What is the main theme in Edith Wharton's short story "The Other Two"?
Published in 1904, Edith Wharton's short story "The Other Two" presents a new social anomaly of the time: it had suddenly become much easier to obtain a legal divorce. Through her story, Wharton shows such an anomaly poses problems for society, but since the anomaly is also a stepping stone towards liberating women, they may be social problems we simply have to accept. To show the above, Wharton develops the theme concerning the consequences of easy divorce.
Wharton's theme is portrayed through the fact that Alice uses marriage and divorce to climb her way up the social ladder. She divorced her first husband, Haskett, because he is not financially well-off. The narrator relays his poverty by describing him as owning a "shabby hat and umbrella" and being a "small effaced-looking man" who "might have been a piano-tuner." Alice says she divorced him because he was a "brute," but he is a very gentle and caring man. Because he had no money or social standing, Alice left him to marry Varick, a man with higher social standing but still no money. In court, she divorced Varick for infidelity, but it was rumored she really divorced him because of his debt. She next marries Waythorn, a man with both social standing and wealth.
Waythorn realizes that, with each of her marriages, Alice changed herself to fit the image she wanted. As a result, he married her not really knowing the true her. As their marriage progresses, he sees her as a compilation of her current and former selves, because with each marriage, she had left and changed a part of herself:
She was "as easy as an old shoe"—a shoe that too many feet had worn. Her elasticity was the result of tension in too many different directions. Alice Haskett—Alice Varick—Alice Waythorn—she had been each in turn, and had left hanging to each name a little of her privacy, a little of her personality, a little of the inmost self where the unknown god abides.
Waythorn's reflection of his wife as an "old shoe" worn by "too many feet" shows a social problem created by easy divorce is that women begin to look like used, cast-off articles of clothing; they also look like they have mixed, unclear identities because parts of their identities are tied to their ex-husbands.
By the end of the story, Waythorn comes to accept and be amused by his wife's complicated nature, showing us the author would rather promote easy divorce and all its social complications than promote keeping women imprisoned in unhappy, unfulfilling marriages.
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