03 January 2010

Edith Wharton’s ‘The Reef’

Wharton, in a caricature by the late David Levine

I made a deal with myself, a while ago — so that it does not count as a New Year’s resolution, and therefore will be kept — that I would hold off for as long as possible the reading of the complete works of Edith Wharton. I don’t want to exhaust the catalogue. Instead, I pick up a book every now and then, and in this way, I am assured of fresh reading pleasures for years yet to come.

That said, Wharton didn’t write an infinite number of books, and I’ve found her short stories thus far a mixed bag. To cite but two examples: “Xingu,” brilliant; “Roman Fever,” astonishingly facile and predictable. (Where did that story get its reputation?) So it was with delicacy that I stepped into another of her major novels, The Reef. First published in 1912, the year before her divorce and nervous breakdown, this is among the least overtly satirical and most melancholy of her works I’ve read, every page of which announces an hommage to her friend Henry James. And it’s remarkably effective — though for different reasons today, I suspect, than when it first appeared.

The plot focuses on three people, with a handful of supporting players. Anna Leath, recently widowed, reconnects with the man she ought to have married in the first place, George Darrow. He is still in love with her, and she with him, but she fails to understand this immediately. Anna knows little of the world and the possibilities of experience. While waiting for true love, she observes every nicety of convention: she marries a man from her own privileged class, moves to France, has a baby, breaks no rule and feels no pleasure. Understandably, perhaps, she’s slow to accept Darrow’s love — and slower to accept what that means.

While she’s dithering, Darrow has a brief liaison with Sophy Viner, a vivacious girl of limited means and (almost) limitless charm. Wharton is immensely skillful in drawing Sophy — she’s the best thing about the book, a sort of Lily Bart manquée, assigned the only bits of witty dialogue — and you instantly worry for her.

Every author wants to look as good in a jacket photo
as Wharton did in 1903.

The Reef turns on the affair between Darrow and Sophy, on which the happiness of all the principal characters will be stranded. Leaping ahead a few months, we meet Anna, at her estate, Givré, near Dijon.* Darrow and Anna are on the brink of settling their engagement, while Anna’s stepson, Owen, yearns to marry a girl beneath his station. She turns out to be Sophy, who is now employed as governess to Anna’s daughter.

And the affair becomes the Great Secret. Should Darrow tell Anna? Should Sophy tell Owen? Should either or both engagements be called off? As they consider these questions, Darrow and Sophy are necessarily and morally brought together again — but not often physically, and never sexually. Meanwhile, Owen begins to suspect, and grows ever more jealous.

To Wharton’s original audience, the matter was clearer, I think, than it is today. Convention in the author’s time would have demanded that the engagements be broken, whether or not Anna and Owen were given to understand why. Contemporary values may be less strict: at the moment of the affair, Sophy had never met Owen, and Anna had given Darrow very little reason to hope, so according to today’s rules, nobody cheated on anybody else. (Whether many families could endure the ensuing dynamics — stepfather knows ’way too much about stepdaughter — is another question.)

But it’s here that Wharton accomplishes something truly brilliant. For Anna does learn the truth — and the novel does not end. Knowledge does not set her free; it only raises more questions. Should she break with Darrow? Or is their future more important than his past? Should she tell Owen? Should she confront Sophy? Should she ask for more details of the liaison? Can Sophy be trusted? Can Darrow?

Gradually, Anna comes to wonder whether she knows Darrow at all, whether she knew her late husband, whether it is possible for one person to know another at all. That is one of the great questions of our time, and it’s not surprising that Anna, with her antique conventions and narrow experience, can’t answer it. As a result, the modern reader excuses her pendulum swings of decision and indecision.

Wharton, with Henry James and a fellow called Sturgis,
at Wharton’s home, The Mount.

It is surprising that Darrow is so unconvincing a character portrait. Wharton was perfectly capable of putting herself into a man’s psychology (witness Ethan Frome and Newland Archer!), and consistently superior to James in imagining the emotions of the opposite sex. But Darrow remains opaque, even when we share his point of view: Wharton goes so far as to use his first name only at the beginning and the end of the book. We learn that, between his affair with Sophy and their reunion at Givré, he hasn’t given her another thought. That may be typical male behavior, but it doesn’t make Darrow terribly likable, and it makes his own moral quandary seem hypocritical. It does help the modern reader to say, “This was no big deal,” and one shares Anna’s concern that he is unknowable. Yet we’re reluctant to see Darrow rewarded with either of the more sympathetic women, and it’s certainly difficult to understand what either sees in him.

