Thursday, February 11, 2010

Silas Lapham's Daughters

I must admit, as I began reading Silas Lapham, I found little to no interest in the plot. While I find it exceedingly exciting to see an individual improve his conditions by working hard to become a prosperous business man, I do not see it extremely exciting to read about. The book seemed to drag on for nearly 30 (or so) pages, until Lapham's daughters were introduced. Much like Jane Austen's classic, Pride and Prejudice, Howell's book seems to have much to say in it's underlying plot about marriage and status.
Lapham's two daughters, Irene and "Pen", are both nice girls from an honest family, yet, they are exceedingly different. Irene is a girl who is categorized mainly by her looks and flirtatious charisma, while Pen is characterized by her intelligence and witty humor. Essentially both are well bred girls, just with different mannerisms.
As the novel progresses, it becomes evident that Pen, in her loud and boisterous character, seems to be elevated above her younger sister. She carries on all the conversations, reads and stays informed on knowledge a great deal, and is portrayed as a great catch for any man to marry. Irene, on the other hand, is portrayed as simple, yet, very pretty.
What I find most interesting about this situation is that, while this novel was written not far from a time when women were expected to be shy and simple, it elevated the bold and independent characteristics of Pen; not only does she seem to have the most personality, but also most eligible for marriage to the handsome and rich Tom Corey. Even Mrs. Lapham states that "[Tom] hasn't fallen in love with Irene at all. If he had, it wouldn't matter about the intellect" (124). The foundation of the novel seems to be built on the idea that intelligent and individualistic women are to be sought after, and a meek girl with beautiful complexion is a simplistic luxury which will fade in time.
While I have not yet finished the novel, I look forward to seeing how this situation unfolds and, ultimately, who Tom Corey chooses to take interest in...i predict he will choose brains over beauty.


  1. Pen is supposed to be unattractive based on the standards of the time, but you're right: she is attractive, and the reader can see this where the characters can't.

  2. I noticed too that Irene is portrayed as the perfect "angel of the house". She is very adept at providing for the comfort of others, doesn't say or think much, and is beautiful to look at. So it is interesting that Howells would choose Pen, the "dark" one, to be successful in love. But thinking about it, it may have only been a plot device so that he could address the moral obligations between sisters.
    ~Ruth Nelson