The Other Two by Edith Wharton, 1904

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by Edith Wharton, 1904

Although most literary scholars tend to think of Edith Wharton as a novelist, she was in fact one of the most accomplished story writers among American authors of her time. She began her career as a writer of tales in Scribner's in 1891 and continued to practice the genre throughout her career. In all, she wrote 86 stories and 11 novellas, most of them first published in magazines and then collected in 11 volumes. For Wharton the story was not a means of apprenticeship before writing novels but an end in itself. She used stories to work out ideas and explore themes that later found treatment in her novels.

Wharton was no innovator of form in the story, but she developed and blended plot, character, setting, and theme with extraordinary skill. She greatly admired the Russian story writers, of whom she said in The Writing of Fiction (1925), "Instead of a loose web spread over the surface of life, they have made it [the story], at its best, a shaft driven straight into the heart of human experience." So did Wharton at her best, and at the same time she leavened her tales with irony and subtle humor.

In A Backward Glance, the volume of memoirs written late in life and published in 1934, Wharton said that she could not remember the time when she did not want to make up stories. Before she could even read or write, she would pick up a book and walk about, turning its pages and inventing tales. She had to overcome formidable odds to become a writer, however, for she was born in a socially prominent New York family that expected a daughter to grow up to be a society matron, mother, and hostess, not an intellectual or writer. She also was married early to a Boston dilettante with no literary interests and endured 28 years of unhappy married life before divorcing her husband.

These facts about Wharton's life figure prominently in her short fiction. As in "The Other Two," Wharton wrote extensively about the dynamics of marriage, and her settings are often the high society in which she grew up. Characters in her stories live in mansions staffed by butlers, upstairs and downstairs maids, foot-men, governesses, coachmen, and, later, chauffeurs. They have boxes at the opera and second homes in fashionable places like Newport, and they frequently travel to Europe at a time when only the rich can afford to do so. But the problems they face in their human relationships are universal.

"The Other Two," which tells the story of Alice Haskett-Varick-Waythorn from the point of view of her third husband, Waythorn, shows Wharton's preoccupation with the problem of a woman's role in a world dominated by men. The story, written early in her career and published in The Descent of Man (1904), takes place at a time when even woman suffrage was a long way off. The story opens with Alice newly married to her third husband, a rich New York broker who views her romantically as the perfect wife. The humor and irony of the story come from Waythorn's gradual realization that Alice's perfection as a wife has come from her experience with her previous husbands.

Waythorn's awakening begins when he meets the first husband, Haskett, a man Alice has led him to believe was a brute. It turns out that Haskett was a small businessman in upstate New York, dull and colorless but gentle and intensely devoted to the daughter, who now lives with Alice and Waythorn. In fact, he has sold his business and moved to the city to be near her. The meeting between Waythorn and Haskett comes over visiting rights when the daughter is sick and cannot visit her father. Although Waythorn finds it distasteful to have to meet the first husband, he gets used to it.

With her second husband, Gus Varick, Alice was able to move to the city. He was a socially prominent New Yorker, but he turned out to be shallow, improvident, and unfaithful, and Alice discarded him for Waythorn, a solid middle-aged bachelor. By chance soon after his marriage, however, Waythorn meets Varick a couple of times and then, because of his partner's illness, is dismayed to be forced to handle business transactions for him. Thus, through circumstances beyond his control he is thrown together with both of Alice's former spouses. It is all rather distasteful, but Alice handles matters adroitly.

The denouement takes place when Haskett comes to discuss the child's education with Alice. He arrives after Waythorn has come home from the office but before Alice, who has been out for the afternoon, has returned. Waythorn takes Haskett into the library and gives him a cigar, but just then the servants usher in another visitor, none other than Varick, who has come to see Waythorn on business. Waythorn gives Varick a cigar, and the three men stand there uncomfortably. Alice then walks in just as the maid brings tea, and the story ends as Alice hands cups of tea to all three of her husbands.

The story is a masterpiece of social comedy by a master storyteller. Wharton's biographer, R. W. B. Lewis, calls it "the most nearly perfect short story that Edith Wharton ever wrote." It is a cautionary tale about what a woman had to do in the late nineteenth century to get what she wanted out of life, but Alice ends up the winner. Her third husband admits to himself that he is like a member of a syndicate who holds a certain number of shares in his wife's personality and that "his predecessors were the partners in the business." In the final analysis, however, he concludes that perhaps it is better "to own a third of a wife who knew how to make a man happy than a whole one who had lacked opportunity to acquire the art."

—James Woodress