Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Over the course of the story, Waythorn has to come to grips with his changing understanding of who his wife is, based on his interactions with her first two husbands.
Waythorn was therefore quite prepared to see her come in presently, a little late because of a last look at Lily, but as serene and well-appointed as if her good-night kiss had been laid on the brow of health. Her composure was restful to him; it acted as ballast to his somewhat unstable sensibilities.
At the beginning of their marriage, as the above quote shows, Waythorn idealizes his wife and mentally praises her unruffled composure as he thinks of her. He also sees her in terms of what she can do for him—she is restful to him and counteracts his own more "unstable" emotions. He forms her into the fantasy angel of the home he wants her to be.
How light and slender she was, and how each gesture flowed into the next! She seemed a creature all compact of harmonies. As the thought of Haskett receded, Waythorn felt himself yielding again to the joy of possessorship. They were his, those white hands with their flitting motions, his the light haze of hair, the lips and eyes....
The key words in the above passage are "the joy of possessorship." Mr. Waythorn sees his wife less as a person and more as a possession he now owns. He looks at her and feels he has gotten a good deal or bargain on his purchase of a bride: she is light, beautiful, and composed.
In the library he found a small effaced-looking man with a thinnish gray beard sitting on the edge of a chair. The stranger might have been a piano-tuner, or one of those mysteriously efficient persons who are summoned in emergencies to adjust some detail of the domestic machinery. He blinked at Waythorn through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and said mildly: "Mr. Waythorn, I presume? I am Lily's father."
Waythorn flushed. "Oh—" he stammered uncomfortably. He broke off, disliking to appear rude. Inwardly he was trying to adjust the actual Haskett to the image of him projected by his wife's reminiscences. Waythorn had been allowed to infer that Alice's first husband was a brute.
Alice begins to become tarnished in his mind as Waythorn realizes she misrepresented her first husband to him as a "brute." In fact, he is a timid, good-hearted man who loves his daughter, Lily, and wants to spend time with her while devotedly looking after her welfare. Waythorn's illusions about his wife are beginning to shatter.
He could see her, as Mrs. Haskett, sitting in a "front parlor" furnished in plush, with a pianola, and a copy of "Ben Hur" on the centre-table. He could see her going to the theatre with Haskett—or perhaps even to a "Church Sociable"—she in a "picture hat" and Haskett in a black frock-coat, a little creased, with the made-up tie on an elastic.
Waythorn, with more than a touch of snobbery, is shocked to realize his wife might be simply a cheap little social climber, starting from tawdry, lower-class beginnings and clawing her way to the top. She is starting to look like less and less of a bargain possession. He is beginning to feel had.
Waythorn started up, checking himself in the analysis of her motives. What right had he to create a fantastic effigy of her and then pass judgment on it? She had spoken vaguely of her first marriage as unhappy, had hinted, with becoming reticence, that Haskett had wrought havoc among her young...
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illusions.... It was a pity for Waythorn's peace of mind that Haskett's very inoffensiveness shed a new light on the nature of those illusions. A man would rather think that his wife has been brutalized by her first husband than that the process has been reversed.
Waythorn shows that he realizes that his wife was probably the brutal one in her first marriage, ruthlessly discarding her gentle husband when she found someone better. Alice is not adding to Waythorn's peace of mind as he had hoped when he married her.
Her pliancy was beginning to sicken him.... 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 idealization of Alice turns to dislike as he begins to see his wife as a manipulative phony.
He had fancied that a woman can shed her past like a man. But now he saw that Alice was bound to hers both by the circumstances which forced her into continued relation with it, and by the traces it had left on her nature. With grim irony Waythorn compared himself to a member of a syndicate. He held so many shares in his wife's personality and his predecessors were his partners in the business. If there had been any element of passion in the transaction he would have felt less deteriorated by it. The fact that Alice took her change of husbands like a change of weather reduced the situation to mediocrity.
Waythorn ends up having to accept that Alice has been formed by her past and is not the sweet person he thought he had married. He becomes cynical and hard as a result of her being cynical and hard.