The New Compass: A Critical Review



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“Beings of Different Language”:

Pragmatist meets Idealist in Edith Wharton’s The Reef


Pat Menon



 . . . the one thing that has counted so far in philosophy is that a man should see things, see them straight in his own peculiar way, and be dissatisfied with any opposite way of seeing them.[1]


            The letters[2] that Edith Wharton wrote to Morton Fullerton in the course of the tempestuous affair they began after meeting in 1907 provide glimpses of the misery of falling in love with a compulsive Casanova, one whose incomprehensible silences followed periods of what seemed to be intense passion. By the time of the publication of The Reef in 1912, however, their affair had been transmuted into friendship, and Wharton chose to build her novel on the much more limited infidelity of George Darrow, suggesting that she had been partially successful in teasing out issues of universal concern from her own experience. One way of understanding The Reef, then, is as the distillation of the personal into the impersonal—by removing the more melodramatic aspects of her own affair while retaining the emotional climate of betrayal, Wharton was able to go beyond the exploration of problems of sexual unfaithfulness to the difficulty of harmonising two contrasted approaches to life, approaches that may be loosely designated the “pragmatic” and the “idealist.”[3]


            I don’t mean to suggest that Wharton was able to deal with her subject with total indifference. Even after the affair was over she insisted on reading the work to Fullerton before she sent it to her publisher,[4] something she apparently had not done with any of her work before, and an action suggesting  a desire for a touch of civilized revenge. Nor do I argue that, in Darrow and Anna, Wharton simply wished to embody the characteristics of each philosophic type, for that would give too abstract a cast to her exploration of a painful human dilemma. At the same time, I must admit that The Reef is a novel that gives me a great deal of difficulty. If I confine my own responses to the intellectual and analytic, as I attempt to do through most of this essay, it is, I suspect, as a consequence of a wish to shield myself from the endless anxieties experienced by the characters or, at a further remove, from Wharton’s own despair. To respond to The Reef without an attempt to bring it into some kind of intellectual order would result not in an essay but in a prolonged shriek.


It seems important to me, therefore, to examine Wharton’s attempt to transcend the personal by examining her exploration of the root of the problem between Anna and Darrow and their interminable inability to form a permanent union. It is a difficulty that can be most clearly seen as a philosophical one:  Anna’s idealism and Darrow’s pragmatism make them “beings of a different language” (292). For help in identifying the differences between the two, we can turn to a highly popular philosopher of the time:  William James. He was not, and never claimed to be, the first pragmatist, but his lectures on the subject, given in the winter of 1906 to 1907—coincidentally just before Wharton and Fullerton met—provide what became the best-known verbal illustration (the nature of pragmatism precluding definition) of the pragmatic approach to life.


Though (or perhaps because) he was the brother of her close friend Henry James, Wharton, as her letters reveal, was disdainful of William James on both personal and philosophical grounds. She referred to his “familiar jargon” with distaste, regarding him as “the source and chief distributor” of “psychological-pietistical juggling” (Letters 21 February 1906, 101-2), and thought that his family were all “victims of the neurotic and unreliable . . . William O’ the wisp James” (Letters 24 March 1910, 205). Two years after his death (which occurred in August 1910, as Wharton’s affair with Fullerton was in its last stages) she congratulated a memorialist on “How you’ve managed to balance the big heart and the considerably less ponderable brain of your subject, when all the world has been so persistently confusing the two organs for the last fifteen years!” (Letters 8 October 1912, 290).


            In her circle, and with her interests, Wharton must certainly have been aware of William James’s work as it came out, although she may not have read the published version of his lectures on pragmatism—she had failed to finish The Varieties of Religious Experience after its publication in 1902 (Letters 7 September 1902, 69). Whatever knowledge she had, whether obtained directly or indirectly, may have given a more specific shape and greater detail to her portrait of a pragmatist, but, had William James never lived nor lectured, Wharton’s novel need not have been affected, for she could have drawn on examples from a world crowded with pragmatists.[5]  In referring to William James in the course of this chapter, therefore, I make use of his work as conveniently representative of a particular approach to life, rather than attempting to demonstrate a particular historical connection.


            In his lectures, James identified two radically different schools of thought (and therefore ways of living), which he characterized as “tough-” and “tender-minded.” The former might, more familiarly, be described as “Empiricist” and the latter “Idealistic”—terms which he himself used in a list of all the characteristics of each (22). He claimed that “Pragmatism” was the long-awaited mediator between these two approaches to life, harmonizing and utilising the best of each (37), but as is apparent from his very first lecture (19-37), James’s pragmatism was really empiricism with a new name, its mediating role consisting solely of a willingness to acknowledge the utilitarian values of such matters as religion—“it may secure ‘moral holidays’ to those who need them” (197)—from the opposing (idealist) list.


            Among the characteristics of the “tough-minded” he listed the terms: “Empiricist (going by facts), Sensationalistic, Materialistic, Pessimistic, Irreligious, Fatalist, Pluralistic, Sceptical,” later adding “scientific,” “naturalistic,” and “positivistic” to the collection (22, 73). And although one of the dangers of any such list is that it becomes an incantation, barely attended to in its specifics, to accord it closer attention is to see how appropriately many of these designations may be applied to Darrow. For the second group, the “tender-minded,” he listed “Rationalist (going by principles), Intellectualistic, Idealistic, Optimistic, Religious, Free-willist, Monistic, Dogmatical,” with later additions of “romantic” and “spontaneous” (22, 23-24). It is clear that enough of these characteristics fit Anna to suggest that her approach to life might be described in general terms as being that of an idealist.


            Characteristic of pragmatism, in addition to its preference for the features on the “tough-minded” side of the list, are its emphasis on utility, which James liked to call “cash value” (133)—“the concrete truth for us will always be the way of thinking in which our various experiences most profitably combine” (241); its concern with the present and future rather than the past, and its rejection of abstract principles for their lack of utility:


just as pragmatism faces forward to the future, so does rationalism [idealism] here again face backward to a past eternity. True to her inveterate habit, rationalism reverts to “principles”, and thinks that when an abstraction once is named, we own an oracular solution. (147-48)


Above all the pragmatic preference is shown to be for action, process, experience—all of which are inherent in the nature of pragmatic “truth”:


The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process. (133)


and with this emphasis on action, James condemns the desire for


security against the bewildering accidents of so much finite experience. Nirvana means safety from this everlasting round of adventures of which the world of sense consists. The hindoo and the buddhist, for this is essentially their attitude, are simply afraid, afraid of more experience, afraid of life. (188)


Darrow can often be heard putting the arguments of William James, reckoning in terms of cost and payment, denying the importance of the past and the supremacy of the present, rejecting “useless” sacrifice. Both speak the language of pragmatism, though Darrow does so without conscious awareness of his philosophical position.


