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Themes

"The Other Two" is a short story by American writer Edith Wharton. At the time of its publication, in 1904, the topic of divorce was controversial, especially coming from the perspective of a woman writer. In fact, it could be argued that divorce is the overall theme of the story. The narrative is told from the perspective of a man, Waythorn, who is the current husband of Alice. Alice has two ex-husbands, one of whom still has a minimal but existent connection to Alice's life because he is the father of their daughter. The other husband, Alice's second, also comes into their lives when Waythorn encounters him on the train and he asks Waythorn for professional consultation regarding finance. Disregarding the legal and religious aspects of divorce, the act itself can be an intense ending within one's life.

This leads to the other major theme of the story, which is the effects of the past, especially the artifacts from one's past that were meant to be left behind but come back to "haunt" us. This is the torment that Waythorn faces—first only slightly but eventually much more—when he is forced to interact with Alice's two ex-husbands. Waythorn sees Alice's own behavior toward the two ex-husbands, and he remarks that she is different with each of the men, including himself. He later realizes that we are affected and shaped by those we knew from our past. This is brilliantly exemplified in a scene in which Alice accidentally pours alcohol in Waythorn's coffee, which is how her second husband preferred to drink his. When Waythorn accepts Alice's past, he is able to accept the two men as his own friends, and this leads to a cordial relationship between Alice and her ex-husbands as well. In this sense, Alice, too, makes peace with her past. Perhaps Wharton's message is that divorce is not simply about ending major relationships; rather, in order for new relationships to flourish, all parties should accept each other's past.

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...

(The entire section is 733 words.)