Silas Lapham is a man from a humble background who has become
rich through hard work. The story is set in a time period when many old fortunes
were diminishing and when the newly rich were frequently wealthier than the old
rich. Silas is a nouveaux riche, post-civil war millionaire who, along
with his family, attempts to become part of Boston society. He is determined to
place his wife and daughter among that cityís aristocracy. The novelís secondary
but interrelated plot chronicles his familyís awkward attempts to gain
acceptance into cultured society.
The book begins with reporter Bartley Hubbard interviewing Silas for an article
on the businessmen of Boston. The self-assured Lapham is being profiled in this
feature article and dictates his biography to the newspaper interviewer. When
the upper class Hubbard returns home, he ridicules Lapham for his crudeness,
lack of breeding, and simple upbringing. Hubbardís wife asks him not to make fun
of the uncultured and inarticulate Lapham in the piece he is writing.
Through this interview, the reader learns a great deal about Laphamís past.
Silas had been a poor child with a solid Christian background. He was raised on
a family farm in rural northern Vermont near the Canadian border. His mother
taught him the virtues of the Old Testament and Poor Richardís Almanac.
In 1835 Silasís father, Nehemiah, discovered a mineral paint deposit. Nehemiah
experimented with the paint and thought it had the potential to be profitable
but unfortunately, at that time, people could not afford to paint their houses.
Silas travelled to the West as a young man, but returned to Vermont. He first
worked in a sawmill and then as a stableman at a hotel. After his parents died,
Silas moved to Lumberville where he drove a stage, bought and managed the stage
line, and met and married the village schoolteacher, Persis. Silas married his
ideal woman. Throughout the novel, he displays respect and high regard for all
the women in his life: his mother, his wife, and later his intelligent daughter,
Penelope, and his beautiful daughter, Irene. He is proud of them all.
Lapham rented a tavern stand. In 1855, Persis urged him to
paint the tavern he rented in order to improve its appearance. As a result, he
investigated the paint mine on his fatherís farm, mixed up some paint, and tried
it. He had the ore analyzed and found it that it was quite valuable. When he had
it tested, he found that it contained 75 percent peroxide of iron, making it
capable of withstanding fire, water, and acid. The demand for flame resistant
paint had soared after many passengers were killed in boat fires in the West.
Silas returned to Lumberville after he received the test results, sold out
everything that he had, put it all into his naturally-superior,
weather-resistant paint, and become a prosperous paint manufacturer. Silas named
his brand of paint after his wife. After all, it was she who prompted him to
develop the paint. He became the proud owner of a paint company called ďThe
Silas was confident that his wife could handle any situation. She encouraged,
helped, and guided him in his various endeavors. Persis also acts as Silasís
moral conscience throughout most of the novel. Her opinions carry great weight
with him. His actions are greatly influenced by what he believes will please his
wife. But the value of her contributions and her moral assessments diminishes as
the story progresses.
When Silas left to fight in the Civil War, she managed the paint business for
him. During the war, he fights gallantly, is wounded at Gettysburg, and is
promoted to the rank of full colonel. Silasís friend, Jim Millen, died saving
his life in the war. Millen took a bullet that was intended for Lapham. As a
result, Silas felt an obligation to Millenís wife (Molly) and daughter (Zerilla).
Later in the novel, we see Silas risk his reputation by supporting the dubious,
alcoholic widow and daughter of the man who saved his life in combat. Rumor
regarding Silas and two women led Persis to misread Silasís relationship with
Zerilla, his typist.
Silasís business suffered during the war. When he returned from the Civil War in
1865, he found a changed business world characterized by rapidly changing
dynamic markets, large firms, international trade, and strong competition. After
the Civil War, there were more interconnections with suppliers and customers
because of railroads, steamships, canals, etc., and distant and local events
were affecting one another. He wanted to expand his business, but was reluctant
to take on a partneróhe wanted to keep the business to himself. Persis convinces
him to acquire a partner with capital to expand and to secure the company from
failure. Against his own better judgment, Silas takes on Milton K. Rogers as a
partner because he thinks his wife always knows best.
Silas saw Rogers as unknowledgeable about the paint business and as never having
added value to the firm. His intuition was that Rogers would seriously harm the
business if he remained with the company. After benefiting from the use of his
partnerís capital, Silas gave Rogers the chance of either buying Silas out or
selling out to Silas. Rogers was unable to buy Silas out so Silas bought out
Rogers, paying him more then he originally invested. After Rogers left the
business, Lapham became a millionaire during the post-Civil War period.
Persis believes that her husband used Rogersís capital to get rich and accuses
him of unloading Rogers just before the price of paint soared. She thinks that
Silas mistreated Rogers and never lets him forget that she is disappointed
regarding his treatment of his former partner. She never truly forgives him for
being unfair in crowding Roger out of the business. Persis believes that her
husband had stolen the future profits that Rogersís investments had made
possible. Throughout the novel she endeavors to make Silas see his ďmoral
failureĒ and to pay back Rogers in some way. Persis thinks that Silas ruined
Rogersís life through this transaction.
