As Chapter 14 opens, readers are told of the Coreys' home, which belongs to Anna Corey's family and is located at Bellingham Place. It is an old, aristocratic, and secluded place that is decorated simply, and the Laphams think it looks bare upon entering for their dinner plans. Persis and Irene bid Silas wait for them to come down from the Coreys' dressing room before he goes into the Coreys' drawing room. Not knowing what to do, Silas waits for his family and toys with his gloves, still not knowing whether or not he should wear them. After some quiet talking issues from within, Tom comes out to greet Silas, who is ashamed to see that he is not wearing any gloves. He takes his gloves off just as Persis and Irene come downstairs. Tom seems to silently inquire about Penelope's absence with his gaze. A brief description of Persis and Irene's outfits closes this introductory scene.
Anna Corey comes to greet the Laphams, and she mistakes Silas for a general rather than a colonel. Meanwhile, all eyes of the guests are fixated on Irene and her beauty. As Silas is introduced to the many guests, he merely mimics the manners of other gentlemen he had met in the past. Mrs. Corey asks after Penelope, and Persis is very embarrassed in telling her that she "didn't feel just like coming to-night" (189). Anna thinks to herself that, since Robert Chase and Mrs. James Bellingham did not come, the gender-ratio is better, but she does not tell this to Persis. At the same time, Persis realizes that they were the last to show up and have kept everyone waiting. When the time comes to be seated, Tom Corey takes Ms. Kingsburg's arm, Bromfield takes Persis, and Silas takes Anna—though, when they are seated, Tom is seated next to Irene.
At the table, Silas mimics the table manners of others and does not know how to refuse food or wine (though he does not drink wine), so he simply accepts and consumes all that is offered to him. The dinner conversation initially focuses on the Lapham's house construction, which eventually turns into a discussion of the Coreys' own home and how it was inherited. When the architect Seymour jokes that the Coreys' home is inferior in its construction to the Laphams' because it is older, Bromfield humbly agrees and says that architects are the only true creators, while all other artists simply attempt to mimic or imitate reality. The conversation then pivots towards Ms. Kingsbury, who is playfully teased by Bromfield for her immense charity work and by Charles Bellingham for her indigent Italian tenants.
The conversation at the table then takes an interesting turn towards the natures of poverty and status. Bromfield suggests that all the empty houses left in Boston during the summer by the aristocracy should be occupied by poor people who need the shelter more. He goes even so far as to suggest that, were it not for the police, he himself would apply "dynamite to those long rows of close-shuttered, handsome, brutally insensible houses" (194). This is quickly rebuffed in an elitist joke by Anna, but as the guests start to discuss what low-income people may or may not have the will to do, Silas himself thinks about how he himself was once of limited means. He does not have the courage to speak of his own experience, however. Charles Bellingham suggests that, in America, poor people are content with their lots in life because they know that they have opportunity, and the rest is all luck.
Silas notices a painting on the wall and assumes it to be of Nanny. When he asks Anna who the painting is of, however, she says it is her grandmother from Salem. She launches into an account of her family history and the illustrious names therein, all of which are lost on Silas. At the same time, he notices that the conversation among the other guests has turned into the type of gossip that he thought genteel folk did not engage in. He notices that Tom and Irene have started to talk of Penelope. He still cannot bring himself to speak at length while others seem to be conversing freely and happily. Silas wishes that Penelope were at the dinner so that she might be able to have her opinion on all these matters heard, since he himself has not encountered many of the topics before.
Ms. Kingsbury brings the conversation at the table to literature, specifically a popular novel called Tears, Idle Tears. Nanny says that the tragic novel is slop, which opens a discussion about the nature of good fiction and what lessons novels teach. Notably, Reverend Sewell says that, since novels are becoming more and more important in people's intellectual development, they ought to be more realistic and depict human feelings in "true proportion and relation" rather than vain self-sacrifices (197). Following this, brief attention is paid to the treatment of love in novels, and how it is often treated as the most supreme thing in the world of fiction. Reverend Sewell posits that love ought not to be revered as divine, but rather accepted as "natural and mortal" (198). Meanwhile, Silas's attention is focused on how disoriented he is to have his food served in courses, rather than at all once.
