In Edith Wharton's 1904 short story "The Other Two," Wharton examines the complex nature of early twentieth-century New York society and its attitudes toward divorce. At the time that Wharton wrote this story, the taboo surrounding the practice was beginning to lessen its hold; however, as Waythorn reflects in the story, "society had not yet adapted itself to the consequences of divorce."
Waythorn, Alice's third husband, finds himself thrown into a less than desirable situation when Alice's daughter from her first marriage, Lily, comes down ill with typhoid fever. Naturally, Lily's father, a man by the name of Haskett, is intent on visiting his sick daughter—which means he must visit her in the home she shares with her mother and Waythorn. In addition to the time Waythorn will now have to spend in the presence of Alice's first husband, Alice's second husband, Varick, quickly enters the picture when he contracts Waythorn's company for some business dealings. Waythorn now finds himself having to interact with both of his wife's ex-husbands on a fairly regular basis. Although this may seem benign for us living in these modern times where divorce is much more common, New York society in the early 1900s was still struggling to navigate the relatively new practice—especially as it pertained to women.
From the outset, Waythorn presents as a man who subscribes to societal expectations and stereotypes regarding women, while also showing glimpses of his ability to put all of that aside for the love he feels toward Alice. In regard to his wife, he muses upon her "perfectly balanced nerves" and the strength she shows when faced with tough situations, but also considers his marriage as one that provides a certain "joy of possessorship."
As Waythorn struggles to deal with his consistent run-ins with his wife's two ex-husbands, he finds himself questioning his wife's character as she, too, attempts to negotiate the reality of divorce. As is typical of the times, Waythorn ultimately finds peace within this complex social circle by latching onto the ways in which his wife's prior relationships have positively affected his own life. Alice learned more about herself through her failed marriages, which enabled her to be a better partner in the eyes of Waythorn. He discovers that her past actually turns out not to be an annoyance; rather, he is "directly indebted to his predecessors for the devotion which made his life easy if not inspiring."
Wharton outlines in "The Other Two" how societal expectations are constantly shifting and how a practice that was once frowned upon may very well hold some unexpected benefits. Although Waythorn still holds on to his gender-based views, in the end, he comes to accept his wife and her past and realize that his marriage may just be the better for it after all.
Style and Technique
Wharton wrote with such precision that every phrase seems fitting—Varick’s “handsome overblown face,” Alice’s “rosy-pale dress,” Haskett’s “made-up tie” and “air of mild obstinacy.” Reading “The Other Two” is like entering a crowded room where every artifact seems perfectly in place and appropriate to the setting. The dialogue is terse but pregnant with implications, as when Waythorn says to Alice, referring to Haskett’s visit, “You didn’t see him, of course?” Wharton is a master of the nuance, the “scarcely perceptible” glances, the various shades of red to measure embarrassment. Writing in the classic style of the nineteenth century drawing room, she blends realism with elements of satire and parody.
Although “The Other Two” is quite short, the main characters are fully rounded. Alice is so composed that, as much as she loves her daughter, when she “did all she could for Lily, [she] would not be ashamed to come down and enjoy a good dinner.” The reader senses the discomfort of the aristocratic Waythorn on the crowded train as he feels “crushed between two layers of pendulous humanity.” On the other hand, there...
(The entire section is 1,130 words.)