Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This comedy of manners satirizes the sensibilities of a New York aristocrat trying to cope with an extremely awkward situation. Until his infatuation with Alice, Waythorn had lived—by choice and temperament—a rather “gray” life. Unhappy with his “womanish sensibility,” which caused him to “suffer so acutely from the grotesque chances of life,” he married a woman whose charms sparked in him a “thrill of boyish agitation” but whose past divorces were unwanted baggage. Alice is Waythorn’s opposite: imperturbable, lighthearted, composed, with perfectly balanced nerves. As the story unfolds, Waythorn comes to see her in a changing light—no longer uniquely his but as “a shoe that too many feet had worn.” In each marriage, he realizes, she had “left hanging” a “little of the inmost self where the unknown gods abide.”

Nevertheless, Waythorn becomes more tolerant and less judgmental. Instead of imagining Haskett as a brute or Varick as a heel, he recognizes that there must have been an aspect of their personalities appealing enough to have lured Alice into marriage. Wharton sums up the meaning of this comedy of manners when she writes of Waythorn that “habit formed a protecting surface for his sensibilities.”

In the opinion of Lewis, “The Other Two” is “the most nearly perfect” short story Edith Wharton ever wrote. Published in The Descent of Man (1904), her third volume of short stories, it...

(The entire section is 402 words.)