As the meal ends, Tom rises to see the ladies out, and Silas also rises while the others remain seated. This makes Silas feel shame both that he stands out and that he did not escort the ladies, but no one else notices. The men take out cigars, which makes Silas more comfortable, and they begin to talk about their service in the Civil War. Silas is finally able to talk of how some people in the war were very brave, while others were cowards who merely waited in the woods for the fighting to stop. James Bellingham agrees with Silas and says that there are not many aristocrats who would have the courage to go fight, and he says that things were the same in the days of the Civil War. The men talk about how heroism will not arise without cause, and this is why civil reforms have failed to produce heroes on the scale of war heroes.
As the talk of war continues, Silas tells a story about a comrade of his during the war, Jim Millon. Jim's wife was not as true to him as he was to her, but he still sent her a lot of money back from the front in order to take care of her. One day, he tells Silas that he wants to continue to live for his wife Molly and his daughter Zerilla, but he eventually dies by taking a bullet that was meant to kill Silas. This story makes an impression, but Silas is too under the influence to continue coherently. He takes more wine and continues to falter in his speech.
On the way out, Silas notices that Irene also is not talking enough to do herself justice, and he feels mixed emotions at her beauty and her failure to seize this chance in high society. What follows is then a major embarrassment for Silas, as he boasts about the expenses he is undertaking on his home's decorations and books. He continues to boast and talk over the other guests until Tom comes over to him to say that Persis is leaving. Silas closes his speech by telling Tom what an honor it was to be a guest of the Coreys, and he patronizes the other guests on his way out without bidding Anna Corey farewell. Persis is embarrassed that they have stayed so long, but she feels as if she has made a good impression on the women present.
The next morning, Silas is hungover and realizes that his actions the previous night were not becoming. He is short with his clients and rude to his staff. Corey sees Silas talking to the attractive typist again, and he tells her "Can't see you to-night Zerilla," revealing that she is the daughter of the man who took a bullet for Silas in war (208). The chapter ends with Silas asking Tom if he was drunk the previous night.
Chapter 15 opens with Silas repeating his question to Tom, who says that he and the others understood it merely to be an accident, since they did not even ask Silas if he took wine with dinner. Silas apologizes profusely to Tom in an incredibly self-effacing manner, while Tom tries consistently to talk him down and says that it really was not a big deal for anyone. After this scene of profuse and tragic apology, Tom leaves Silas' office and thinks about how angry Silas' vulgarity and subsequent self-effacement has made him. He begins his reflections by thinking about how little separates Silas from even a porter and how naive he must have been to act as he has in the past 24 hours, but he ends his reflections with a little bit of sympathy for Silas and his ignorance that allowed him to not recognize the wrong he was doing.
Tom decides to pay Silas a visit. On his way to the Laphams, he thinks about his previous diffidence to make an advance on the Laphams because of the respect he was paying to his family and any others with a stake in the matter. Still, as Chapter 15 ends, he resolves to be bold in making his move and in telling Silas that he was sorry for his earlier lack of sympathy.
As Chapter 16 opens, Tom has arrived at the Laphams' home, but he is told by their servant Alice that Silas is not home. When Alice goes inside to tell Penelope, who is home alone, of the incident, Penelope decides to go downstairs and see what is on Tom's mind. As she descends, a description of the interior of the Lapham home in Nankeen Square—with its panelling, American iconography, and religious statues—is given. Penelope and Tom interact awkwardly at first, and they both turn red at the tense feeling between them (216). When Penelope tells Tom that she had just been reading a book, it turns out that the book is none other than Tears, Idle Tears (discussed at the party in Chapter 14). In the book, a woman allows the man she loves to marry another woman out of a sense of righteousness and self-sacrifice. This is an obvious parallel to Penelope's own situation, in which she plans to let Tom marry Irene, though she loves him. Still unaware of this similarity, however, Penelope merely says that she finds this kind of self-sacrifice to be unreasonable, and Tom agrees that lovers should behave more rationally than in the novel.
