When I started reading this, the whole thing seemed to move along very slowly, not necessarily deliberately, and the plot didn't seem very substantial. Everyone in class seemed to agree with that, and most seemed to not like it at all. However, as I moved through the story, the two separate plots emerged and then came together. Howells's ability to make the common interesting is very good. Silas and his family experienced what are probably common situations, and through the use of empathy, Howells makes the reader care what happens.
This is the whole idea of realism, as opposed to romanticism. I'm going to side with the realists, and presume that everyone has a life worth hearing about, that nothing really is ordinary. The commonality of the characters and their actions makes this kind of writing more relatable than romances, and thus has more of an impact on people. And even if the readers haven’t experienced the same things, the realistic happenings can serve to shed more light on the human experience.
But back to the novel. In class we talked about the two different plots: Silas’s act of self-sacrifice, in return for moral satisfaction, and Pen’s more realistic approach, which some may call selfish, for love. The two plots parallel each other throughout the book, until Silas sacrifices everything to walk away with clean hands. He even refuses the one chance he has to reclaim his material wealth. At this point, Pen has her chance to get what she wants, and takes it. I think I was the only one in class to see the difference I’m trying to show in these two actions, though.