Silas Lapham finds Bromfield Corey to be offensively aristocratic. Silas disapproves of the fact that Bromfield has always let his father's wealth take care of him. He has traveled in Europe and studied painting. Mrs. Corey married him in Rome when he was a rich young painter who said so much better things than he painted. He continues to say charming things when they return to Boston. Actively but rather passively extravagant with his father's money, he is not adventurous with it. His tastes are simple, and he has no expensive habits. Secluded life suits him best, and the Coreys' life has been uneventful.
Bromfield is the spokesman for the intelligent, aristocratic class, although he says that to his relief he has found himself to be of common clay rather than porcelain. "If I get broken, I can be easily replaced," he says.
His uselessness is not an understatement, for he is not actively involved in any project that makes him valuable to the world. He does not paint, but rather theorizes about it. He has found that it is absurd for him to paint for pay, and ridiculous to paint for nothing; so, he does not paint at all.
As a representative of the aristocratic class, he seems alien to the American culture. Walker, Lapham's bookkeeper, mistakes Bromfield for an Italian correspondent when the painter visits Silas at the office. Bromfield realizes that this nearly foreign culture, which he represents, is a society that is dying because it has narrow conventions and lacks creativity. When Tom returns from Texas with new ideas, Bromfield knows that the creativity of one of his own family will help to unseat his secure position as a social leader.
Realistically, Bromfield realizes his own sterile elegance is in competition with the crude materialism of Silas Lapham. He maintains, however, that civilization does not come from the noble savages like Lapham but, instead, from the reading citizens. Nevertheless, Bromfield appreciates the best in Silas. Bromfield's generosity and imagination let Tom work and marry with the Laphams in order to throw the Corey "sterile elegance" back into the main stream of life.
Bromfield is a humorous character used by Howells for comic relief. Bromfield says that when Silas told him about his paint "he poured mineral paint all over me, till I could have been safely warranted not to crack or scale in any climate." He is gracefully witty at the expense of those who take life seriously. He tells his wife that Persis' extremely embarrassed and excited reaction to Mrs. Corey's call was because "you made her feel so. I can imagine how terrible you must have been in the character of an accusing spirit." When Mrs. Corey proposes the necessity of a dinner for the Laphams, Bromfield replies, "Ah, you overdid the accusing-spirit business, and this is reparation."