Critical Responses to "The Other Two" (1904)

The following summaries and excerpts provide a sample of the critical perspectives on this story.

Killoran, Helen. The Critical Reception of Edith Wharton. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001.

Helen Killoran, an Associate Professor of English at Ohio University-Lancaster and a past president of the Edith Wharton Society, provides a collection of criticism on the works of Edith Wharton spanning the past 100 years. Of interest here is her treatment of certain feminist approaches to Wharton’s work. The feminist critique suggests Wharton’s characters illustrate the pervading social and political acceptance of women of that time, especially in regards to marital responsibilities and duties. The relationship between Alice and Waythorn in “The Other Two” initially follows this social pattern, although ultimately both characters reach a deeper understanding of the opposed genders outside of the traditional framework.

“When feminism replaced ‘the feminine’ as a concept after the gap of about a generation, it came in two waves. The first focused on social prejudice against women, which in the main came from the concept of women’s repression by a ‘patriarchal culture.’ Considering the critical abuse that she had received from men and women … Edith Wharton appeared on the surface to fit nicely into this category. Feminism’s premises included the ideas that women were consistently used for the sexual pleasure of men, forced into marriage, vilified in divorce, pressured out of the professions, denied equal education, equal pay for equal work, and equal participation in politics. On these premises feminists built the concept of the social construction of sexual identity. They agreed that female sexuality is suppressed by men, and also that women have internalized or ‘reified’ men’s ‘patriarchal’ idea of women as ‘Other.’ In short, women were forced to believe men’s lies. Feminists theorized that for the most part sexual identity was not a result of biological factors, but of social hegemony (a psychological infusion of male-founded state and cultural concepts) designed to deprive women of power. Why men would wish to control in this way has been explained mainly in terms of their desire for sexual dominance, though the biological source of desire for dominance seems at least partly to contradict the concept of social construction.” (Killoran, pp. 12-13)

McDowell, Margaret B. Edith Wharton. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1976.

Margaret B. McDowell served as chairperson of the Women’s Studies Program and as associate professor of Rhetoric at the University of Iowa. Her text on Edith Wharton focuses on “her perceptive explorations of human nature” and thus serves as a helpful addition to the study of Wharton’s treatment of marriage, divorce, and the social structure responsible for both.

“Her careful ordering of detail enabled Mrs. Wharton to attain in many of her shorter works a psychological complexity in characterization which would ordinarily be found only in the novel. In her short stories she usually illuminates, rather than resolves, the refractory situations that she subjects to her scrutiny. The characters and events often suggest intonations of the universal and ranges of significance beyond the literal.” (McDowell, p. 85)

“… Edith Wharton examined the role and status of women, the implications of marriage as seen through the eyes of a woman, the relationship between mother and child, and the rapidly changing views about divorce and about liaisons outside of marriage. Though she explored these subjects insistently, she approached the issues from varying angles and arrived at contradictory conclusions. If any consistent pattern of conviction emerges from the stories, which cover almost fifty years, it is that each woman must decide for herself what is best in her own situation … Certainly no American author before 1930 produced such penetrating studies of women who, instead of marrying, decide to risk social ostracism by contracting temporary alliances based on mutual trust and sexual desire.” (McDowell, p. 87)

Pennell, Melissa McFarland. Student Companion to Edith Wharton. Westport, Conn.:
Greenwood Press, 2003.

Melissa McFarland Pennell, a Professor of English as the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, provides a collection of summaries and insights into the main works of Edith Wharton. Grouped among the “Short Stories” portion of the text, her commentary on “The Other Two” provides both an overview of the plot development of the story as well as the social forces examined by Wharton through the interaction of the characters, especially that between Waythorn and his twice-divorced wife, Alice.

“The issue of divorce and remarriage influences the situation Wharton presents in “The Other Two,” first published in Collier’s, then collected in The Descent of Man. Alice Waythorn has used serial marriage as a means of advancing herself on the social ladder. At each level she attains, she adapts to new expectations, refining the mask she presents to those around her. As Mrs. Waythorn, Alice has reached the pinnacle of her social success. After the novelty of their marriage and the afterglow of their honeymoon diminishes, Waythorn reaches a degree of familiarity with his wife and her actions that redefine her for him. Waythorn perceives that she is not the woman he believed he married, but he comes to accept the woman that she is.” (Pennell, p. 34)

“Although the story is told in the third person, the narrative presents the situation from Waythorn’s perspective, providing his observations of Alice and her former husbands. Through this perspective, Wharton also reveals Waythorn’s sense of himself and his changing view of Alice and his marriage as the story progresses.” (Pennell, p. 34)

“Although she does not change outwardly, Alice undergoes a series of transformations in Waythorn’s eyes. Initially he appreciates her girlish attributes, qualities that also make him feel younger. He believes that in both her divorce suits, she had been the wronged party, that she had good cause to leave each of her marriages. In the story’s opening, he sees Alice through the eyes of a lover who recognizes only the positive; but by its end, he sees her faults as well. At first troubled by them and what he believes has been the false image she projected, Waythorn comes to see that Alice is a mixed being just as he is, that she is a product of her social world, a product he desired. Because her self is her only resource, Alice functions as a commodity who ultimately goes to the highest bidder.” (Pennell, p. 38)

“Through Waythorn’s point of view, Wharton reveals how the male gaze defines woman as object, something to be desired, owned, and defined. She also reveals how men depend upon women to ease their social interactions, to provide the civilizing touch that at least temporarily quiets their competitive instinct.” (Pennell, p. 38)

Allen, Brooke. “The Accomplishment of Edith Wharton.” The New Criterion 20.1 (Sept. 2001): 33-40.

