Posted by: zhiv | October 21, 2008

More on Howells and Silas Lapham: Self-Deception and Economics

In my post on The Rise of Silas Lapham I focused primarily on the “revelation”–an observation about something very obvious–that the code of the “gentleman” is very similar to the zen practice of doing nothing.  But there was another important strain in the novel that I wanted to take up, which will reveal some of my old modes of literary analysis.

When I was young, and just getting started as a student of literature, I stumbled into a seminar–my first, I believe–in the philosophy department, called “Philosophy and Literature.”  I only remember two books from the reading list for the course, a small, red volume called “Self-Deception,” by Herbert Fingarette, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

I was just barely able to tackle Middlemarch at this time, 18 or 19 years old with about a year of real reading behind me, and my guess is that six months before I would have thought that George Eliot was a man.  Reading the book made me realize that there were unimagined riches in literature and history, and that my mind and developing habits had a natural inclination towards these types of studies.  I loved the world of the ambitious, intellectual novel, its characters and structure, themes and concerns, its sources and creation.  I had felt a gentle gravitation towards being an English major, but now I was hooked.

Oddly enough, however, the little book about self-deception was even more influential.  It was the first time that I saw a meaningful way to analyze literature, but it went deeper than that, causing reflections on basic philosophy and psychology.  What is self-deception, and how does it work, does it even make sense–what does it mean when we talk about deceiving ourselves?  I remember the thrill of simply considering questions like this.  I loved the way that the concept pertained to religious and existential issues.  I suppose it’s important to remember that I was young and wandering through my first bouts of deep skepticism.  At the time religious belief seemed to be massive self-deception (I have the same view today, although it’s a bit more nuanced and sympathetic), and mythology reveals both the absurd futility of religious belief, and also the desires and impulses that drive us.  The little book’s argument had a psychoanalytical bent that was more popular at the time, and it made a lot of sense to me.  Self-deception is a defense mechanism, the natural outcome of preservative unconscious drives protecting the conscious ego.  Two years later I wrote a senior thesis titled “Self-deception and Myth in the Novels of George Eliot,” spinning out the argument in what I’m sure was an extremely nonsensical manner.  I latched onto the way that “pre-Freudian” writers and novelists represented human impulses, drives, and consciousness in an allegorical manner, using different characters to convey the complexity of experience.  A simple, handy example of my approach would be a reading of Othello as a classic example of self-deception, with Iago a projection and representation of subconscious fears and the drive for self-protection–it can go on in depth and indefinitely from there.  Another favorite I have to mention was the “architecture” of the home of Pere Goriot, with Rastignac occupying the main floor (the self), Old Goriot upstairs as a superego, and Vautrin representing the unconscious and living down on the basement level.

As I was busy enjoying all of the examples of “doing nothing” (the core philosophy) in Silas Lapham, rumbling through it I couldn’t help but notice that Howells’ novel is also a sophisticated and careful study of self-deception.  The concept is introduced in the typical “sense and sensibility” manner, through Lapham’s dualistic daughters, Irene the fair beauty, and Penelope the dark, wise wit.  There’s a strong but naive assumption that Tom Corey is in love with Irene, and in her response we see the vanity of romantic belief and a detailed breakdown of the workings of self-deception.  Irene is beautiful, confident, and hopeful, but she is flat-out wrong about Tom Corey’s feelings and intentions, and she willfully misreads all of his actions.  It turns out that Tom is in love with Penelope, who is, by the way, reading and discussing Middlemarch in the novel.

This is all simple enough and not really worth mentioning, but what’s striking is the way in which it serves as a prelude for and accompaniment to the much more significant self-deception of Silas Lapham.  As I mentioned in the previous TRoSL discussion, Howells aims at stripping Lapham of his worldly success and wealth in order to enable him to “rise” to the ability to make a consequential moral decision.  When we meet Lapham in the midst of all his “doings,” his personality is integrated if crude, but he is not integrated into community or society.  It is through Irene’s romantic interests, actually, that Lapham begins to consider his family’s and his own social isolation.  Lapham tentatively attempts to build his relationship with the Coreys (and simultaneously build his Back Bay mansion), but this somehow causes the disintegration of his capitalist self.  He becomes a speculator and deceives himself and suffers a rapid financial ruin.  As he does with Irene, Howells wants to show that there is honor and moral seriousness in the disillusioned self.  Lapham is a wonderful and rich portrait of a post-Civil War industrialist, and the perils of self-deception for such characters is at the very heart of Howells’ enterprise and his “realism.”

It’s interesting to reach these conclusions and consider Lapham now, about a month after reading the novel, given all of the economic turmoil during the interim.  I only meant to introduce self-deception as my old standby for literary analysis, but the deeply-ingrained economic concerns of TRoSL and the cautionary tale of its main character seem to be acutely timely.  It’s fascinating to have recently read and to consider this novel just now.  The mass self-deception of investment bankers and the real estate industry (like Lapham burning down his own mansion) is telling and obvious enough.  And some of these newly-unemployed financiers now have the time and would do well to read this story and contemplate how they have positioned themselves to “rise” like old Silas.



  1. How bizarre…if I had to pick one novel to take to a desert island it would be Middlemarch.

  2. Did you first read it in 1977 like I did?

    And part of the reason that I wrote this out is because I know I’ve been gravitating towards the way that self-deception works in Yates, where it seems to be a big factor.

  3. No, I don’t think I read it until the mid-80s but I was so thrilled with it and couldn’t believe it hadn’t been pressed into my hand much earlier. I then did a long essay on it (like you) when I was applying to do my MA (actually, my second MA) in my early forties and I had to do something to prove I still had a few working brain cells. I decided on George Eliot and wrote masses of impassioned stuff about Dorothea and religion and the supression of the creative self (which obviously included the sexual self) and god knows what else besides….oh yes, I know, the destructive nature of religious fundamentalism! Bit obvious really. But what a book. I have yet to persuade one of my children to read it. For me, Bleak House is in a similar category…..

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