Wednesday, February 17, 2010

double design.

In their dire circumstances of confliction in the ethics of love, the Lapham’s turn to Reverend Sewell for help, and thus his words become a “central ethical premise” in The Rise of Silas Lapham: “‘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… we are all blinded, we are all weakened by a false ideal of self-sacrifice’” (241). Neither a strict guide for moral conduct or for economic organization, Sewell’s “economy of pain” is a combination of the two. It is illustrated by Sewell, and I believe by Howells, as a fair, humane way to distribute and manage pain, and ultimately minimize human suffering as much as possible. If Pen sacrifices her own love for Tom, and his love for her, and Irene cannot have him, then Sewell is merely suggesting that it is irrational for all three of them to have to endure this pain. This approach is appropriate for the ethical dilemmas regarding humanitarianism as well as capitalism in The Rise of Silas Lapham.

On another note, I noticed as Silas and Persis Lapham are making plans for a new house, through their discussion with Seymour, the architect, Howells’ designs a parallel between the architecture of the house and the architecture of his novel. The architect sketched his idea on a scrap of paper: “‘Then have your dining-room behind the hall, looking on the water… That gets you rid of one of those long, straight, ugly staircases,’ – until that moment Lapham had thought a long, straight staircase the chief ornament of a house, - ‘and gives you an effect of amplitude and space’” (41). Effectively, this double staircase, which intersects in many ways, and comes together at the top, is symbolic of Howells’ two plots involving bankruptcy and love.


  1. In many ways, I thought the Lapham's finals conclusion, "One suffers instead of three..." to be a very valid consensus; I probably would have come to the same conclusion. Yet, as you stated above, it is interesting to see how people naturally adhere to options that bring about as little pain/emotional agony as possible. It seems to suggest that, ultimately, we are created to be positive aspects in each other's lives. If only we could ALWAYS look for the best outcome for everyone, how much happier so many individuals would be!

  2. That's a very good point about the staircase, Carissa. In fact, you could write a whole paper about the ways in which architecture and the architectural symbolism echoes and reinforces the plot in this novel, if you wanted to. (You don't have to, of course.)