Sunday, July 24, 2016
Lapham's social gaffe and its potential consequences
At the dinner party that the Coreys throw to introduce the Laphams to Boston society, Silas Lapham at first handles himself well and makes a good impression but over the course of the evening he drinks far too much - he's not used to fine wines at dinner and port afterwards among the gentlemen - and he becomes a voluble drunk. He doesn't seem to have committed any serious social gaffes but he talks on and on and eventually stumbles his way out of the party, and the next morning is shamed and hung over and has no memory of what he said or might have said. To make his humiliation worse, he calls aside the Corey son, Tom, who is his protege in the paint factory, and asks him if he'd said anything truly mortifying. Tom plays it down says it was nothing nobody really noticed his ill behavior etc., but of course we know he's just being kind, that the Coreys and their ilk must have thought Lapham, the self-made millionaire, show himself to be a boor and ill bred. Boston society in the era -the late 19th century, is so peculiar : the Coreys seemed open to inviting new money into their set, but there's also the sense that the arriviste can never truly arrive - though maybe his children can do so. Howells is a great observer of social class, but he doesn't really have the rapier that he needs to rip it apart - the novel is engaging as a narrative, though lacking in drama and tension. Lapham is humiliated, but the stakes are so low. We assume that the novel will be about his fall from grace but it's not clear - 2/3 of the way through - that he's going to fall at all. In fact he doesn't seem to need social position - his wealth is enough (for him), though maybe not for his wife and daughters? The lingering question is whether his social gaffes are so severe that they will end the possibility of his daughters marrying "up."