In no way is it self-evident that Lapham was unfair to Rogersóat most we could
argue for an ambivalent interpretation with respect to his behavior. The
business prospered but the partnership did not succeed. Rogers had an option and
received a good deal more than he had invested. Lapham contends that he did
nothing wrong in buying Rogers out just before the business took off. He says
that it was a prudent business decision. Silas thought that Rogers was a
hindrance and that he paid a fair price. Persis tries to make Silas feel guilty
but it is uncertain as to whether or not there was any moral wrong to feel
Lapham relocates his paint manufacturing company to Boston while maintaining the
mining portion of the business on the family farm near Lumberville. Once his
business is a success, the Laphams buy a house in Nankeen Square in the South
End and their daughters, Penelope and Irene, attend public school. Penelope, the
eldest daughter, is smart and witty, plain in appearance, likes to read and
attend church lectures, and has no interest in high society. The beautiful Irene
is three years younger, loves to shop, also (at first) has no interest in
society, and is not as smart or witty as her sister. As the story progresses,
the Laphams become social climbers.
Irene and her mother vacation on the St. Lawrence where they meet Anna Corey and
her two daughters. Anna becomes ill and Persis cares for her until the doctor
arrives. Annaís son, Tom, joins his family on vacation and appears to be
captivated by Irene. On her return home, Persis tells Silas that she was
impressed with the aristocratic Corey family. The chance meeting with the Coreys
leads to a reevaluation of the Laphamís lifestyle, and Persis becomes conscious
of the difference between her family and members of Bostonís upper class
society. The barely educated, uncultured Silas has no personal interest in
culture and society but loves his wife and daughters, wants them to be happy,
and encourages them to approach society.
The Coreys are a prestigious, traditional, old money family who initially
associate with the Laphams because of Persisís kindness to Anna on the Canadian
trip. Annaís husband, Bromfield, is a snob who does not work and who has never
worked a day in his life. He inherited wealth from his father, Giles Corey, a
merchant who imported goods from India to New England. Anna had never been in
the Laphamsí undesirable part of town. She is afraid that her son might marry
one of the Lapham girls. Both Bromfield and Anna do not hold high opinions with
respect to commercial people. The Coreysí fortune had dwindled and the Laphams
were actually in much better financial standing than the Coreys. Rather than
enter the business world, Bromfield sells a house and cuts back on some of his
familyís social activities.
Although the Lapham girls were uneasy in society, Persis and Silas thought that
their daughters needed to be introduced to society and that it would be best for
them to move from their old house in South End and to build a new house in the
Back Bay area on the sophisticated and exclusive Beacon Street. They decided to
build a mansion on the water side of Beacon Street. To Persis and Silas, this
new house represented Penelope and Ireneís futures in upper class society. They
thought that moving to an elite neighborhood would place the family in the
center of society. They did not realize that it would take more than money to
break social barriers. For example, the resentful Mrs. Corey remarked that Back
Bay is becoming very common these days.
Silasís old partner, the unscrupulous Rogers, shows up and asks for help. Silas
lends money to Rogers and accepts as collateral land (i.e., a deed to mill
property out West) and questionable securities that he believes to be worthless.
Rogers indeed has pledged worthless land and watered stock as collateral.
Overlooking the risks, Lapham makes this and additional loans to Rogers
throughout the rest of the story. It is unclear if Silas makes these loans out
of a true sense of guilt and wrongdoing, or to gain approval from his wife.
Although Silas listened to his wife to lend Rogers money, it is not evident that
down deep he believed that he had done anything wrong.
Persis views the income earned after Rogers was ďforced outĒ to be a result of
Rogersís capital investment. She believes that money was taken from him, and she
attributes all of Rogersís subsequent financial failures to her husbandís
actions. Persis thinks that Silas lends money to Rogers as an attempt to ease
his guilty conscience due to his forcing Rogers out. As a result, she begins to
forgive Silas and to view him as a moral person again. Over the years, she has
scolded her husband for his inability to share his paint company with anyone.
On the other hand, Silas consistently maintains that his buyout of Roger was a
business transaction in which he acted justly. He explains that Rogers did not
contribute to the business and was not a benefit to it. It may be that he got
involved with Rogers a second time because he wanted to please his wife, who
attempts to serve as his moral conscience throughout the novel.
The Coreys and the Laphams continue to get involved socially. Both Irene and
Penelope are attracted to Tom Corey. Because the Coreys are running low on
money, Tom does not want to continue drawing upon his fatherís wealth, and
therefore tells his father that he is going to ask Silas for a job. Tomís
parents think that his desire to work for Lapham might be because of his
attraction to Irene. The Coreys think that it is wrong for Tom to be interested
in the uninteresting, dull, and socially-inept Irene. Anna does not want Tom to
work for Lapham or to marry one of his daughters. She perceives Irene as vapid
and Penelope as introverted.
Silas, who does not waste time and is devoted to hard work, criticizes Tom Corey
for not working. However, the uneducated Silas is impressed with Tomís knowledge
of several languages. Tom had travelled extensively abroad and was fluent in
several languages. Tom believes in the paint business and asks Silas about his
entering the business. Tom wants to enter a profession that he can be passionate
about. He wants to do something with his life.