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The Reader's Den: Edith Wharton's "The Other Two"

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As Edith Wharton's 1904 story, The Other Two, opens, Waythorn has just returned from his honeymoon with his new wife, Alice. This is his first marriage, but her third. Although it seems a bit scandalous, he has gone in to the marriage fully aware of, and fairly unconcerned with, how Alice is viewed in society: she is well liked, but with reservation.

She divorced her first husband, Mr. Haskett, with whom she has a daughter, before coming to New York on the arm of Gus Varick, whose social standing bought her acceptance, and who she then married and divorced in turn. Mr. Varick's well known taste for the high life and unsuitability to marriage allowed his wife to escape from this union with an air of virtue.

Waythorn is untroubled by his wife's past, until their return to New York finds him thrust uncomfortably into interaction with The Other Two

  • Waythorn seems well aware of his own anxious nature, but he marries without concern about his wife's past marriages, even when friends advise him to be cautious. Why does he act so seemingly out of character?
  • Immediately upon return to work, Waythorn finds himself forced into a business relationship with Alice's second husband, Mr. Varick, and later that afternoon, the two happen to eat at the same restaurant. As Waythorn watches Varick eating lunch, he imagines him to be free of worry and care, and envies him. Is Varick so carefree, or is Waythorn just projecting these qualities on to him? 
  • of the , Digital ID 805793, New York Public Library Alice's first husband, Mr. Haskett, becomes a frequent visitor to the Waythorn's home because of his daughter Lily's illness. His presence makes Waythorn uncomfortable at first, and he is acutely aware of Haskett's lower social rank. What really disturbs him, however, is Haskett's inoffensiveness, when he had preferred to picture him as a brute. What is it that Haskett stirs up in Waythorn? Was Waythorn's acceptance of his wife's past dependent on the idea that her first two husbands were terrible men? 
  • Although Waythorn finds it less and less difficult to interact with Alice's ex-husbands, it troubles him to see her converse with them. "Her pliancy was beginning to sicken him. Had she really no will of her own — no theory about her relation to these men?" What is it that Waythorn wants from Alice? Does he really think the situation is that easy for her? Can he ever be satisfied with Alice, or will he always feel that he is sharing her with her past? 
  • We never really know what Alice is thinking through all of this, and her husband is pretty bad at communicating his insecurities to her. What do you think this story would be like if it were told from her perspective? 
  • As a contemporary reader, how do you feel about Waythorn's attitude towards women? What message do you think Edith Wharton was trying to convey about his expectations of his wife?

Please leave comments and questions below to participate in the discussion! Next week, we will be discussing Autres Temps!

Comments

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Alice

Waythorn's reaction that Alice is overly placid and accepting clashes with the obvious fact that she has taken the initiative to get out of two marriages that were no worse than many, at a time when most would not have been so bold. Maybe he is more repelled by the idea that she accepts her own past without recrimination agains her exes or herself. That would mark her out as a cooler customer than a woman of breeding and sensibility was supposed to be.

re: Alice

It seems that maybe Waythorn just can't reconcile the fact that Alice has left two marriages with what he sees as her pliant demeanor? Maybe deep down he fears that he will end up like the other two, who don't seem to be as bad as he had chosen to imagine them?

Alice

I found it difficult to get a handle on Alice’s character since we only get to see her through Waythorn’s eyes, but I suppose that may be the point, possibly as a comment on the society of the times, when women were dependent on their husbands for their status and identity. Alice exits here as Waythorn’s wife and the former wife of ‘the other two’. Her inner life, whatever it may be, appears to be beside the point, just as it would be in the world she lives in. Alice seems to excel at playing by the social rules, behaving ‘appropriately,’ making everyone comfortable. Is her character naturally compliant or could there be a more calculating aspect to her nature? I’m not sure. Is she an ambitious woman who has worked her way up the social and economic ladder? Is she perhaps rather shallow? How deeply do her feelings run? She doesn't seem to be a terribly concerned mother, worrying more that Lily’s father wants to visit her than that the child has typhoid. Sorry for responding to your questions with more questions! The story felt quite modern in a way; it was a bit surprising to me how little Alice’s twice divorced status seemed to matter to New York society at that time. I enjoyed the final scene, where Waythorn is forced to take tea with Alice and ‘the other two’ and appreciates the absurdity of his position.

re: Alice

Elizabeth, thank you for commenting! I do think that this story brings up more questions than answers, and we never know what Alice is thinking about the situation. Another reader, Anne, pointed out that Waythorn's concept of Alice as overly passive and easy-going doesn't add up with the fact that she had already left two marriages. I wonder if Wharton deliberately left us wondering about Alice's nature and intentions because the story is intended to be more about Waythorn's insecurities? Even the last scene left me wondering what would happen in the future - has Waythorn turned a corner with his fears about Alice's past, or will they be back in a new shape the next day?

Edith Wharton

Thank you for the summary.

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