As the conversation continues, Penelope asks Tom if it is true that Irene talks so much of her. When Tom returns that it is more apt to say that he asks Irene about Penelope constantly, Penelope is embarrassed and suggests that she will have to accordingly change her behavior. Tom rejects this prominently, however, and the air grows more tense as Tom draws attention to the fact that he and Penelope are alone together rather infrequently. When Tom suggests that Penelope has been avoiding him, she tries to shake it off, but Tom comes right out and confesses his love for Penelope (219). Penelope feels exposed and ashamed, since she blames herself for having possibly given Tom the impression that she was interested in him all along, while she was meant to be advocating for and advancing Irene's chances with Tom. She does not tell him, however, about her family's mistaken thought that Tom was interested in Irene, opting instead to tell him only that there is something wrong that she cannot tell him and that no "human creature [can] know" (221).
In her shame, Penelope tells Tom that he should leave and never come back to speak of his love again, if he cares for her and her family. Tom suggests that he tell Silas or Persis about his love for Penelope to see how to best overcome whatever it is Penelope is dealing with, but Penelope remains vague in her complaints. She even goes so far as to tell him without reason that him involving her parents would "make [her] hate [Tom]" (222). He resolves to come back the next day, and he leaves. On his way out, he passes Silas, who does not notice anything amiss.
The following morning, Silas wonders why neither of his daughters comes to breakfast or has work to do. Persis responds by saying that they are young and because they have the privilege of Silas' wealth, respectively. Silas changes the subject by wondering aloud what Tom Corey wanted when he paid a visit last night. Persis suggests that Tom may have come to see about Irene but did not have the courage to stay and ask Silas formally. Thinking it to be an urgent question, Persis goes upstairs to ask Penelope what happened with Tom the previous evening. She finds Penelope restless and crying, and when she asks Penelope what the matter is, Penelope confesses that Tom "offered himself to [her] last night" (225).
After her revelation, Penelope again tries aloud to cope with her possible guilt in leading Tom on, but Persis says that she does not blame Penelope. Persis says that she saw from the start that Irene was not equal to Tom, but this only makes Penelope express her anger that Persis and others never considered her as a potential match for Tom. The two then puzzle over what to do next and whether to tell Irene. Persis suggests that Penelope ought to just marry Tom, since it cannot be helped and because they have remained true to Irene and each other from the beginning. Ultimately, they resolve to tell Irene, knowing that it will hurt her beyond measure. Still, Penelope feels very guilty and insists that she must have done something wrong to make Tom's courtship of Irene fail and instead direct focus to herself. At the same time, however, she wavers in her resolve and briefly considers that she would be doing nothing wrong by pursuing Tom. Persis says that she will ask Silas what to do, but this only makes Penelope angrier, since she feels that others are taking control of her life and private matters. As Persis leaves to go tell Irene to leave Penelope alone for the day (i.e., until she has a chance to talk to Silas about her daughters), Penelope suggests that she has heard of cases of self-sacrifice where women have suffered to give another woman a chance with the man they both love (this would seem to be a reference to Tears, Idle Tears).
Persis successfully tells Irene to stay away from Penelope, who she says has not slept well. On her way downstairs, however, Persis thinks of how she herself is to blame for the current situation. She thinks that the family's wealth and ambition has blinded them to the truth of Tom's affections, since they wanted so badly for him to fancy Irene. At the same time, however, Persis is scared that Silas will be both too angry (since his plans for Irene were foiled) and too proud (since one of his daughters will have Tom after all) to think rationally of what to do in this situation. After sending for Silas at work, saying that she wants to speak with him, Persis waits at home, where all she can think about as she watches Irene is how futile all her hopes now are. As the chapter closes, Irene says she wants to get a hairpin like the one Nanny Corey was wearing, but Persis quickly tells her this is a bad idea. When she sees how hurt Irene looks, however, Persis recants and says she should get the pin. Meanwhile, she waits for Silas to return.
As Chapter 18 opens, Silas has just arrived home to take Persis for a drive. He talks to her about the new house on their drive, and he mentions that Mr. Rogers visited again to ask him to participate in another business venture. Persis lambasts Silas for only wanting to talk about business and the house, and he asks her what she would like to talk about instead. Persis first lightly hints that Tom might not have been coming over to check on Irene, and Silas expresses discontent at the thought, suggesting that this is not true. Eventually, Persis tells him that Tom is interested in Penelope. Silas, too, is dumbfounded and does not know what course of action to take. When Silas asks if Irene knows, Persis says that she does not, and they think for a moment on how their blind focus on Irene distracted them from what was really going on. Silas and Persis continue to discuss the matter, and Persis worries that the issue will weigh heavily on Penelope's consciousness. When Silas seems resigned to just let Tom marry Penelope and let things run their course, Persis suggests that Silas simply wants Tom as a son-in-law and is willing to sacrifice Irene's happiness. Silas rejects this, but just as he starts talking, they get in a minor accident and hit another carriage.
