Harry T. Moore, in the afterword to William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, says, “Much of the criticism of Silas Lapham has been directed at the love-story subplot” (345). Critics of Howells are quick to point out the Romantic elements in this otherwise Realist writer’s novel, yet digging deeper into the love story uncovers the biting irony which Howells was pointing at the Romantic writers for their “silly slop” and their “immorality” of fiction (Howells 184, 185).
For the bulk of the novel, Howells deals with the moral rise of Silas Lapham, and unlike the Romantic writers, deals with issues and occurrences on a rather small level. Silas, through losing his money and status, actually rises above many men in his position by choosing the morally correct path in life. Not only does he get peace of mind, but he also becomes more human, no longer the static stereotype of the “robber barrens” of his time. Howells attempts to paint an accurate picture of an American Everyman to whom the reading public could relate. Critics may argue that the love story sways more toward Romanticism than Realism, but “neither in theory nor in practice is Mr. Howells a romancer” (James 79). Nonetheless, if any have read Howells’s other novels, they will be understood that what he continuously strives to exhibit in his works is realism.
To understand William Dean Howells is to understand what American realism is. Ingrid Kerkhoff, in the online article “American Realism and Naturalism,” states, “Realism in literature, [is] an attempt to describe human behavior and surroundings or to represent figures and objects exactly as they act or appear in life.” There is not bit of fantasy in any of the characters; they are rather ordinary to the point that they blatantly stick out as American. Readers like to see their heroes as moral, and that is main and utmost point in Howells’ fiction: that the characters suffer through moral dilemmas rather than titanic conflicts that only affect people out of the typical sphere. Howells stresses the weakness that Romanticism teaches and the dangers of a culture totally bred upon the precepts of such. The heroism of suffering is what Howells especially despises: “That is wrong, cruelly wrong. I’m sure that’s out of your novel reading, my dear, and not out of your heart.” (Howells 336). In Silas Lapham, the hero of common moral dilemmas replaces the victims of love’s treacheries.
As a precursor to the love story, Howells introduces the authors and books he admires and emulates, as well as those that he despises. The book that is at the top of his list as a literary paradigm of culture and taste is the Realist writer George Eliot’s Middlemarch. When Penelope and young Corey first become acquainted, it is actually over this novel of “unhistoric acts” (Eliot 896). And as an unusual twist, this is the book Corey and Irene talk over as he tries to get more information about Penelope. Bringing Eliot’s novel into play here helps to generate a rather common love triangle in an uncommon sort of way. The love story is going to follow the dictates of Realism and not Romanticism. In doing so, it deviates from the grossness of past literary conventions to the satisfaction of Howells’s present ideas of Realism.
The problem which Howells most wanted to address is that “the novelists might be the greatest possible help to us if they painted life as it is, and human feelings in their true proportion and relation, but for the most part they have been and are altogether noxious” (Howells 185). His main point is about how the distasteful use of romance, which is a part of every normal human’s life, becomes a tool for tapping the false emotion. “‘It’s pretty easy to cry over a book,’ said Penelope, laughing; ‘and that one is natural till you come to the main point. Then the naturalness of all the rest makes that seem natural too; but I guess it’s rather forced’” (203). Anyone with common sense knows how people will act in such situations as Cory, Penelope, and Irene find themselves in. There is nothing heroic in suffering over an easily reversible situation. If a woman loves a man who loves another woman, and the other woman loves the man, all know that common sense rules. The two loving parties should be together no matter the pain it would cause the other who loves but receives not. And to make it appear any more than it is amounts simply to “nothing but psychical suicide, and is as wholly immoral as the spectacle of a man falling upon his sword” (185). Howells knew that the reading public wanted more than this, and, in fact, was worthier of more than this, and he owed it to himself to treat his readers with honesty and respect.
So it is that Irene talks with Cory about all the great books of the time, the majority of them being Romantic books, and Corey follows along with only one person on his mind, Penelope. Irene, as a victim of Romantic literature, is blind to Corey’s gentlemanly behavior and misses all the obvious signs of his interest in Penelope. Just as she cannot differentiate between romances in life, she becomes confused about Romantic literature also. She asks about Sir Walter Scott’s novels and mentions that “‘one of the girls used to think he was great. She was always talking about Scott.’ Irene made a pretty little amiably contemptuous mouth. ‘He isn’t American, though?’ she suggested. / ‘No,’ said Corey; ‘he’s Scotch, I believe.’ / Irene passed her glove over her forehead. ‘I always get him mixed up with Cooper” (106). Apparently, all the books were so much alike and the formula was the same to the point where one book became so much like the other. This confusion over what is usually done and what isn’t is what nobody in the novel can decipher. According to the classical Romantic story, the dashing young aristocrat, if he does fall in love with a plebeian, usually falls for the shallow beautiful woman and not the witty plain girl. “The commonplace is just that light impalpable, aerial essence which they’ve never got into their confounded books yet. The novelists who could interpret the common feelings of commonplace people would have the answer to the ‘riddle of the painful earth’ on his tongue” (189). Corey shocks the fictitious families with his news of loving the common Penelope over the strikingly beautiful Irene. It was probably a shock to the readers at the time too, who didn’t expect such a rule to be broken either. There is something about the common that gives Irene her beauty–indeed, gives the whole novel its beauty. The common is real and is what steps outside the bounds of any story in the past. This is the beauty of Realism.
