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The Sorry Tale of the Laphams

Money buys respect, or so Silas Lapham had thought. He became filthy rich in the paint business whilst lacking the awareness that regardless of fresh paint on a crude building – everybody can tell that the building was old and crude to begin with. Thus, the Lapham family’s makeover in the consumer society of the rich turns into a failure. In fact, the Lapham family turns into laughingstock because everybody from the upper class knows the differences between old and new money (Howells). Howells explains Mr. and Mrs. Lapham’s attitude toward new money thus:

…Suddenly the money began to come so abundantly that she need not save; and then they did not know what to do with it. A certain amount could be spent on horses, and Lapham spent it; his wife spent on rich and rather ugly clothes and a luxury of household appointments. Lapham had not yet reached the picture-buying stage of the rich man’s development, but they decorated their house with the costliest and most abominable frescoes; they went upon journeys, and lavished upon cars and hotels; they gave with both hands to their church and to all the charities it brought them acquainted with; but they did

not know how to spend on society (Howells) Undoubtedly, Lapham is very proud of his newly acquired wealth. He boasts about his new, highly expensive property with Tom Corey’s. People with old money do not boast about wealth this way. This is one of the reasons why upper class society of Boston does not find the Laphams tasteful enough to accept as their own. But, the Laphams have to do something about their fortune, which is why they try to spend it however they deem fit. They cannot spend enough in the suburbs, so therefore they endeavor to fit into the upper class society of Boston (Howells).

Nevertheless, they cannot really fit into the upper class. Tom’s family realizes that the Laphams are not sophisticated enough for their son to be married to Irene, Lapham’s daughter. The Laphams similarly understand that they may not be accepted into the social class of the Coreys despite the fact that the Laphams are very rich (Howells). Tom tells his mother, “Money has its limitations” (Howells). After all, the upper class is raised with its own set of trappings; for example, they purchase high priced paintings as a manifestation of their class.

Likewise, the upper class sends its youth to the best schools of the world. For this reason, individuals raised in the upper class have their own language and culture that people from middle and lower socioeconomic backgrounds cannot relate to. Capitalism makes masters, the rest remain as serfs. Even if this relationship ceases to exist in the modern world, relationships continue to be built around this theme. So therefore, the Laphams must necessarily be perceived as people from the serf class by the Boston high society (Howells).

References to “paint” abound in Howell’s novel. The Laphams belonged to a humbler class to begin with. The Coreys discuss among themselves the fact that the Laphams have a poor relationship with books. Of course, there is great emphasis on reading and good education among the rich people. People from humble backgrounds, on the other hand, either do not get acquainted with wealthy and educated people – enough to inspire them to study as much as possible – or do not have the time and money to spend on reading and schooling.

This may be referred to as a stereotype. However, the reality is that even scientific research affirms that persons from poor homes are low academic achievers. This is the reason why the Coreys must relate class sophistication to reading (Howells). Tom Corey adds, however, “But they are very good people. The other daughter is humorous” (Howells). In other words, the Laphams possess the “country people” mentality stereotyped for its goodness and humor (Howells). The rich capitalists, on the contrary, are typically stereotyped as cruel and ill-humored.

Even when they spend their fortunes on charities their intentions are misconstrued mainly because persons from lower socioeconomic classes complain of exploitation on the part of the rich. The chief differences between the world of the uncouth or the unrefined versus the rich and refined translate into differences in social and academic backgrounds. As mentioned previously, the wealthy and the refined have the opportunity to mingle with the rich, the famous, and the educated. The Laphams have neither mingled with such people nor acquired education in the finest schools of the world.

Thus, Lapham’s language is littered with grammatical mistakes. The Coreys and their likes expect better. Lapham is overexcited about his newly acquired wealth, but persons with old money cannot possibly admire the fact that he brags about his paints (Howells). After all, people with old money have had ancestors who invented things that may have been even more important to the world than Lapham’s paints. The paints could certainly not become the sole reason for the Laphams to be wholeheartedly accepted into the upper class. The word, “ugly,” is used repeatedly throughout the novel (Howells).

Whereas the wealthy may access information about all that is considered beautiful in the world, for example, they may easily acquire information about the latest fashion in clothing, straight from Paris, or visit the most picturesque places in the world to strengthen their sense of beauty – the poor are usually restricted in terms of their living standard. Then again, if an emphasis on solid education is a chief part of their upbringing, they may become high achievers as education would opens doors for them that were previously locked. In this case, those who long for knowledge would welcome them wherever they go. Mrs.

Silas has a nightmarish experience trying to comprehend responses to invitations from the upper class. But the fact that she is so concerned about proper responses expected of high society reveals that there is something terribly wrong about trying to fit in. Of course, if she were intelligent enough she would learn the art of letter writing as soon as she was confronted by the need to do so. Mrs. Silas is worried about the letter, however. In fact, her attitude shows that she is highly uncomfortable about the change. Perhaps, therefore, the Laphams should not have tried so hard to fit into the high society of Boston.

After acquiring immense wealth they should have focused on making themselves comfortable first. The Laphams returned to their humble beginnings toward the end of the novel. But even if that had not happened, it was possible for them to add comfort to their own lives before seeking to please others as they did (Howells). Then again, both rich and poor families must dwell on the question posed by existentialists: What is the meaning of life? If the mindset of the Laphams was Christian, for example, they would have handled their wealth in another way altogether.

It seems, therefore, that all those who are successful in fulfilling the American Dream must be aware of their own purpose in life. Is it to please rich people so they would accept the new moneyed people enough to introduce them to presidents and vice presidents of the country? Or, is it to send their kids to the best universities of the world? Obviously, the Laphams are confused and irritated in their new standing as they have not dwelt on the question of purpose in life. Lapham apologizes to Tom after the dinner party thus: “I disgraced you! I disgraced my family! I mortified your father before his friends” (Howells)!

This attitude poses another essential question: Is it worthwhile to degrade oneself this way for the only reason that people have different social habits? Lapham did not behave as a criminal at the party. He neither slapped the men nor flirted with their wives. But the fact that he feels so ashamed about his behavior reveals that there is something not quite right about trying to emulate others’ social habits when it feels as uncomfortable as it does to the Laphams. Thus the story of the Laphams presents a lesson to all those who have fulfilled the American Dream starting from scratch.

Laphams made a mockery of themselves by not knowing their own purpose in life. Perhaps it was lack of education that did not allow them to think along those lines. Regardless, all new moneyed people should try not to become laughingstock for the old moneyed. There is nothing bad about acquiring a fortune, but there is something terribly wrong about not understanding one’s own humanity. References Howells, W. D. (2008, Jun 5). The Rise of Silas Lapham. Retrieved Mar 12, 2009, from http://www. gutenberg. org/files/154/154-h/154-h. htm.

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