After resolving the accident, Persis and Silas wonder if they are not perhaps too close to the issue to be able to see things clearly. They resolve to talk to someone else, and Silas suggests that Persis talk to the preacher at her church, Dr. Langworthy. When she says that she does not know him well enough, they resolve to ask Reverend Sewell (from the dinner party) for his advice. They decide to call on him at Bolingbroke Street, and Persis tells Silas that they should not pass their new home on the way over, since she "couldn't bear to see it" (239). They successfully visit Sewell in his home, and they make no illusions that the people involved in the situation are anyone besides themselves. In response, he suggests that there is no shame in turning to the community for help, since we can always "be wiser for some one else than we can for ourselves" (240).
In the way of advice, Reverend Sewell tells them that its best to just let Irene suffer, since one person's suffering is better than three people's suffering. When Silas and Persis question this, however, Sewell says that anything else would not accord with common sense, and merely reflects a perverse sense of self-sacrifice that comes from "the novels that befool and debauch almost every intelligence in some degree" (241). He says that the claim Irene has over Tom is bogus, and that Penelope acting on it would be in accord with false notions of heroism. As the chapter ends, Revered Sewell says that they must allow Tom and Penelope to marry, since to do less or otherwise would make them "guilty" in causing multiple people's suffering (242).
As Chapter 19 opens, Silas and Persis agree that Reverend Sewell's advice is sound. They return home, and Persis goes upstairs to tell Irene the truth. When Irene enters, Persis tells her that Tom "don't care anything for [her]" and that "he never did" right away (244). Interestingly, however, Irene seems to take this revelation rather well, and she simply says there is "nothing to say" (244). She empties many souvenirs of Tom from her dresser and gives them to Penelope. These include the pin that Irene had just bought, the flier about Mr. Stanton's ranch in Texas, a boutonniere Irene stole from the dinner in Chapter 14, and the wood shaving that Tom gifted her, which she "drop[s] in [Penelope's] lap without a word" (244-245). Irene says that she would like to go on a walk with Silas, and he obliges, walking her as far as their new house on Beacon Street. Ominously, Irene says she "shall never live in it" (245).
Irene demands that Silas take her to an apothecary so that they can buy medication to help her sleep, and he obliges yet again. After, Irene asks Silas to go to Lapham the next day, and Silas tells her that she will have to wait another day, since the following day is Sunday. The next day, Irene repeats this wish to Persis, who does not really like the idea and wishes Irene would just break a little now so that she does not hurt so bad later. Irene rejects this, and she simply goes to work around the house, setting things in order and serving Penelope her breakfast. Later, Persis says that she despises Penelope for the weakness that she is showing while Irene shows resolve, but Silas is unsure of what Persis would have Penelope do in this instance. Changing the subject, Silas asks after Irene, and Persis says she will go with her to Lapham the following day. After dinner, Irene goes to Penelope and tells her that she wants Penelope to tell Tom all about the family's earlier perception of things (i.e., that all of them, including Irene, assumed that Tom was interested in Irene).
The next day, Silas sees Persis and Irene off at the train station, but Irene acts rather coldly towards Silas. At work, Tom tries to discern whether Silas knows about his visit two evenings ago and his confession to Penelope, but he is unable to approach him because Silas is meeting with Mr. Rogers. After Rogers leaves, however, Tom approaches Silas and confesses his love formally to Silas, who says that it is all right with him. However, Silas asks Tom if maybe he was not also playing things up with another girl at the same time (hinting at Irene), but Tom is shocked at this accusation and rejects it wholeheartedly. Tom asks to see Penelope again, but all that Silas can think of as Tom talks is his conflicted desire to both please Penelope and limit Irene's sadness. Later, at dinner, Penelope says that she feels like "a thief that hasn't been arrested yet" (252). Silas tells her that Tom has visited him about the matter, and Penelope accuses Tom of breaking his promise to her. Silas responds by saying that it was he who brought the matter up with Corey, and he mentions that Tom will be coming that night to talk things over further with her.