            Anna, on the other hand, and in marked contrast to Darrow, reveals many of the characteristic responses to life of the idealist, the longing for absolute principles and truths, the conviction of the importance of the past and its links to the present and future. But on no other grounds do their differences appear so sharply marked as in their opposing preferences, in Darrow’s case for “action” rather than contemplation, in Anna’s for “knowing,” primarily through reflection. This is the central polarity in their relationship, from which all others spring. It should not, therefore, surprise us that Darrow charges Anna, as William James charges his opponents, with a fear of “experience” and “life,” of being afraid of the “adventures of which the world of sense consists.”


            In bestowing on Darrow the general characteristics of a pragmatist, and on Anna those of an idealist, Wharton would seem to be setting up a fairly simple dichotomy, inviting the reader to favour one over the other, while perhaps extending a degree of sympathy to the losing side. This is certainly the way I first read the novel, and also the way I judged that Wharton wanted me to read it. However, to explore this tendency to make a polarized response is to see that Wharton seems to be posing a more unsettling problem than that of making a definite choice.


In part our discomfort is the result of the actual structure of the novel, which is unlike any other by Wharton. Although her usual method of narration (whatever her theoretical avowals) is to move freely in and out of her characters’ minds, and to include in this movement authorial interpolations requiring the alert reader’s utmost vigilance, here she adheres to a very strict limitation to two alternating consciousnesses. It was a structure very carefully imposed and yet, as she wrote to Fullerton: “I don’t think I’ve ever been so worried and uncertain about the “facture” of a book—I’ve no doubts about the stuff” (Letters 25 June 1912, 271). The Reef is an atypical work for her in that though Anna insists on the inseparability of past, present and future, and on the inseparability of the lives of all those involved in “the coil,” Wharton  herself does not, in The Reef, show her characteristic concern for the inter-relationship of individual and the larger society, an omission which is clearly by design. This is all the more surprising in that Wharton herself records that she once asked Henry James, concerning The Golden Bowl:


What was your idea of suspending the four principle characters . . . in the void? What sort of life did they lead when they were not watching each other and fencing with each other? Why have you stripped them of all the human fringes we necessarily trail after as through life?[6]


Yet eight years after the publication of James’s work she completed a novel of which this could be both a description and a criticism.


Presumably Wharton felt that this meeting of idealist and pragmatist demanded such an intense concentration on the changing interior states of her two characters that simultaneously to deal with their relationship with society would be impossible. Yet there is something rarified about the atmosphere of the work that suggests she was not at her best when omitting what usually interested her most, the interaction of the individual with the larger group.[7]


The shape of the work  embodies, and engenders in the reader, a temptation to diametrically-opposed reactions, one being the demand (already noted) to make either-or judgments, to see the world “this way” or “that.” At the same time, however, because each mind is allowed to dominate our perceptions for fairly long stretches of the work, there is also a pressure on us to feel sympathy first for Darrow then for Anna, causing discomfort in making definite choices between extremes. The reader is caught in uncertainty. Should we choose between the lovers or, like William James, search for a “mediating solution”? 


The one deliberate exception to Wharton’s self-imposed restriction to two points of view and the exclusion of the authorial voice, is in the introduction of Anna, at the beginning of Chapter IX, where three paragraphs are devoted to the presentation from the outside of a charming and virtually static tableau of lady, parasol and chateau. The same paragraphs are also used to prepare the reader to consider the “intimate inward reason” for the precise nature of the lady’s gaze.[8] This initial appearance of Anna is in striking contrast to the introduction of Darrow, into whose consciousness we are plunged at once, and who is in transit from the beginning, carried along by the noisy rush of the train towards Dover (3). Consequently, when  first involved with Darrow, we find ourselves caught up in movement, while in the encounter with Anna we, like the lady, are in contemplation. The difference both between what Wharton has us, as readers, do, and between the characters themselves, establishes the primary difference between pragmatic action and idealist thought as ways of experiencing the world. This process is initially kindest to Anna, associated as she is with our own contemplation and with the calm beauty of the chateau, in painful contrast to Darrow’s sulky fulminations, and these impressions tend to linger, influencing our later perceptions.


But Wharton, even within the limits of the scene in which Anna is introduced, is far from presenting a clear cut case. For if we react, as probably we will, to the “romantic, poetic, pictorial and emotional associations” (84) evoked by the “escutcheoned piers,” the “grassy court,” and the “shadow and sound of the limes” around the old chateau, we are quickly warned that these are dangerously romanticized ways of perceiving to which Anna herself has earlier fallen victim. Her characteristic way of viewing the world has been through the medium of the fairytale. The analysis of what has gone wrong, filtered through Anna’s own partially-defective vision, represents her difficult but honest attempt to understand the consequences of her faulty perceptions.


            As a young girl, Anna had misperceived the “substance of life as a mere canvas for her embroideries of the poet and painter” (88). She had used the discussion of books and pictures to avoid Darrow’s sexual advances, and failed to find the magic idealist formula, the “irresistible word” that would cure the dangerous split between her aesthetic and her sexual desires. Her problem had been twofold, the separation of art and life, and a preference for the former. Leath had seemed to offer a way of forgoing life and art together (91), but she had recognized, too late, that life was, for him, a “museum” (95) and his sexuality no more alive and warm than his kiss, “like a cold smooth pebble” from a “blond mask” (93).


            The subsequent disappointment of her marriage has, in her own later judgment, simply reinforced her tendency to think of imaginative excursions as the “real” and the “alive” in contradistinction to “real life.” As a consequence, “the old vicious distinction between romance and reality” has been “re-established for her” (95). The “irreducible crude fact” of Effie’s birth had, if only temporarily, swept away one part of this “delusion,” the delusion that “real life” isn’t “real,” but Anna recognizes that the prevailing unreality of the household had quickly imparted to even this living experience a “ghostly tinge” (96).


            What Wharton shows us, with compassion, is the enormous difficulty of overcoming such a handicap of vision. It was one with which she was herself familiar. In 1908 she had written to Fullerton: “ . . .  I’m so afraid that the treasures I long to unpack for you, that have come to me in magic ships from enchanted Islands, are only, to you, the old familiar red calico and beads . . . . Often and often I stuff my shiny treasures back into their box, lest I should see you smiling at them” (Letters early March 1908, 134-5). She was indeed to discover that such treasures might be lost in a shipwreck on the reef of indifference. Anna’s heroic efforts to do so are hampered by the very difficulty which she labours to overcome. The momentary experience of contact with “the real” has failed to teach Anna to judge, even with the advent of Darrow, the ways in which literature might really have something to say about life, as well as the ways in which some literary concepts might also prove to be dangerous modes of perception. The “vicious distinction” remains unexorcized and this leaves her almost blind to the dangers of romanticizing her relationship with Darrow. Her separation of life from art makes it impossible for her to subject the relationship to a critical examination.


