Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1060
Anna Leath and Sophy Viner discover that they love the same man, George Darrow, an American diplomat who comes from the same genteel class as Anna Leath, but who has had experiences in both Anna's and Sophy's worlds because his position as a man permits him to move freely from one to the other. The donnee of The Reef concerns a set of accidental coincidences that place these three characters unexpectedly in a triangular relationship.
George Darrow is on his way to a meeting with Anna Leath, the woman he loves and hopes to marry. She puts him off with a telegram after he has embarked on his journey. While traveling, he meets Sophy Viner — a younger woman whom he knows only slightly and who is in desperate circumstances having left her employer, Mrs. Murrett, with no clear prospects in sight. He takes pity on her and offers her a holiday in Paris. They have a brief affair which both understand is only for the moment. When he must return to England, they go their separate ways. Time passes, and he reconciles with Anna Leath, journeying to her estate at Givre in order to arrange their marriage and plan their future.
When he arrives at Givre, he discovers that Sophy Viner has been hired to be governess of Anna's daughter, Effie, and subsequently, that she is in the process of becoming engaged to Anna's stepson, Owen. This engagement obviously represents a splendid opportunity for the impoverished Sophy, but it is opposed by Mme. de Chantelle, the mother of Anna Leath's first husband. It is, however, supported by Anna who feels that her step-son should not be limited by the rigid societal restraints that have stymied her in the past. As she tells him, "not missing things matters most."
A number of themes are developed in the ensuing complications, including honesty and fidelity in personal relationships, the difference between verbal and nonverbal communication, and the constraints placed on women by class and sex. All of these themes are subsumed in a passage near the end of the novel when Anna realizes that "the truth had come to light by the force of its irresistible pressure," and she has become aware "of hidden powers, of a chaos of attractions and repulsions far beneath the ordered surfaces of intercourse."
When Darrow had first arrived at Givre, she had wanted everything to be aboveboard between them. She had asked him questions about the woman he was seen with in Paris, not so much to learn about what happened but for him to know her as she is, "to have the whole of my feeling" as she puts it. Darrow is genuinely happy to be at Givre with the woman he loves, but he does not give her truthful answers to what happened in Paris or why he did not answer the letter in which she had explained what the unexpected problem was that had kept her from seeing him previously. Darrow continues to lie or tell half truths when Sophy Viner appears on the scene. He is skilled in dissembling, perhaps by his training as a diplomat, perhaps because of his past sexual encounters with women. Anna gradually becomes aware that she cannot trust anything he says and never will be able to know when he is being truthful or not.
Her inability to know what Darrow is thinking or feeling is in sharp contrast to her step-son Owen who immediately senses the change in Sophy Viner when Darrow appears at Givre. Although Owen does not hear any words that they exchange, he...
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observes Sophy and Darrow in several encounters and judges by the way they look at each other, by their stances, and by their gestures, that they are more to each other than distant acquaintances from a remote past as Darrow had explained.
Owen's intuitive recognition is in sharp contrast to Anna Leath's inability to make a judgment based on what she sees. Anna attempts to see and know the whole truth, but it always eludes her. The reader sees her watching and observing Darrow, eager to catch a glimpse of the real man beneath the smooth, polished surface. Darrow is particularly aware that he is being observed once he sees Sophy Viner at Givre, and much of his behavior takes on the character of a performance. In this charged atmosphere, a kiss can represent a dodge from observation: "She [i.e., Anna Leath] drew back a step and lifted her face to his [i.e., George Darrow's] trying to look into his eyes more deeply than she had ever looked; but before she could discern what they expressed he had taken hold of her hands and bent his head to kiss them."
In The Reef, Wharton is confronting a double standard in sexual relations for men and women. Eventually, Anna learns the facts about Darrow's Paris holiday with Sophy Viner, and she consummates her relationship with Darrow, but she can find no peace in either knowledge or union. What she must come to terms with is that Darrow has had relations with a woman who has a share in him that she knows nothing about. What torments Anna is that she is shut out from that experience, that there are parts of Darrow's life that he will always keep secret from her, a respectable woman.
In the final chapter of the novel, Anna Leath seeks out Sophy Viner in Paris at the apartment of Laura McTarvie-Birch, Sophy's older sister. Anna does not find Sophy, who has gone off on a trip to India, once again in the employ of Mrs. Murrett. The scene that occurs strikes many critics as an odd and unsatisfying conclusion to the novel. Anna finds herself unexpectedly in the apartment of a prostitute with an engaging young man in attendance. Another man in the anteroom outside Laura's boudoir where she is receiving the ministrations of her masseur ogles Anna in an appraising way. Finally she is led into Mrs. McTarvie-Birch's bedroom where she encounters a vulgar, immodest, overweight woman who strikes her as an older version of Sophy, Anna sees without understanding. If the scene is cruel, it is because it suggests that for all her experience in life, Anna remains essentially naive and unchanged from the "model of ladylike repression" that she was raised to be.