Tom arrives to talk things over with Penelope. She is direct in telling Tom that the Laphams assumed him to be interested in Irene. Tom reacts quickly in telling her that he admired Irene's beauty, but loved only Penelope from the very first time he met her. Further, he explains that the newspaper detailing Stanton's ranch was not from him, but rather from Stanton, since Tom had told Stanton of Irene's beauty and suggested that he come up north to meet her. Penelope then goes on to tell Tom about her guilty conscience and anguish over Irene. She tries to turn Tom down on this basis, but Tom keeps telling Penelope that they have been true to each other, as well as Irene, from the very beginning and need not worry. Penelope keeps saying that she and Tom ought both to suffer for what they have done to Irene, but Tom says only that he will be patient and wait for Penelope to get over these feelings.
As the chapter closes, Tom tells Penelope that her proposed sacrifice is almost identical to the central sacrifice in Tears, Idle Tears. He says that she ought to recognize how irrational she is acting because she considered the novel to be irrational. In response, Penelope says that the fact that this situation involves her and her own sister complicates matters immensely. When Tom tries to take Penelope's hand, Penelope withdraws her hand and says "No, no! I can't let you—yet!" (257).
Chapters 14–19 focus primarily on the dinner thrown by the Coreys—a turning point in the novel—and the fallout that results from this event. Like other chapters in the book, this section touches and offers social commentary on many Gilded Age institutions—marriage, courtship, elite social clubs, explosive and exploitative business, and even the Church. On the other hand, certain thematic and symbolic signifiers are paid a great deal more attention in Chapters 14–19 than elsewhere in Howells' novel. These include the distinctions between activity and mimicry, between reality and fiction, and between what should be public and what should remain private.
The idea of legitimate knowledge or action—as compared to mimicry or imitation—emerges very early on in these chapters. When Silas arrives at the Coreys' home, he puzzles over his gloves and removes them only because he seeks to imitate Tom, who he notices does not wear them (188). The gloves have heretofore come to be symbolic of the Laphams' ignorance of genteel habits, so their deployment here is particularly effective in conveying Silas' naiveté and imitations of wealth. Later, when Silas enters the home and is introduced to those in attendance, he addresses them by saying "what name?" because he heard "a great man" once say the same thing (189). At the table, too, he does "only what the others [do]," and accepts all food and drink that is offered to him (190).
The idea of mimicry versus legitimate or original action is even, fittingly, discussed at the table itself. When Bromfield Corey turns the discussion towards the hollowness of painting as an enterprise when compared to architecture, he frames this as a comparison between a mimetic art and a creative one: "you architects 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, we try to represent" (192). This framing of painting as a weaker art form notably provides one reason that the Coreys might look down so strongly on Silas' profession as vulgar. Additionally, Bromfield's bringing together of the theme of imitation—which, up to this point, has primarily been associated with both class and social decorum—and the idea of art develops over the following chapters, and this meeting thus deserves special attention. In particular, these themes develop in tandem as the guests at the dinner party move on to discuss Tears, Idle Tears, a popular contemporary novel about one woman's self-sacrifice so that the man she loves can be with another woman who also loves him.
Tears, Idle Tears thus becomes a particularly important symbol in the novel because it both introduces a larger discussion about the nature of reality and fiction as well as serves as a touchpoint in Chapter 19's meeting between Tom Corey and Penelope Lapham. To speak to the former point, Reverend Sewell's comment that "The novelists might be the greatest possible help to us if they painted life as it is, and human feelings in their true proportion and relation" is a bold statement advocating for the advancement of Literary Realism, which Howells himself championed (197). The argument presented at the table suggests that Romantic novels and literature go too far in glorifying both unrealistic struggles as well as loving relationships. If, in Romantic and Baroque novels, love is given "divine honors," Sewell and others believe that love should be demystified and treated as "natural and mortal" (198).
