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The Reader's Den: Edith Wharton's "The Other Two"
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 first 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?
- 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!