Summary and Analysis
The Laphams' arrival at the Coreys' house in an aristocratic, secluded neighborhood opens Chapter XIV. Silas' problems with gloves, which no one else wears, with the wine he drinks like the ice water served at his home table, and with the conversation he cannot follow and enter into are all brought out during the dinner party.
Bromfield Corey brings up the first topic of discussion — art. "You architects," he says to Mr. Seymour, Silas' architect, "and the musicians are the true and only artistic creators. All the rest of us, sculptors, painters, novelists, and tailors, deal with forms that we have before us; we try to imitate."
Bromfield instigates the next short discussion, also. He maintains that the rich ought to let the poor use their houses while they are absent during the summer.
"Surely, Bromfield," his wife says, "you don't consider what havoc such people would make with the furniture of a nice house!"
To this Bromfield weakly submits.
They continue by discussing the latest novel, Tears, Idle Tears, which is retitled "Slop, Silly Slop" by Nanny Corey. "There's such a dear old-fashioned hero and heroine in it, who keep dying for each other all the way through, and making the most wildly satisfactory and unnecessary sacrifices for each other. You feel as if you'd done them yourself," Miss Kingsbury says.
"Such old fashioned heroines are ruinous," Minister Sewell states. "The novelists might be the greatest possible help to us if they painted life as it is and human feelings in their true proportion."
When the men are alone, they talk of the need for more patriotic feelings among the young men. It is suggested that an occasion is needed. Bromfield Corey sees a need for good citizenship. "You can paint a man dying for his country, but you can't express on canvas a man fulfilling his duties as a good citizen," he points out.
"Perhaps the novelists will get him by and by," someone else suggests.
At this point Lapham finds occasion to enter the conversation and tells his war story. He speaks of Jim Millon's bravery in action when he saved Lapham by taking a bullet meant for him. Millon wanted to live for his wife Molly and his daughter Zerrilla, Lapham points out, but, like a real hero, he took an active part in the battle.
Silas has drunk too much wine, but he feels that now he has successfully talked and continues to tell Bromfield Corey about his paint. He continues drinking and expounding on different subjects until he has the talk altogether to himself; no one else talks, and he talks unceasingly.
This chapter telling of the dinner party comes at the middle of the book, and like the first and last chapters, it is an important and extensive one. It ties many threads of the story together and spins them out again; for instance, Silas' final social failure is a culmination of a quest, and it determines the falling action to follow as he retreats to the backwoods of his origins.
It predicts the situation in which Irene, Tom, and Penelope will soon be in by discussing the novel, Tears, Idle Tears; it is later revealed that the novel tells a story somewhat parallel to theirs. The discussion of the disproportion of this story is ironical, for it is happening before them and is caused by their own romantic notions.
Besides bringing the two families together and giving emphasis to what is to follow, Chapter XIV conveys many of Howells' ideas on art, society, and the romantic novel.
On art Howells says through the voices of Minister Sewell and Bromfield Corey, that most artists, like the novelists, are imitators. The best novelist, he says, will paint life as it really is and show human feelings in their true proportions. Howells, in writing a realistic novel that paints people as they really are, must show them as romantic characters, because many of the people of his time lived in an illusionary, romantic world. It is a world where they need the romantic flare of war to ignite them into good citizenship. Perhaps someday the novelist will show the nation that the man fulfilling his duties of a good citizen is just as exciting and rewarding as the soldier doing his duty by fighting with romantic valor in a war.