The ugliness of Romanticism is pointed out countless times through a dreadful novel called Tears, Idle Tears. Henry James speaks of Howells’s belief in the art form of the novel: “Mr. Howells hates an artificial fable and a denouement that is pressed into the service; he likes things to occur as they occur in life, where the manner of a great many of them is not to occur at all” (79). This belief in life and not story is the opposite of the theory behind the formerly mentioned Romantic novel. Howells condemns such a book by taking on the persona of the priest Seward to give his authorial point of view. Furthermore, Howells’s literary critics take on the form of the antiquated old Bromfield Cory in saying, “But what if life as it is isn’t amusing? Aren’t we to be amused?” (Howells 185). Howells offers a retort to such criticism in saying that one mustn’t be amused if one is to be hurt. What is the point of enjoyment if we are the epitome of the joke? Now compare the love story in Silas Lapham to all the talk about Tears, Idle Tears and see how romance in life really should be treated. Corey and those who agree with him represent realistic common sense, while Penelope and Irene are the insipid foolishness of the Romanticist. Those who attack the Realist love story attack their own belief system procured from the Romanticists. If the love story seems ridiculous and out of place, it is the fault of the Romanticists who had set up such a formula for these characters to fight their way out of–a fight Howells continued on throughout his literary days.
Howells’s novels were not a novelty. They were soapbox for him to represent American life as it really was, and not as just a dream of fancy. In Romantic novels, life is but a game in which all is sacrificed in the name of heroism, a greater glory. In an industrialized age of a free market system such antiquated fiction was for the obsolete aristocracy to muse over. As for the modern readers, they needed a change because those who take the novels seriously and see the heroism in them are dragged into a false sense of life where suffering is an ideal instead of a curse. Howells illustrates, through Corey and Penelope’s relationship, that all the suffering is nonsense and nothing but “pseudoheroism” (214). Penelope seeks to prolong her suffering by refusing Corey’s love, seeing heroics in such suffering, as if suffering is more romantic. Plus, when her father loses all his money, she jumps at the chance not to be worthy of Corey’s love, thus plunging herself further into the depth of outdated self-pity. However, when the old man didn’t lose all his money fast enough, she foolishly comments, “but to have it drag along for a fortnight seems to take all the heroism out of it, and leave it as flat!” (282).
These Romantic books take away all common sense so that people will suffer under the façade of false heroism, which is in fact nothing but silly fiction. Howells grew tired of this notion saturating all American literature, and he pushed to stop it through fiction of his own. Taking up the voice of the priest Sewell again, Howells cries out to the reading public:
I don’t know where this false ideal comes from, unless it comes from the novels that befool and debauch almost every intelligence in some degree. […] Your daughter believes, in spite of her common sense, that she ought to make herself and the man who lovers her unhappy, in order to assure the life-long wretchedness of her sister, whom he doesn’t love, simply because her sister saw him and fancied him first! And I’m sorry to say that ninety-nine out of a thousand! […] would consider that noble and beautiful and heroic; whereas you know at the bottom of your hearts that it would be foolish and cruel and revolting. (225)
Though Silas Lapham is a work of fiction, there is a way to present the situations of a novel as real, and Howells succeeds in this. He elaborately displays the Romantic notion of love and suffering as pure foolishness, and any reader brought up on Romantic fiction would even grow impatient with Penelope, seeing the common sense in her marrying Corey.
The novel ends with Penelope finally giving in to Corey’s demands. Well, she doesn’t give in actually; she merely decides upon common sense. She already knew that to dodge the actuality of their love for each other was pure stupidity; she just didn’t know that she could bend the rules: “Don’t you remember last night—before I spoke—you were talking of that book; and you said it was foolish and wicked to do as that girl did. Why is it different with you?” (239). It is different because she must suffer for everyone’s dignity, everyone who was duped into misrepresenting the facts with silly Romantic notions.
The marriage of Penelope and Corey is not just a joining of the new rich with the old aristocracy; it is a marriage of ideas. A Realist can use the tenets of Romanticism without damaging Realism’s integrity. The rules are there to be broken. If common sense and taste say that a romance can occur between two unlikely people at another’s expense, there is no reason why good, solid fiction cannot be written about such a relationship. The true suffering that draws the reader into the story is not self-made torment, but the real struggle of morals and emotion felt by Lapham and his wife. As Howells writes, “Why can’t they let people have a chance to behave reasonably in stories?” (203).
Eliot, George. “Finale.” Middlemarch. Ed. Peter Batke. Princeton. 19 March 2015.
Howells, William Dean. The Rise of Silas Lapham. New York: Signet Classic, 1980.
James, Henry. “William Dean Howells.” Humanities 575: Key Periods & Movements, Literature: 19th Century American Literature. Ed. Dr. Abe Ravitz. Anissa Barton-Thompson and Dacely Garcia, 1996.
Kerkhoff, Ingred. American Realism and Naturalism. 19 March 2015
Moore, Harry T. Afterword. The Rise of Silas Lapham. By William Dean Howells. New York: Signet Classic, 1980.