I wonder whether Wharton’s own psychology played a role here. Teddy Wharton was a bounder and a womanizer, and his long-suffering wife may not have liked to dig any more deeply into his reasoning. Moreover, The Reef was written just as her one great love affair, with a journalist called Morton Fullerton, was coming to an end. The business of writing a rounded portrait of a man in love may simply have been depressing to her. (Owen rings flat, too.) The result, in any case, is that Darrow is a pale imitation of Selden in The House of Mirth (1905), more directly culpable yet less compellingly rendered.

But enough — better to let you read the book for yourself. Every minute you spend here with me is one you’re cheating yourself of the pleasures of Edith Wharton’s company.

*NOTE: In French, “givré” means “frosted,” as Wharton knew well, and Anna is, to put it bluntly, frigid. However, I’m unsure whether Wharton meant the choice of name to underscore that point — or to blame Anna’s coldness on her surroundings and upbringing — or to scare the reader off this line of inquiry, because how could Wharton possibly stoop to such a blatant indicator in an otherwise subtle text? As I chewed endlessly over this gristle — to speak French is a dangerous thing — the naming came to seem more artful. Perhaps Givré represents the icy environment in which Anna has been frozen all her life. As she warms, she also cracks, while the structure falls around her.

Of course, in French slang, “givré” means “crazy.” So I give up.


M said...

I recently read The Reef. I'm left with a few questions. Why is The Reef called "The Reef"? How does Anna's husband Mr. Leath die? How old is Effie? Was there some form of inappropriate relationship between Anna and Owen or were they really like brother and sister? I think Anna and Darrow finally end up together, right? What was the purpose of the the final chapter (Anna visiting Sophy's sister) and what was the significance of the whole ending? Was it that Sophy's sister was a vision of what Sophy was going to turn into? Was it important that Sophy's sister was living with a man who did not share her last name?

M said...

...also, I know that Anna and Owen were stepmother and stepson, it's just that in the book Anna's feelings towards Owen are at one point described to be more like that of a younger sister towards her older brother (which is strange since you would think it would be the other way around being that Owen is younger than Anna... I think). Okay, I just wanted to clarify that.

William V. Madison said...

Dear M --

What a pity it is that your comments arrive when I don't even have a copy of the book at hand! How clever you might have thought me if I were better prepared!

At any rate, I don't recall that we ever learn how Mr. Leath died, though it's surely significant that he's older than Anna. Like you, I got whiffs of inappropriate attraction between Anna and Owen; however, my gaydar went off every time Owen spoke. (I wouldn't put it past Wharton to figure out how to send the right signals.) Indeed, a liaison between Darrow and Owen strikes me every bit as possible as one between Anna and Owen.

The long-delayed appearance of Sophy's sister is absolutely supposed to indicate what Sophy's own future might hold. (As well as how Sophy's past informed her present.) Perhaps it's also meant to indicate something of Anna's own future: she's not much more virtuous than Sophy in her "career" choices, though she's a good deal luckier. After all, when Anna marries Leath, she's making an exchange in return for certain comforts, just as Sophy's sister does.

Ultimately, we're not meant to know whether Anna winds up marrying Darrow -- and that's another reason the book ends with Sophy's sister. After such an interview, Anna might easily be expected to run headlong in either of two directions: up to us to decide which.

An excellent sequel would be the life of Sophy, post-"Reef." I suspect that, in the Roaring '20s, she might have flourished.

And as to that title, Sophy is the reef on which the ship (of Darrow and Anna's marriage and/or happiness) wrecks -- don't you think?

I don't believe that Wharton means to make this book easy for the reader -- though superficially it's a quick read, its puzzles continue to trouble us after we've finished reading. Thus Mrs. Wharton would be pleased by your response -- your desire to know more.

That said, do please check back in the coming weeks, in the event that I revise all these opinions after reviewing the novel once more!

William V. Madison said...

OR!!! -- more properly phrased, it's the LIAISON between Sophy and Darrow that is the reef on which the relationship between Anna and Darrow founders.

(Ooops. See why I should have waited until I had a copy of the book handy?)

M said...

Thank you very much for your response to my questions. Your expertise cleared up most of my confusion. Don't worry, I find you to be clever enough without having a copy of the book... that's even more impressive!

Carmen said...

Great review, thank you!