This idea that literature can serve as the place where reality is presented instructionally, rather than made colossal and unrealizable, also has profound implications for the novel's ongoing discussions of class and status. What is the world of high society, for example, besides an unrealistic fantasy world? And is the gap between mainstream society and high society in Gilded Age America not the same gap that Irene fails to overcome with Tom Corey, particularly in the realm of their literary and aesthetic knowledge? Finally, Silas' reliance on the Beacon Street house to serve as his introduction to the manners and particularly aesthetics of genteel Boston also directly and symbolically connects the world of manners to an unreal world of aesthetics, far away from the utilitarian world in which Silas was born and raised. This is the very reason he fails to convey his own experiences of poverty when they come up at the table: the Coreys' dining room is simply another world (194).
This discussion also is furthered when Penelope herself brings up Tears, Idle Tears. It would seem that she and Tom, in representing a possible liminal or transitional state between high society and common society, also represent an interesting boundary between the fictional world of Tears, Idle Tears and the "real" world of their own lives in Howells' imagination. This is a complex point, but it is one served well by examples. Before we even are told explicitly that Penelope is reading Tears, Idle Tears in Chapter 19, we are given a hint that this is so in Chapter 17: "I've read of cases where a girl gives up the man that loves her so as to make some other girl happy that the man does not love" (230). As we come to learn, this is the exact plot of Tears, Idle Tears, and Penelope's desire to adopt the strategies of this novel into her real life shows just one example of how Penelope's attitudes and behavior seek to link reality and fiction. Importantly, this is also inherently a mimetic or imitative tendency that she displays.
On the other hand, Tom Corey's treatment of Tears, Idle Tears comes down on exactly the opposite point—that is, that reality and fiction are linked but ought to be divorced from one another. At the conclusion of Chapter 19, Tom tells Penelope as much directly: "you were talking of that book; and you said it was foolish and wicked to do as that girl did. Why is it different with you, except that you give me nothing, and can never give me anything when you take yourself away?" (257). Tom also believes that the fictional world of Tears, Idle Tears is related to his reality, but he wants to pull Penelope away from the lessons of that novel and towards acting with common sense. Both Tom and Penelope are transitional figures between reality and fiction, and importantly, they also serve as transitional figures between common society and genteel society. Their eventual marriage thus is symbolic and evocative of America's future—one that links common and aristocratic life—as well as America's literature—accepting the lessons of literature and using them to represent reality faithfully.
Finally, another meeting point between these themes, particularly as applied to a discussion of status, is in these chapters' treatment of the public and the private. Bromfield Corey's idea of opening vacant aristocratic homes to the poor, for example, seeks to open the private world to the public (194). The gossip at the table that later appalls Silas also has this tendency of making private matters public (196). Also at the Coreys' dinner, Silas' oversharing of his own experiences and his braggadocio regarding his new home and its finishes also show an impulse to take private matters and improperly make them public. This impulse is only added to by Silas' self-effacing confessions and apologies to Tom in Chapter 15. These actions all carry the flavor of Silas' earlier attitudes towards the Events, the newspaper that he feels represented him and his biography unfairly.
At the same time as much private detail is inappropriately made public, however, a great deal of private information is rightfully exposed in these chapters. Most importantly, this includes Penelope's self-exposure and realization that she may have been trying to attract Tom from the very beginning. It includes Irene's gifting of all Tom's souvenirs to Penelope, which unmasks the depths of Irene's fantasy and obsession over Tom. It includes the Laphams going to Reverend Sewell in Chapter 18 and seeking the advice that will eventually bring Penelope and Tom together. It includes Penelope's revelation to Tom in Chapter 19 that the Laphams all thought Tom to be interested in Irene. Finally, it includes Tom's more detailed confession of love to Penelope, which explains the Stanton farm pamphlet from earlier, among other things.
This association between things wrongly made public and high society—as well as the association between things properly made public and a more nuanced interaction of the classes—is no accident on Howells' part. After all, a great deal of misfortune in the novel might have been avoided if only the characters had chosen to speak up earlier or be honest with each other. This is an important idea to keep in mind towards the novel's close as we continue to learn more about Silas' business with Mr. Rogers and Zerilla Dewey, the relationship between the Coreys and the Laphams, and Silas' eventual relapse back to common society. Howells' critique of Gilded Age society and manners is strongest here, after the turning point and catalyst of the Coreys' dinner, and our attention should also correspondingly strengthen.