In The Rise of Silas Lapham, the elder daughter Penelope represents the intelligent, yet understated romantic woman. Like many heroines, Penelope finds herself in the awkward situation of being the middle of a love triangle. Though their respective families believe that Tom would be a better match for her sister Irene, who is described as being “innocent” and incredibly attractive, it is Penelope whom Tom chooses for a wife. Like many literary heroines, Penelope tries to end her love-affair, as an expression of self-sacrifice, but she eventually submits to marrying Tom.
Penelope is fairly unusual for a character in nineteenth century American literature in that she is smart and bookish, and, more importantly, forthright and witty. She is portrayed in a realistically; she is not written as a single-faceted stock character such as the virginal maiden, or the fallen whore. Howells writes Penelope as his version of the new type of woman that was quickly emerging in the late 1800s. Women were quickly coming into their own— they were leaving lives of abject domestic servitude through marriage and were becoming better educated and more liberated. Penelope, as a character, represents the social change to women’s roles and their growing prominence.
The Romantic Hero, by definition, is one who both rejects and has been rejected by the established norms and conventions of their societies. Penelope embodies this definition because she does not submit to the demand of her socially-lacking family, and she avoids seeking out a love match; Penelope is more content to be on her own enjoying the great literature of the day. It is Tom’s progressive views which ultimately represent a shift in how women are perceived in the story. Tom does not believe that a woman should be merely attractive and lacking in intelligence; he would prefer a woman with intelligence to challenge him mentally. In this way, Howells uses the character of Tom to illustrate that although society still believes that a woman’s place is in the home, people outside of the upper-echelon of society do not always feel the same way, and there are some who are actively challenging traditional women’s roles in society.
Penelope’s character can be read as a realistic, though simplistic, example of self-sacrifice. She considers, for a while, rejecting the advances of Tom Corey though she comes to ultimately decide against it. She chooses, instead, to agree with the words of Reverend Sewell who says that “we are all weakened by a false ideal of self-sacrifice.” (228). She understands that her unhappiness will not ensure the happiness of her sister, Tom Corey, or her family, and she decides to live her life for herself instead of under the strict demands of social acceptability written about for women.
Popular during Penelope’s time was a series of primers for women, known colloquially as conduct books. These books were written as a way to inform young women about what was, and was not,...