Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Other Two

Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1891–1910

“‘Why, how do you do?’ she said with a distinct note of pleasure.” Illustration by American artist Francis Day (1863–1942) for “The Other Two” when it appeared in the February 13, 1904, issue of Collier’s Weekly.
A couple of months after the publication of her story collection The Descent of Man, Edith Wharton received a packet of clippings from William Crary Brownell, who worked as an advisor to Scribner’s, her publisher. In late June 1904 she wrote back, upset that so many reviewers insisted on comparing her to her good friend Henry James:
I have never before been discouraged by criticism, because when the critics have found fault with me I have usually abounded in their sense, & seen, as I thought, a way of doing better the next time, but the continued cry that I am an echo of Mr. James (whose books of the last ten years I can’t read, much as I delight in the man), & the assumption that the people I write about are not “real” because they are not navvies & char-women, makes me feel rather hopeless. I write about what I see, what I happen to be nearest to, which is surely better than doing cowboys de chic.
Such comparisons and assumptions, both positive and negative, were scattered throughout the reviews, and several focused particularly on “The Other Two," one of the book’s most memorable and comical stories, in which twice-divorced Alice Waythorn is seen through the eyes of her third husband, who is haunted, so to speak, by the unexpected appearances of his wife’s former spouses. “No one except perhaps Mr. Henry James can present a revolting scene with more social delicacy,” wrote the critic for The Independent in New York, about the moral implications of the story’s ending. “The very ease with which the incident passes is offensive.” The reviewer also complained that “nowhere, either in her ideas of virtue or vice, does she come into contact with normal life.” Across the ocean, in the pages of London’s The Bookman, a reviewer came to the opposite conclusion about the story’s cleverly constructed climax yet still managed to sound similar notes: “The whole situation is intensely realized, and the subtle, elusive interplay of these four characters is a brilliant and masterly psychological study. Mrs. Wharton is as rare an artist as Mr. Henry James; she has all his insight and subtlety of thought, and a simplicity and directness of expression that he lacks.”

Brownell responded to Wharton that the refusal to recognize her uniqueness was certainly “unpleasant” but reassured her that in the comparisons to James she often comes “out of the mix better than he does.” Most recent biographers have directly addressed the question of the similarities—and differences—between James and Wharton. Her first major biographer, R.W.B. Lewis, for example, contends that in over two dozen stories Wharton tackled “the marriage question” and became “perhaps the first American writer to make [it] almost exclusively her own: even more, I dare say, than Henry James, who would in any event be her only rival in this respect.” Hermione Lee notes that they “did share subjects and attitudes, character-types and social themes” and that, “as do all writers who are friends, they spent years exchanging literary allusions and jokes, thoughts on their reading, and gossip about authors; and they occasionally exchanged plots, too.” Yet, Lee adds, while there is little doubt that James was a literary model (and, to a lesser extent, the reverse is true), “it is more often to write against him rather than to write under him.” Some of her stories, in their subversion of his themes and preoccupations, can even be read as critiques of James’s fiction.

One way in which Wharton’s thematic focus differs from James’s can be seen in the titles of her first three story collections, which reference her lifelong fascination with Charles Darwin, T. H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and evolution in general—both social and biological. The title of her first story collection, The Greater Inclination, is from Edmond Kelly’s 1895 study, Evolution and Effort; Crucial Instances is a phrase used by Darwin in his discussion of the laws of inheritance in The Descent of Man, which itself provides the title for her third story collection. Wharton scholar Janet Beer notes the metaphorical use of evolution throughout the stories in these collections and particularly in “The Other Two.” The heroine, Alice Waythorn, “has, using the restricted means at her disposal, managed to find a way to adapt and change, in order to improve her social standing and economic position. . . . [She] is an example from a society in the process of ‘adaptation.’” Cynthia Griffin Wolff sees Alice evolving into something more troubling, however, at least in the eyes of her husband. “She has become a grotesque, some specialized form of monster, endlessly mutating—willing to please, not malicious, but not—not quite—human.”

In her book-length study of Wharton’s short fiction, Barbara A. White reminds readers that the narrative is told entirely from the point of view of Alice’s third husband, Waythorn (a near-anagram of Wharton), and suggests that he, rather than Alice, is the character that “mutates” by the story’s end. “Waythorn’s view of her moves from one extreme to another,” she writes. “Alice’s actions reveal a person very different from the one Waythorn sees.” Furthermore, Waythorn’s use of language reduces his view of Alice to a piece of real estate (her first husband is “a lien on the property”; “his predecessors were his partners in the business,” etc.) and often examines her in terms of her value to him. “There is no evidence in the story that Alice’s motives are economic and every indication that the market-mad Waythorn conceives the world in financial terms.”

These various interpretations complement rather than contradict each other. By looking at Alice solely through the eyes of her unreliable, possessive, moderately jealous third husband, Wharton intentionally makes the real Alice unknowable; it is that detachment, along with the assembly of puns and situational details (the sick child, the governess, the cognac, the business deal) that gives the satire its bite. “What Edith Wharton knew with surprising assurance from her beginnings as a writer of social satire was the importance of particulars, that each amusing detail must carry more than its apparent weight,” remarks the novelist Maureen Howard. Lewis, who believes that “The Other Two” is “the most nearly perfect short story Edith Wharton ever wrote,“ asserts that it stands out “as the measure of her achievement in the short story form; for it has scarcely any plot—it has no real arrangement of incidents, there being too few incidents to arrange—but consists almost entirely in the leisurely, coolly comic process by which a situation is revealed to those involved in it.”

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Waythorn, on the drawing-room hearth, waited for his wife to come down to dinner. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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