The writer focuses on Wharton’s short story fiction, which has undoubtedly received much less attention than her more famous works such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. Allen depicts Wharton as a struggling female, reacting against both the limitations placed upon her literature and the social forces that confined her to unhappiness for much of her life. During her career, critics’ constant comparison of Wharton to her close friend Henry James undermined the significance of her unique style and techniques, suggesting a weakness as a short story writer. However, it is precisely the special features of her writing that enable her to successfully depict the complexities of real life within such small pieces of literature. In stories such as “The Other Two,” for instance, Wharton purposefully offers a great deal of external detail, attaching meaning to inanimate objects in order to creatively develop her characters, avoiding the slower, more gradual process used in writing novels. Additionally, Allen studies the autobiographical features of Wharton’s short stories, tracing her cynical views of an imprisoning society as it experiences modernization. Earlier works, such as “Joy in the House” and “The Touchstone” reflect Wharton’s unsatisfactory, restricting marriage to Teddy Wharton, while others, such as “The Other Two”, show a change in social standards; divorce has become socially acceptable, almost to an extreme.

Inverso, Mary Beth. “Performing Women: Semiotic Promiscuity in ‘The Other Two’.” Edith Wharton Review 10.1 (1993 Spring): 3-6.

Interestingly, Inverso approaches the study of Edith Wharton’s “The Other Two” by highlighting the various connections between the lives of the Waythorns and the Victorian stage. Alice becomes an actress, capable of adjusting to various situations, while Waythorn becomes the audience, who is at first upset at witnessing the many different sides of his wife but finally accepts her performances. Parallels between “The Other Two” and the theater include the following: Alice, as the female actress, is focused upon by a male audience who often unfairly judges the actress to be immoral or 'easy' as a prostitute; the audience fails to recognize the laborious work put into the performance; Waythorn, as the male audience, critiques the actress for her abandonment of privacy for the sake of public show; the unappreciative audience progressive towards one more mature and accepting. Significantly, this perspective prevents readers from viewing Alice as a shallow female intent on deceiving her husband, focusing more on her talents and ability to overcome the complexities of day-to-day life.

Lewis, R.W.B. Introduction. The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton. Vol. 1. By Edith Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968. vii-xxv.

In introducing Edith Wharton’s short stories, Lewis emphasizes the importance of focusing on the situation being presented, rather than the examination of character, as one does in novels. Thus, he examines the subject matter of Wharton’s stories, recognizing her recurring theme of marriage. Wharton, who may have been the first American to really explore this topic, questions the various reasons for marrying, the unsatisfying outcomes of such relationships, divorce, the emotional and psychological effects of infidelity, illegitimacy, and the value of children. Her short fiction examines the possibilities and limitations of life through the situations in which she places her characters; situations that reveal the confused, changing society of which she was a part.

Sweeney, Gerard M. “Wharton’s ‘The Other Two’.” Explicator 59.2 (2001 Winter): 88-91.

In her short story “The Other Two,” Edith Wharton’s feelings toward Alice have often been questioned, as critics wonder whether or not she supports the opinion Waythorn develops of his wife. While some critics recognize a positive attitude toward Alice, others suggest Wharton’s deliberate portrayal of a shallow female. Sweeney argues that, in considering the established mother-daughter relationship between Alice and Lily Haskett, the mother clearly comes off as shallow, lacking true concern for her typhoid-stricken child. After the Waythorn’s early return from their honeymoon, for instance, Alice worries more over the visit from her ex-husband than the condition of Lily’s health. Once the problem is solved, she is immediately relieved, although Lily’s illness has not subsided. Sweeney emphasizes that, because of the seriousness with which Wharton and her contemporary readers considered typhoid, Alice’s indifference towards her daughter reveals Wharton’s lowered opinion of her character. Interestingly, this article diverts attention from the husband-wife relationship and focuses on the kinship between mother and daughter in light of the historical and autobiographical context from which Wharton wrote.

White, Barbara A. Edith Wharton: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Using Edith Wharton’s The Writing of Fiction as a basis, White focuses on point of view in Wharton’s short fiction “The Other Two.” From the perspective of an upper class, white male caught up in an economically-driven patriarchal society, it is no wonder that Waythorn reflects such a limited understanding of his wife. Wharton’s fiction seems to defend Alice in revealing the dehumanizing effects of the modern, financially-obsessed society upon the wife, who becomes viewed as property of the husband. Although Waythorn fluctuates between extreme visions of his wife-- at once she is an adorable asset but she later becomes used and worn out-- Alice’s true character never really changes. Instead of the recognizing the conflicts that Alice faces, in the attempts to maintain her expected obedience towards her husband, Waythorn instead obsesses over the changes he begins to see in her behavior, even going so far as to unjustly imagine her past lives with her two former husbands. Because of his negative interpretation of her actions, he fails to recognize her true character. Significantly, Waythorn’s gradual understanding of the difficulties of divorce expose Wharton’s own uncertain feelings toward divorce, and Wharton seems to offer her readers the chance to explore the various possibilities that such a situation may provide.

Annotations by John Nusse and Lauren Carlson

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