            In 1908, Wharton, deeply in love, had written to Fullerton, “You woke me from a long lethargy, a dull acquiescence in conventional restrictions, a needless self-effacement. If I was awkward and inarticulate, it was because, literally, all one side of me was asleep” (Letters 26 August 1908, 261). Elizabeth Ammons points out that prior to the last revisions of The Reef, the “little old deserted house fantastically carved and chimneyed which lay in a moat under the shade of ancient trees” (127) visited by Anna and Darrow, had been called “the Sleeping Beauty’s Lodge” in manuscript, but suggests that Wharton removed the name in the final version because it was too-obviously symbolic. She argues convincingly that Wharton wishes to demonstrate that both Anna and the Cinderella-like Sophy must learn that women do not live in a fairytale, although I would argue the work contains a great deal more than this and disagree that the book’s meaning “in large measure” derives from these allusions, or that the novel’s “main aim” is to “expose the fraudulent romantic visions fostered by the limitations imposed on women” (Ammons 79-80, italics mine).


            The course of Anna’s enlightenment through experience is as beset by misconceptions as her upbringing. She had always believed, despite disappointments, that “Love . . . would one day release her from this spell of unreality,” and provide the “magic bridge” to “life” from West Fifty-Fifth Street (88, 89). Darrow’s impending arrival at Givré intensifies this state of mind, making her married life appear, by comparison, to be “some grey shadowy tale that she might have read in an old book, one night as she was falling asleep” (96). The accumulating revelations concerning Darrow’s and Sophy’s affair cruelly demonstrate to her the inadequacy of the fairytale as a way of understanding experience, but Anna’s disillusionment produces violent oscillations. Waking to the “understanding” that she must give Darrow up, she reacts bitterly against her previous romantic visions:


The knowledge came to her in the watches of a sleepless night, when, through the tears of disenchanted passion, she stared back upon her past. There it lay before her, her sole romance, in all its paltry poverty, the cheapest of cheap adventures, the most pitiful of sentimental blunders. She looked about the room, the room where, for so many years, if her heart had been quiescent her thoughts had been alive . . . In that moment of self-searching she saw that Sophy Viner had chosen the better part, and that certain renunciations might enrich where possession would have left a desert. (333)


            This may have been Wharton’s reaction also when she found herself helping to free Fullerton from the blackmail of another mistress in the spring of 1909 (Letters 181-4). But Anna’s words show no advance—they are merely the language of negation. It remains within the ethos of the romantic. Passion can only be disenchanted when enchantment is possible, and if Anna now finds the syrup of the fairytale soured, she is still attracted to its more tragic possibilities: “certain renunciations might enrich where passion had left a desert;” she can still dream of the “tragic luxury,” the “melancholy ecstasy” (335), of the last meeting. Of wider importance is the danger of her insistence on the primacy of “knowledge”—the kind of knowledge that comes, not from experience, but from the “watches of a sleepless night,” that makes the life in which “thoughts had been alive” more desirable than that in which the “heart” lives and struggles with the confusions and complexities of existence. Dealing in such dichotomies, it is not surprising that Anna interprets her temptation to give in to Darrow as a matter of a surrender to pragmatism, to its insistence on the primacy of the present, to its utilitarian principles—taking refuge in polarity, rather than questioning her preference for romance, so that she is “sent shuddering back to the opposite pole” (334) and no other possibility seems open to her.


            One of the dangers of the fairytale as a mode of perceiving life is that it absolves from responsibility those who believe they live within it, and relieves them of the need to recognize complexity. This may, in part, account for Wharton’s decision to introduce into the novel the ugliness of the last chapter. The last few pages seem to be an attempt on Wharton’s part to educate Anna out of her particular form of “not understanding.” The final hope for help from “some external chance,” the quest for Sophy (“It was Sophy Viner only who could save her—Sophy Viner only who could give her back her lost serenity . . .  that step once taken there would be no retracting it, and she would perforce have to go forward alone,” 360), demonstrates this final inability to break from her romantic conceptions, and the moral failure that results from them. The sordid hotel, the sluttish disorder of the suite, the tawdriness of Laura, the sexual promiscuity which the situation reveals, and the prominent association of Sophy with her sister, through their looks and mannerisms (“the dingy distances of family history,” 365) mock Anna’s lingering hopes of a fairytale solution, as perhaps they mock the reader’s too. But the crudity of the satire, and the harshness of its tone, arouse some doubt as to Wharton’s own involvement here—as if she felt the need to crush her own lingering hopes along with Anna’s.


            There does seem something perverse in Wharton’s desire to remind Anna and the reader that Sophy may share some of her sister’s most repellent characteristics, and she certainly goes out of her way to emphasize this by the deliberate, almost melodramatic, re-introduction of Jimmy Brance, Sophy’s friend at Mrs. Murrett’s, with a considerable flourish, on the last page. It is true that in the uncertainty of the ending and the difficulty of judging Sophy lies the final, minatory, unlikeness to the fairytale, but the clumsiness with which this is achieved suggests that some of Anna’s last reaction of “confused pain” (366) lingers for Wharton, too. It suggests that she has shared, to some degree, Anna’s predilection for this view of the world, and still feels its appeal. The ugliness of the conclusion, therefore, suggests a final loss of control. Meanwhile, the inconclusiveness of Anna’s responses, which, convincingly in the circumstances, are self-protectively focused on the physical and social requirements for escaping from the suite, make it impossible to forecast what Anna’s subsequent reaction will be, although there is nothing to suggestion it will not be a repetition of past oscillations.


            Although Anna’s most deep-seated, if periodically resisted, desire is to understand the world in romantic terms, she repeatedly reveals, as I have already suggested, a more general characteristic of the idealist: the paramount desire to “know.” For Anna, “not-understanding is the one unendurable and needless thing” and thus, as her romantic perceptions prove increasingly inadequate, she is driven by her “illumination impulse” (247), her “exploring ray of curiosity” (95), to ask questions and shed light on her situation at any cost. There is courage in this, for, although, early on, she expresses the hope to Darrow that “you and I needn’t arrange the lights before we show ourselves” (113), she is also aware that there may be dangers in becoming Psyche, holding up the lamp to view her lover (112). Either she may not like what she sees, or her lover may not wish to be seen in the light—both possibilities which do, in the end, come true.


