Complicity" in The Minister's Charge play crucial roles in their respective narratives as well as in Howells's work as a whole, Sewell cannot be singled out as the "spokesman," or privileged synecdoche, by virtue of which "Howellsian realism" or the author's world view can be authoritatively decoded, revealed or spoken for. Indeed, the reading I offer of The Rise of Silas Lapham and The Minister's Charge warns against attributing such centrality to Sewell's character. For realism in Howells's fiction is not monologic, that is, stated by a single character (like Sewell) and in a single voice. On the contrary, it is essentially dialogic insofar as it produces discursive realities through the endless interaction and negotiation of its characters, narrators, and--of course--readers. (4)

In direct opposition to critics who interpret Sewell's "economy of pain" as the paradigm of Howellsian realism, I shall argue that The Rise of Silas Lapham dialogizes disparate voices and visions of reality, thereby constituting a collective but unincorporated social reality. This line of argument comes to a climax later in this paper when I intertwine certain threads of this discursive reality to form a rhetorical strategy that I shall call an "economy of paint": a symbolic economy of language organized around the ubiquitous trope of "paint" in the novel. …


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