Saturday, February 26, 2011

Reflection and Disbelief While Reading Silas Lapham

While reading Howells The Rise of Silas Lapham, I had a moment when I realized that I wasn't taking a word of the book seriously. It was like Howells was talking about all these characters and storylines and I was just tuning out, falling asleep in the middle of lecture. I felt instantly shamed and self-conscious about this state of mind and took a minute to step back and take stock of what I was feeling. It all came together for me in my Fiction Writing class with Professor Boylan, when we had a brief discussion of character and plot believability. The willing suspension of disbelief, the moment when we, as readers, say "okay, yeah, I'll buy this, I'll see where you take this". I realized that I didn't believe a word of this story, I didn't believe in Silas's paint or Pen's sassiness or the Corey family's gradual moral decay. I didn't believe any of it-- to me, it felt like a caricature of the upper crust.

With this in mind, I connected strongly with Leah's blog in which she describes the very in-your-face attitude of richness and new money. Leah argued at the end that "no matter what occurs, the standard which is used to measure social status will always be obnoxious, whether it's based on family history or how much money you spent on a car that you don't drive but leave in the drive-way for everyone to see." I thought this was completely spot-on to how I was feeling. It was obnoxious to me, all of it. I was especially annoyed by the Corey family's social pretension, their exaggerated commitment to social hierarchy and the superiority afforded to them by their "old money" status. And then Silas's own garish over-decoration of his house, and the intense social structure and immobility displayed in the dinner party...

Overall, I felt that Silas took an almost satirical hit at class division and social structure, and if there's one thing that gets old fast for me in literature, it's satire. Of course, I'm not positive. I tried to find facts and information online to support or refute this claim and didn't get anything solid. It could actually be a fairly accurate of American culture and class structure during the 1800s. However, I didn't buy it. To me, the view of old rich in America felt forced, overdone, and exaggerated. Anyone else in my boat? Or did you feel like Howells did an historically accurate job? Was that even what he was aiming for with Silas?

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