            Much of Anna’s development seems designed to support the conventional view of the desirability of the search for knowledge and increasing self-awareness. Seen from this perspective, Anna’s laudable quest is shown to be the (conventional) outcome of faults as well as strengths, to have been nourished by her naïve initial belief that she is aware of her weaknesses and is capable of subjecting them to her own and Darrow’s scrutiny: “I want you to see me just as I am, with all my irrational doubts and scruples, the old ones and the new ones too” (113). Again traditionally, she later recognizes that complacency about her own superiority has also been a contributing factor: “an instinctive disdain for whatever was less clear and open than her own conscience had kept her from learning anything of the intricacies and contradictions of other hearts” (278). Her smugness, however, is finally subjected to her own “melancholy derision,” with the realization that such dark places in others that “one need never know about” are also to be found “in her own bosom, and henceforth she would always have to traverse them to reach the beings she loved” (353).


            My initial reaction to this is to applaud Anna in her search for the truth, and to conclude that Wharton is arguing for the moral necessity (however impossible its full achievement) to come to know oneself, and as far as possible, others. The pattern of increasing self-knowledge is discernible, predictable and admirable, and, I think, genuinely there to be admired—but the issue is not quite as straightforward as this summary suggests.


            For one thing, Anna’s desire for knowledge is predominantly structured in terms of polarities: “To feel was surely better than to judge” (325); “Did such self-possession imply indifference or insincerity?” (326). Furthermore, her need is for absolute, and unachievable, certainty: she must “know” for example, not just what Darrow thinks, now, about his future loyalty to her, but “what would impel or restrain him at the crucial hour” (330), and in pursuit of such impossible certitude she becomes obsessed with the need for “knowledge” of the details of the affair.


            Furthermore, Anna finds, as Psyche did, that knowledge can be dangerous, even destructive. Her reactions to this realization first shift briefly in the direction of pragmatism (“If only she had held her tongue nothing need ever have been known,” 320). The movement is accompanied by self-blame, for she feels that if she had not “proved, insisted, cross-examined” (321), had not had “the wrong kind of audacities” (320), matters might have worked themselves out. She subsequently swings back to the idealist conviction that the “truth had come to light by the force of its irresistible pressure” (353), a movement comparable to her oscillations in her “rejection” of the fairytale view of life.


            But the situation is an even more complex one, for from a fearful refusal to think of Sophy at all (288), she comes to the state where she craves to know everything about the affair: to “know better” as she inappropriately puts it: “There was nothing she did not want to know, no fold or cranny of his secret that her awakened imagination did not strain to penetrate” (331). The language is both sexual and possessive, and reveals an increasingly voyeuristic obsession which Darrow quite rightly (though his underlying motives are characteristically pragmatic—it will put “something irremediable between us”) rejects as emotionally repellent as well as immoral: “I’ve done something I loathe, and to atone for it you ask me to do another” (358). Her quest for knowledge has become a frenzy which both obsessed and sometimes disgusts her.


            But for Anna, knowledge still remains the issue. She may alternate between wanting “to stop her ears, to close her eyes, to shut out every sight and sound and suggest of a world in which such things could be,” and “being tormented by the desire to know more, to understand better, to feel herself less ignorant and inexpert in matters which made so much of the stuff of human life” (291), but, at bottom, she remains convinced that such understanding can be achieved without experience. Forming her generalizations at second-hand, she is thus caught in the oscillations of “life was like that . . . But no! Life was not like that” (302).


            As Darrow struggles to give his pragmatist’s account of the affair, he accuses Anna of the inability to “understand” and to her question: “You mean I don’t feel things—I’m too hard?” he responses, “No: you’re too high . . . too fine . . . such things are too far from you” (291). “High” and “fine” may sound like praise, but “too far” has the beginnings of criticism in it, criticism made more specific soon after: “You say you’ll never understand: but why shouldn’t you? Is it anything to be proud of, to know so little of the strings that pull us” (314). The metaphor of puppetry reveals an abdication of responsibility, but his criticism of Anna’s preference for the abstract and the clean—“Her imagination recoiled from the vision of a sudden debasing familiarity; it seemed to her that her thoughts would never again be pure” (291),—is nonetheless valid. Tragically, however, Darrow’s recognition brings her no understanding. They confront each other, as she perceives it, “no longer as enemies,” but trapped in a state of non-comprehension, “as beings of a different language” (291).


            No clearer indication of their difference in outlook could be found than in Darrow’s pragmatic insistence that they are not separated by a “fundamental disaccord” (313) as Anna believes, and in his conviction that “the facts” will argue his case for him (288). The pragmatic solution is to deny the gulf is unbridgeable, and to set about spanning it. While Anna talks to understanding, seeing, and knowing, his arguments rely on metaphors of work, building, and mending:


When you’ve lived a little longer you’ll see what complex blunderers we all are: how we’re struck blind sometimes, and mad sometimes—and then, when our sight and our senses come back, how we have to set to work, and build up, little by little, bit by bit, the precious things we’d smashed to atoms without knowing it. Life’s just a perpetual piecing together of broken bits. (313)


The abdication of responsibility is there is the passives of “struck blind . . . and mad,” but the pragmatist’s insistence on action is given dignity and value. Characteristically, when Anna’s response is to suggest the act of “principle,” marriage to Sophy, his response is a refusal, for, as he repeatedly maintains, “sacrifice would benefit no one” (360): “Men don’t give their lives away like that. If you won’t have mine, it’s at least my own, to do the best I can with” (313). And, as always, there is the acceptance of not knowing, and the insistence on the limitation of the power of the past, and on the necessity for proportion in the recognition of grey tones:


I don’t know! It seemed such a slight thing—all on the surface—and I’ve gone around on it just because it was on the surface. I see the horror of it just as you do. But I see, a little more clearly, the extent and limits of my wrong. It’s not as black as you imagine. (314)


An admitted pragmatist will probably have no difficulty in responding favourably to these assertions, but from the nature of the general critical response to the novel (admittedly weighted to some degree by the feminist reaction) it would seem that most readers (even the closest pragmatists among them) are likely to be more favourable disposed towards the idealist position, seeing these statements as merely self-excusing.


            This was certainly my initial reaction, and it does not do justice to the rightness of Darrow’s insistence on picking up and going on. Perhaps the tendency to disregard his argument is favoured by the pattern Darrow falls into, in which his repeated recognitions of his inadequacies are usually followed by further disastrous blunders, themselves made on pragmatic grounds (although this repetition may be Wharton’s view of what pragmatism inevitably leads to). And while I recognize the dangers of falling into Anna’s either-or approach, I still find it hard to balance the recognition of the pain experienced by two people who love each other with my tendency to read the novel analytically—which tends to be hard on Darrow, who, as a pragmatist, does not fare well under analytical examination. I suspect the schematic structure (almost equal numbers of books for each of the two lovers, and the prolonged discussions, arguments and periods of reflection) has something to do which this, as have the pronounced contrasts between the two approaches to life.


