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One of the most visible themes in William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham is the conflicting relationship between people’s quest for material success and conformity to moral values. Howell explores the moral issues such as betrayal, trust, and greed that arise as individuals struggle to accumulate wealth. In many societies, wealth is regarded as a ticket into high class society, and Howell shows that individuals could go into great lengths to win acceptance into this exclusive community. Silas Lapham’s efforts to succeed in the business and afford his family better living standards illustrate the value that society and individuals attach to material success. However, Howells cautions, an unchecked desire to accumulate wealth can easily degenerate to greed, and subsequently place the individual at conflict with fellow human beings and society at large. This is evidenced by Lapham’s decision to force his associate Milton Rogers out of the business when he anticipated the business’s value to triple. Nevertheless, Howells’ treatment of the issue reflects the immoral side of the business world, whereby corporate greed encourages deceit, betrayal by partners, and total disregard of corporate social responsibility. This situation accentuates Howells’ argument that materialism, whether at institutional or individual level, corrupts people’s sense of moral values and responsibility to society and fellow human beings. Therefore, this essay argues that Silas Lapham regains his sense of morality and responsibility after discarding his desire for material success.
Lapham’s moral collapse begins with his financial ascent. The success of his paint business exposes him to more economic opportunities that he exploits to accumulate more wealth. Initially, content to share the business’s profits with his partner, Lapham comes across as a trustworthy business partner. However, the prospect of making more on his own overshadows his sense of trust, and consequently betrays Rogers by forcing him to either buy the whole business or get out. Lapham’s situation is a mirror of the competitive nature of the American corporate sector (Eby 39). It also illustrates the competition between individuals who long to improve their worthiness and position in society through material success. However, this goal overshadows their moral responsibility to others and society in general. Lapham knows too well that Rogers is not in a financial position to fund a takeover, and so he is bought out instead- as Lapham intended from the beginning. His wife, Persis, admonishes him in this regard when she says that “you knew he couldn’t buy out then. It was no choice at all: you took advantage of his financial weakness and unloaded a partner just at the time when you knew the business’s value will” (Howells 47). On the one hand, it would be logical to argue that Lapham’s decision was a strategic change that underscores his business acumen. Takeovers are inevitable eventualities in business, whereby a stronger and well-established investor buys out weaker and struggling ones. In addition, critics can point to Lapham’s offer to Rogers, which gave him (Rogers) the opportunity to buy the business first. It is when he failed, because he could not raise the money that Lapham stepped in. However, the fact that he knew Rogers could not finance a takeover reveals Lapham’s evil motives in the proposition. His seemingly generous and selfless offer is masked by ulterior and sinister motives; moreover, he wished to create a situation whereby Rogers would agree to opt out amicably. His “strategic calculations” reveal the corrupting seed of capitalism in society (Hoeller 186). Lapham did not wish to appear greedy, hence the initial offer that allowed Rogers to buy the business. His desire to own the business alone reflects the lack of ethical and moral considerations in corporate decisions, particularly with regards to their effects on others. In all his offers, Lapham portrays the deceit, corruption, ill-motives and manipulations that characterize corporate greed and quest for profits.
The move from his native home, the Lapham house in the backwoods, symbolizes Lapham’s uprooting (literally and metaphorically) from tradition and the social values it espouses (Girgus 108). In the literal sense, Lapham moved away from an environment where materialism is not emphasized. Within this environment, individuals are not pressured to accumulate wealth in order to acquire social status. It is worth noting that it is not until the family returns to their native home that Lapham finally regains his sense of morality and responsibility to others. The backwoods signifies protection from outside impact, such as the corrupting of moral values. By leaving the backwoods, Lapham exposes himself to the corrupting ways of the outside corporate world. In the figurative sense, leaving the Lapham home suggests severing one’s ties with traditional social values. Consequently, making profit becomes his new creed, unhindered by moral considerations or the misgivings of guilt. This is actually seen when Lapham becomes an entrepreneur and is visited by a journalist who comes to interview him in his office. After a lengthy description of the uses of his paint, Hubbard poses, “Never tried it on the human conscience, I suppose?” (Howells 9). This question is a sarcastic mockery of Lapham’s profit maximization strategies, and his blind, selfish pursuit of it without helping the community in any way. It emphasizes Howels’ attack against capitalism as “the god of money” that subverts moral values and pities the rich against the poor (Cuddy & Roche 24). The paint gives a shiny and clean appearance to surfaces, and Hubbard thinks that it might clear the profit-minded cobwebs in Lapham’s conscience. Perhaps, Lapham needed a layer of new paint to suppress his lust for profits, and make him feel guilt for his selfish practices. Lapham confirms the accuracy of Hubbard’s words when he responds to Hubbard’s question that “I guess you want to keep that as free from paint as you can, if you want much use of it” (Howell 9). May be unwittingly, Lapham suggests that a layer of clean paint that allows one to question his conscience will be useless as far as profits are concerned. It would give him a sense of justice that will compromise a profit-oriented mindset (Thomas 123). Accordingly, a guiltless conscience that is blind to ethical issues and moral values is a necessary asset to a profit-minded entrepreneur. If any entrepreneur wants “much use of it (his conscience), Lapham, perhaps speaking from experience, advises that it should be kept as free from paint (moral and ethical considerations) as possible. This reasoning confirms the conflict between materialism/material rise and conformity to social and moral values. Consequently, Lapham drifted further away from his moral fundamentals as he moved up the socio-economic ladder, symbolized by his move from the native Lapham home in the backwoods.
The fall of Lapham’s financial empire coincides with his moral redemption. Therefore, he regains his sense of moral obligation to society and others when he faces a financial crisis. It is when he is threatened with bankruptcy that he begins to question his past decisions, and how they affected others. The first step in this journey towards moral redemption is going back to his roots; to his native home, the symbolic embodiment of social and moral values. Moving to backwoods once again isolates Lapham from the materialistic tendencies of the corporate world, and allows him to reflect on his actions. Regarding his calculated takeover of the business he started with Rogers, he confessed to his wife that “it seems to me I done wrong about Rogers in the first place; that the whole trouble came from that” (Howells 202). This confession reflects a conscious, meditative, and introspective self-analysis that seeks to reconcile him with society and those he wronged as a result of his greed for profits. He recognizes that his strategic takeover was fired by his insatiable thirst for material success and further realizes that his rationalization that he gave Rogers more than he brought into the business was intended to assuage his guilt, to convince him that he had not done any wrong. As evidence of his moral redemption, Lapham refuses to sell his mills to the Englishmen who are willing to pay more than they are worth. This is despite the fact that he needs the money now more than ever before. This reluctance shows that Lapham has finally embraced the moral and social values that he had discarded in his quest for wealth.
In conclusion, The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells explores the relationship between individuals’ material aspirations and their moral convictions. Therefore, the story of Silas illustrates the conflicting relationship between the two. It shows that individuals discard or become blind to their moral and social responsibilities when material success is at stake. This depiction also portrays the nature of corporate practices, whereby investors make decisions that maximize profits, regardless the social and moral implications. Lastly, Howells shows that corporate greed, both at individual and institutional level, corrupts people’s sense of moral obligations. Through the character of Silas Lapham, the author shows that there is an indirect relationship between moral and material rise; that while individuals progress materialistically, their moral values collapse. They regain them only when they give up their thirst for wealth.