Summary and Analysis
Lapham returns to his home in the unfashionable South End section of Boston. The Laphams, who have come from the country, are unaware of the need of an acceptable location to help them gain social approval. They are not made aware of their poor location until Mrs. Corey calls on them to thank Mrs. Lapham for caring for her during an accidental meeting, when Mrs. Corey had become violently ill. She says that her driver had a difficult time finding the Lapham home. "Nearly all our friends are on the New Land or on the Hill," Mrs. Corey says.
Not only do the Laphams live in a socially unacceptable neighborhood, but also they have not educated their daughters to perform well in social functions; afraid of being snubbed by the other girls, the Lapham sisters dropped out of finishing school after attending part of a year.
When Mrs. Corey's son joins his mother at the Canadian watering place where she has fallen ill, he impresses Mrs. Lapham with his good manners. Persis sees a possible love affair between him and Irene, but she realizes that her daughters have not been brought up to match the Coreys socially.
The Laphams have spent their money on rich, ugly clothes, costly, abominable frescoes, hotel rooms, and trips. They have never thought of traveling to Europe, of giving dinner parties instead of treating an occasional businessman to potluck, or of building on their land in the better part of town.
"I declare," Mrs. Lapham says, "it [Mrs. Corey's aristocracy] made me feel as if we had always lived in the backwoods."
Silas tells her he owns some property in the fashionable part of town; he asks Persis if she wants to build on it. She says she does not, but inwardly she is pleased and dreams of seeing her daughters behind the windowpanes of a house on the New Land. Despite Persis' protests, Silas decides to come out of the backwoods and build on the land he owns, bringing his socially unacceptable daughters out with him.
This chapter substantiates the Laphams' lack of social or cultural background. Silas feels that he can buy social position by building a house in the right part of town. The house symbolizes the culmination of his financial rise and, when it burns, a social goal he cannot reach.
"The Laphams'," Howells tells us, "very strength of mutual affection was a barrier to worldly knowledge; they dress for one another; they equipped their house for their own satisfaction; they lived richly to themselves, not because they were selfish, but because they did not know how to do otherwise." It is this lack of concern for the rest of society that the Laphams must overcome before they can morally take a place in society.