            Certainly Wharton seems to have gone out of her way to emphasize the more doubtful aspects of Darrow’s pragmatism, even to the extent of making him, appropriately for a pragmatist, a diplomat by profession. Indeed, Anna, who fears his “tact” may be “a kind of professional expertness” (321), is right to do so for he is willing to deceive to please, as he does over both Sophy’s unposted letter and Anna’s unread one (69, 112). He lives by the pragmatic principle “that most wrongdoing works, on the whole, less mischief than its useless confession,” and his choice of the word “useless” reveals his exclusive concern with the practical, or, more precisely, what appears to be practical at the moment of decision.


            Indeed, his use of language often offers clues to his problems. When Darrow admits himself to be as unable to “test the moral atmosphere” as “a man in fever testing another’s temperature by the touch” (208) he uses the word “moral,” inappropriately, to describe the adjustments of behaviour being planned beneath his compassion’s social disguises—an inaccurate use of language which prolongs the sloppy thinking which allowed him to slip into the affair with Sophy in the first place.


            Wharton makes it clear that such careless phrasing is a dangerous habit with Darrow. Warning Sophy against marrying a man she does not love, he can deceive himself: “He might yet—at what cost he would not stop to think—make his past pay for his future” (206). The words have the courageous ring of a last-ditch stand, but they incorporate such pragmatic language as “pay” and “cost,” and the pragmatic disregard for the past. Furthermore, within the refusal to think, Darrow conceals from himself that it must be Sophy who pays. Anna senses, and fears, something of this slackness. For her lover to come to her with an “open face and clear conscience” is horrible if his security is based on falsehood; but “if it meant that he had forgotten”—as indeed he admits to himself he had, revealing how easily pragmatism and diplomacy may serve self-indulgence—“it was worse” (280). Like Anna, we can’t help but feel doubtful about arguments from such a source, having seen, even in his own terms, the disastrous working out of Darrow’s pragmatism. Thus, it is easy to fail to give adequate consideration to the criticisms of Anna’s idealism which Darrow effectively makes explicit.


            The strongest features of his position may be seen in his appeal for Anna’s understanding of his affair with Sophy, a passage (286-292) which is as representative as any in juxtaposing some of the strengths of Darrow’s pragmatism with the weaknesses of Anna’s idealism. The exchange doesn’t start well for him, in that we are instantly reminded, in his fencing to find out how much Anna knows, of his belief that confession is better avoided, if possible (286), and we suspect that he is using Anna’s concern for Owen to persuade her to let him stay (287). But the scene is equally revealing of the dangers of Anna’s position. There is accuracy in his description of Anna’s dilemma:


“You’ve always said you wanted, above all, to look at life, at the human problem, as it is, without fear and without hypocrisy: and it’s not always a pleasant thing to look at.” (288)


for “look” is precisely the right verb for what she has wanted to do. And when Anna charges Sophy with being an adventuress, he defends her from the slur:


                       “She’s not an adventuress.”

                       “You mean she professes to act on the new theories? The stuff that awful women rave about on platforms?”

                       “Oh, I don’t think she pretended to have a theory-“

                       “She hadn’t even that excuse?”

            “She had the excuse of her loneliness, her unhappiness—of miseries and humiliations that a woman like you can’t even guess.” (290)


Though Anna has, indeed, the excuse of her misery, it is nevertheless typical of her to attempt to categorize Sophy into one compartment or another (and it isn’t coincidental that the alternatives are pragmatic or theoretic), for it is in the world of absolute judgments that she feels most comfortable. By contrast Darrow’s pragmatism makes him capable of an understanding and compassion which makes his reference to Anna’s lack of experience a just one.


            On the other hand, Darrow’s pragmatic distaste for reflecting on the past, contrasted with the insistence of both Sophy and Anna on the inseparability of the present, past and future suggests a serious inadequacy of his narrow focus on the present time. His self-conscious and fatuous offer of consolation to Sophy: “Time modifies . . . rubs out . . . things change . . . people change,” encapsulates the pragmatic approach to time, and leads naturally, in combination with the stress on utility, to the evasion of the recognition of responsibility: “But what was the use of thinking of that now?” (263).


            His position is best put into perspective by Anna’s insistence on understanding and incorporating the past into the present, a rejection of Darrow’s argument that, because they are together, “‘everything,’ for me, is here and now: on this bench, between you and me” (111). It becomes clear that Darrow’s belief that the time that matters is only present time, is dangerously linked to the belief that responsibility to others is also limited. To accept either of these limitations would be a betrayal of Anna’s deepest psychological and moral perceptions. The past is so importance that she may not “betray” it to others, so she may not talk of Leath to Darrow (119) but it is also too significant not to be re-examined. Something that she failed to understand then may come between them again (111), a fear that proves justified. However tempted she may be by the pragmatic view—“Why should past or future coerce her when the present was so securely hers?” (333)—Anna cannot, for long, think in Darrow’s terms.


            Darrow’s pragmatic position, then, stands criticized explicitly and implicitly, by Anna’s idealism, but though his problems are easier to recognize and categorize than hers, Anna’s insistence on knowledge rather than experience, though apparently a safer course, almost guarantees that (in Darrow’s image) life will roll away like the night landscape from a train “just outside her glazed and curtained consciousness” (30).


            When Darrow asks whether any knowledge he can give Anna is “worth half as much as your own direct experience,” her acknowledgement that he is right is purely formal, and followed, at once, by another request for second-hand knowledge (160). Like her insistence that what she wants for Owen and Effie is “that they shall always feel free to make their own mistakes,” her actions belie her assertions of her faith in experience (120). The scene in which Anna asks Darrow if he can recommend Sophy as a governess, even though she has already employed her for five months in that position, like many other episodes, reveals her incapacity or unwillingness to learn to understand Darrow’s “language,” even when she mouths its words. But, in the same scene, while Anna thus reveals her inadequacies, we are aware that Darrow is guilty of his own. His recommendation that she trust to her own experience is really a pragmatic evasion of a subject he finds painful, and when it doesn’t work, he attempts to distract himself, and Anna, in a different way: “He held Anna closer, saying to himself, as he smoothed back the hair from her forehead, ‘What does anything matter but just this?’” (160).


            Whether the result of conscious tactic or irresistible urge, the question is one to which both participants, and the reader, must direct their attention: “Does anything matter but just this?” The “this” to which it refers is their sexual attraction for each other, which raises the question whether, whatever their other difficulties, the central issue at stake between them is the nature of sexuality. When Darrow receives Anna’s telegram requesting that he put off his visit, his reaction sets the parameters within which we struggle to assess Anna’s attitude to sex. Her excuse, he reflects, like the last (“the visit of her husband’s uncle’s widow”), will probably be “good,” but she seems “beset by family duties, and as he thought, a little too readily resigned to them.” He is convinced that “her ‘reason’, whatever it was, could, in this case, be nothing but pretext” (3, 8, 9). His reflections are interrupted by his accidental encounter with Sophy; but later, in the train to Paris, he reflects on the “reason” he believes the “pretext” to conceal:


The reflection set him wondering whether the “sheltered” girl’s bringing-up might not unfit her for all subsequent contact with life. How much nearer to it had Mrs. Leath been brought by marriage and motherhood, and the passage of fourteen years? What were all her reticences and evasions but the result of the deadening process of forming a “lady”? The freshness he had marveled at was like the unnatural whiteness of flowers forced in the dark.

As he looked back at their few days together he saw that their intercourse had been marked, on her part, by the same hesitations and reserves which had chilled their earlier intimacy. Once more they had their hour together and she had wasted it. As in her girlhood, her eyes had made promises which her lips were afraid to keep. She was still afraid of life, of its ruthlessness, its danger and mystery . . .

And now he saw her fated to wane into old age repeating the same gestures, echoing the words she had always heard, and perhaps never guessing that, just outside her glazed and curtained consciousness, life rolled away, a vast blackness starred with lights, like the night landscape beyond the windows of the train. (29-30)


            Thus the examination of the primary antithesis of the novel, that between action and evasion of experience, which is, in part, precipitated by a sexual liaison, is also directed to the question of the sexual experience itself. Is Anna, the idealist, afraid of sex, as Darrow suspects, and is this part of the distaste for the complexity and impurity of experience to which her idealism is linked? Any attempt to solve the problem demands a willingness greater than Darrow’s to distinguish partial truths from misconceptions, but it also requires that we do not, too easily, dismiss Darrow’s judgment simply because it is made in the throes of disappointed resentment, or because of his complacent conviction that, “a lot like his might have given her the divine gift of self-renewal” (30).


            Anna, herself, confirms Darrow’s perception of the consequences of her training as a “lady.” Sexuality and the emotions were not matters admitted into Anna’s West Fifty-Fifth Street upbringing: “people with emotions were not visited” (86). Thus, unlike some of her contemporaries, who, as girls she had envied for “their superior acquaintance with the facts of life” (88), Anna had been “a model of ladylike repression” (87). [9]


            Tentatively associated with “the embroideries of the poet and painter” (87)—with consequences we have already noted—“Love”, the “sublime passion” and “key to the enigma” of “the spell of unreality” (88), appeared to Anna to bear no relationship to the sexual sophistication and adventures of girls like Kitty Mayne. Their alert awareness of their own wants, their elopements and post-marital flirtations resembled neither her romantic ideals, nor, when she met him, what she dreamt might be possible with Darrow. But, presumably disappointed in her frigid behaviour, or taking it as a sign she had little interest in him except as a friend, he had disappeared, and Anna found herself considering whether her own lack of sexual response had been to blame.


            Subsequently, Anna had chosen a husband suited to a woman with a fear of sex, a man whose rare kisses “dropped on her like a cold smooth pebble” from a “symmetrical blond mask,” although as such times as she began to question “the completeness of the joys he offered” (93). Cause and consequence are hard for both the reader and Anna to disentangle, although she later recognizes that “she had been cold to him” (320) in the course of their marriage at the frigidly-named Givré. Darrow’s reconstruction of her upbringing and marriage are thus independently confirmed by Anna herself—the issue becomes whether this may be taken as proof of a fundamental shrinking from sexual experience which she can never overcome, or whether she may no longer be a victim of her own sexual coldness.


            Anna herself is convinced she is no longer frigid, but sexually alive and aware, and certainly her reactions to Darrow are quire different from those of her girlhood. Darrow’s flirtation with Kitty Mayne had thrown her into a fever of jealousy, but, face to face with Darrow, she had been reduced to silence and rigidity, unable to express herself in words or actions (90). Now, as the affair with Sophy comes to light, she is aware that her sexual responses are increasingly strong—she both desires, and eventually experiences, intensely satisfying intercourse with him (or so we are led to infer from her reactions the following day, 344). She not only wishes to respond to Darrow; she does, and powerfully but—and here lies the problem—it is, to an increasing extent, in spite of herself.


            For Anna comes to fear sexual attraction as “enslaving,” leading to a loss of moral control. Such fears are a consequence of her growing knowledge of Darrow’s affair, for, at first, the sense of “belonging,” even of “slavery,” is an exhilarating aspect of being in love. Darrow’s arrival at Givré produces strong reactions—she feels “like a slave, and a goddess, and a girl in her teens.” She recognizes in herself a craving to demonstrate her power over him, to test him (fairytale style) by “the most fantastic exactions” and yet to “humble herself before him, to make herself the shadow and echo of his mood” (125). But as the relationship with Darrow becomes more problematic on a moral level, its sexual intensity mounts. The joyous sense of being possessor and possessed takes on a threatening aspect, and she is aware of a feeling “confused and turbid, as if secret shames and rancours stirred in it, yet richer, deeper, more enslaving . . . She knew now that she could never give him up” (317). Sexual consummation brings “a new instinct of subserviency, against which her pride revolted” (346) and her language stresses her sense of being inescapably his possession—recognizing she is “now his for life” (344). Her old desire to wield power persists, though it takes new forms: she is “shamed . . . to detect a new element . . . a sort of suspicious tyrannical tenderness that seems to deprive [her love] of all serenity” (345-46), but, significantly, temporary relief comes when she feels herself “his in every fibre” (346).


Wharton’s letters to Fullerton almost too insistently repeat that she claims no rights, takes nothing for granted. At the same time, they rarely have the kind of confidence exhibited by Darrow’s “joyous ease of manner  . . .  that proclaimed a right.” Rather they take on the tone of one who must beg, and though what she implores from Fullerton is not love but honesty, nevertheless the tone of supplication is humiliating, and she clearly feels that it is so. It may be that this experience taught Wharton to fear sexual passion while she rejoiced in it. Is Anna’s increasing obsession with “enslavement” another manifestation of her fear of involvement in any form of experience that endangers her sense of control, that threatens her desire for the certainty of absolutes, the safety of abstract knowledge, the untainted world of thought? Or is Wharton herself arguing, through Anna, not only that sexual passion can endanger self-control, a truism too obvious to contest, but that, because of this, it is too dangerous to risk, let alone with someone of Darrow’s susceptibilities?


            This is the argument to which Anna herself constantly reverts. She fears that she will succumb to the temptation to make a hitherto undreamed-of pact with “dishonours” simply because of the “mere way in which he moved and looked” (299). The fear of the power of sexual attraction to override the will had its counterpart in Wharton’s own experience. She wrote to Fullerton of her troubled sense that their affair should end: “I can’t say this to you, because when I do you take me in your arms; et alors je n’ai plus de volonté” (Letters late summer 1909, 190) and there times when she seems to share in Anna’s mistrust. In the course of a discussion over their responsibility to Owen, and while Anna characteristically anguishes over her desire to show “strength of character” which she fears will instead be interpreted by Darrow as “habitual indecision” (121), she realizes Darrow is not listening. He is “steeped in the sense of her nearness” so that “even her deficiencies were so many channels through which her influence streamed to him.” The moment is one of security and joy for Anna, but the reader may remember that just such a change of focus occurred when Darrow, having kissed Sophy, realized that the fact that he need not listen to her any longer “added immensely to her charm. [Sophy] continued, of course, to talk to him, but it didn’t matter, because he no longer made any effort to follow her words” (262). Is Wharton’s demonstration, that the temporary infatuation and the committed love have a similar effect on one’s sense of responsibility, simply intended to be a criticism of Darrow, without being an indictment of the power of sexuality to undermine the moral restraints which language, by contrast, supports? This seems another in a series of questions about Wharton’s own position to which an attempt at an answer, like William James’ definition of pragmatism, must be postponed indefinitely.


            But this raises a related problem that might lead to an answer of sorts. Does Wharton agree with Anna that, even when sexual love is shown to be the source of security, strength, and self-confidence, these effects are outweighed by the likelihood that it will lead to a selfish lack of concern for others? Wharton’s essay on George Eliot,[10] although it dates from a decade earlier, and thus cannot be taken as evidence for her attitude when she wrote The Reef, reveals her mind working on just this problem. Furthermore, the passages of Eliot which she quotes find echoes in Anna’s dilemma. Eliot had set up, in The Mill on the Floss, the same dichotomy between sexual love and family duty that Anna sees in her own life, caught between the needs of Owen and Effie and her desire to marry Darrow. In her essay, Wharton had quoted Maggie’s “I cannot take a good for myself that has been wrung out of their misery . . . it would rend me away from all that my past life has made dear and holy to me” (“George Eliot” 250). Anna, striving to persuade Darrow that their marriage must not be made at Owen’s expense, argues, “I couldn’t bear it if the least fraction of my happiness seemed to be stolen from his” (121).


            These are Anna’s words, and it is possible that Wharton wants us to believe as Darrow does, that Anna is, without realizing it, seeking in her duty to her family a means to evade the final sexual commitment to him. In 1902, Wharton had described, in tones of approval, Eliot’s belief in the primacy of “faithfulness to inherited or accepted duty” as the “keynote” of her teaching—“All George Eliot’s noblest characters shrink with a peculiar dread from any personal happiness acquired at the cost of the social organism.” But she had also quoted Eliot’s words (written “in a moment of profound insight”) that “the great problem of the shifting relation between passion and duty is clear to no man who is capable of apprehending it” (“George Eliot” 250). To write of a “shifting relation” is not to deal in dichotomies, or place one thing in opposition to another. Nevertheless, in The Mill on the Floss, Eliot had aligned herself on the side of duty. With regard to The Reef, the difficulty is to decide whether Wharton rejects the polarization of passion and duty in favour of the “shifting relation,” even though Anna, with her characteristic either-or approach, sees the two as being in opposition.


            This, then, leaves us with a number of questions. Does Wharton share Anna’s fears that sexual passion is so likely to lead to enslavement and loss of self-control, to moral evasions and compromise, to a selfish abandonment of one’s duty to others, that in a situation of risk, such as marriage to Darrow, it should be repudiated? Or does she suggest that Anna, damaged as she has been by her upbringing, reverts to these excuses, contrary though they are to her conscious hopes for her future, out of a deeply-rooted fear of sexuality? Does she believe that the opposition of morality and sexuality, discerned by Anna, is a false one?


            A possible solution to these questions might lie in seeing Anna’s dilemma within the larger preoccupations of the novel. Anna’s idealism, with all its admirable qualities, and its readily-identifiable moral superiority to Darrow’s pragmatism, is, nevertheless, a means by which she cuts herself off from life, refuses to take risks, and attempts to substitute the aseptic safety of knowledge for experience. Its ultimate consequence is “not understanding.” And, for all the frightening consequences to which sexual passion can lead, the same is true of the refusal to take the risks that sexual involvement of the kind that Darrow offers, demands.


            But once again, certainty is elusive. At the same time, the very depth of disturbance which Anna feels, and which is conveyed so powerfully to the reader, suggests Wharton’s own involvement, and gives one cause to wonder whether, perhaps, her own personal uncertainties linger to colour the work. This may account for the intensity with which the novel invests the fear of sexual attraction and for the impression that sexual passion itself is charged with less of the novel’s energy than the passion for knowledge.


            For, although sexuality and its consequences are central to The Reef, and indeed the power of sexual passion to overwhelm the individual’s integrity in ways which are personally and morally dangerous is one of the central issues, Wharton seems unable, or unwilling, to convey any sense of the physical intensity of sex. The language is as frosty as the name of the house in which most of the action takes place, and might be the work of the earlier Wharton whose frigid life had never been warmed and shaken by an intense sexual passion. The best Wharton can do to convey sexual passion is to depend a good deal on abstraction: “they gave each other a long kiss of promise and communion” (128) combined with attempts to add concreteness by enumeration:


Deeper still than all these satisfactions was the mere elemental sense of well-being in her presence. That, after all, was what proved her to be the woman for him: the pleasure he took in the set of her head, the way her hair grew on the forehead . . .


followed by similar details of her nape, gaze, gait, gestures, face, temples, upper lips, to the final cliché (complete with ellipses): “and the way the reflections on two stars seems to form and break up in her eyes when he held her close to him . . . ”, “If he had any doubt as to the nature of her feeling for him, those dissolving stars would have allayed it” (129-130). It is true that Wharton is writing at the beginning of the twentieth, not the twenty-first century, but in the very same novel from which she quoted George Eliot’s words concerning love and duty, The Mill on the Floss, written half a century earlier, Eliot had succeeded in imbuing the relationship of Maggie and Stephen with intense sensuality.


            Furthermore, so charily is Anna’s sexual surrender (the word seems appropriate to her ambivalent state) to Darrow handled—signaled chiefly through the discreet ending of chapter 36 with the embrace in Darrow’s bedroom (343) and her subsequent sense of being “now his for life” on the following page (344)—that a critic as perceptive as Wolff is able to conclude that (unlike Wharton to whom Anna is being compared) Anna “does not have an affair.”[11] Although I believe Wolff is wrong, Wharton certainly makes it possible to miss the point.


            It is impossible to ignore one form of sexual attraction, the incestuous, that haunts The Reef. It was a subject that was to become increasingly prominent in Wharton’s  work: in Summer (1917) and several of the novels that followed it, as well as in the “Beatrice Palmato” fragment.[12] Darrow’s affair with Sophy, who will later become Owen’s fiancée, is the most obvious example. More important than the technical complexities of such a relationship (potential wife’s stepson’s potential wife) are the psychological features, particularly the stress laid on Darrow’s perception of Sophy as a child and her consequent appeal to his protective urges. There is some blurring of intent as a consequence of Wharton’s frequent references to Darrow as a “young man” throughout the opening pages. But, one the whole Wharton seems to be in control here as she examines how thinking of Sophy in this way makes it possible for Darrow to slip into the affair by justifying his stay in Paris with her as unconnected with the sexual attraction he feels. He can, pragmatically, persuade himself that her behaviour “showed she was a child after all; and all her could do—all he had ever meant to do—was to give her a child’s holiday to look back on” (72). He can even reassure himself that her appeal had been momentary, and that his feelings have “cooled to the fraternal, the almost fatherly” (53), a Darrovian attempt at precise thinking. Clearly Wharton disapproves of Darrow’s misdirection of his protective instincts, although, as the same time, it would seem from the warmth with which she evokes the initial scenes, she herself finds the blend of protectiveness and sex that she was to explore more fully in Summer, attractive.


            In the reverse case of Owen and Anna, it is less obvious that Wharton is fully aware of the qualities of the relationship she depicts. It is apparent from Anna’s account that she feels more strongly for Owen than for anyone else, including Effie, and at times, it seems, almost more than for Darrow himself. Their relationship is slippery and protean: sometimes there is an “odd, elder-brotherly note” (103) in Owen’s treatment of his stepmother, while at other times they are so close as to seem almost one person (98). Sometimes his resemblance to his father (98) suggests there is an element in their relationship of his representing the husband that Fraser Leath should have been, but at other times, although he rarely calls her mother, he seems to her to be like “her own son” (251). As lovers might, they walk together in physical harmony: “keeping step came to them as naturally as breathing” (101) and communicate wordlessly: “Was I speaking? I thought it was your eyes . . .  They’re such awfully conversational eyes” (106).


            Anna recognizes no jarring or disproportionate note in her plea to Darrow: “I’m almost Owen’s mother . . .  any estrangement between you and him would kill me;” and her  increasingly desperate attempts to ensure Owen’s happiness are no “pretext” (at least in the sense of something consciously trumped-up), to avoid making her final commitment to her lover. In the end, the younger and the older man seem almost one, caught up in the same blocked relationship with her, no longer even “beings of a different language,” but worse, completely cut off: “she saw between [herself and Darrow] the same insurmountable wall of silence as between herself and Owen, a wall of glass through which they could watch each other’s faintest motions but which no sound could ever traverse . . . ” (354).


I am not at all sure that Wharton is fully aware of the discomfiting elements in the relationship between Owen and his stepmother. Certainly she intends to suggest that Anna may be using Owen, not as a deliberately constructed “pretext” for evasion, but rather at a deeper level, out of fear of committing herself to Darrow. It is not so easy to assert that Wharton sees the more disturbing sexual elements of the relationship, and an overt exploration of the problem comparable to that which occurs with Darrow and Sophy does not take place.


Assessing Wharton’s achievement in writing The Reef is as difficult as stating with confidence what she intended. Initially she had no doubts “about the stuff” of it, as she wrote to Fullerton while still at work on it (Letters 25 June 1912, 271) and felt “it’s essential that these last chapters should be especially ripe & homogeneous (what a combination of adjectives!) (Letters 12 August 1912, 275) as she worked on the revisions. But after its publication she felt “sick about it—poor miserable lifeless lump that it is” (Letters 23 November 1912, To Bernard Berenson, 284). This may have been post-publication let-down, for the book isn’t lifeless. Rather it’s filled with too much of a certain kind of life to be bearable.


            In concluding this essay I must admit to feeling a certain kinship with William James who, though he promised “I shall very soon have a great deal to say on this point” (22), never, finally, provided any definite answers to his own rhetorical questions.[13]  And though, when Anna guesses that Owen knows about Sophy and Darrow, she “perceive[s]” “The truth had come to light by the force of its irresistible pressure; and the perception gave her a startled sense of hidden powers, of a chaos of attractions and repulsions far beneath the ordered surfaces of intercourse” (353), it is the chaos rather than the truth that seems, to me, to triumph.


I don’t believe that I can be the only reader to feel the desire to scream with frustration at Anna’s anxieties and reversals of intent—and all my attempts to find relief in philosophical analysis are to no avail in combating my desperation. Sophy may represent, after all a synthesis of pragmatism and idealism, both practical and romantically self-sacrificing, willing to protect others from painful knowledge while herself knowing all. But Sophy’s sacrifice achieves nothing, and indeed it is hard to see how it might do so given the clash between Anna’s and Darrow’s natures, a difference which no external events can remedy. William James had suggested that


What you want is a philosophy that will not only exercise your powers of intellectual abstraction, but that will make some positive connexion [sic] with this actual world of finite human lives. (26)


but clearly Wharton isn’t going to give me any such satisfaction. Pragmatism and Idealism are never going to be reconciled in the world of The Reef, and no Jamesian lecture is going to save me from the distress of those final chapters.







[1]  William James, Pragmatism (New York: New American Library, 1974), 20.

[2]  Edith Wharton, The Letters of Edith Wharton, ed R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis (New York: Scribner’s, 1988). The introduction (10-17) provides further information about the affair.

[3]  I am grateful to Brian Crick who suggested that, in my initial consideration of pragmatism in The Reef, I had underestimated its significance to the work. I should however add that, though a cliché, it is none the less true that he should not be blamed for what I have made of his suggestion.

[4]  Letters 25 June 1912, 271; 12 August 1912, 275.

[5]  Marius Bewley argued for pragmatism as a widely diffused, but specifically American, philosophy:

“Pragmatism really existed in America long before William James formulated it in an intellectual position. The whole historical situation conspired to make America into a nation of pragmatists, and all William James had to do was to take the temperature of the air around him and give it a name and definition. From the eighteenth century or earlier, Americans had remodeled ancient European reality to meet their own needs, and their sense of having done so successfully left them with a great feeling of optimism about their ability to continue remodeling in the future. The norm by which they had lived was one of the comfortable and sometimes luxurious expediency, and expediency had come, in their eyes, to be good and true.” (Marius Bewley, “The Relation between William and Henry James,” Scrutiny [1950-1]: 332). But, as an approach to life, pragmatism (like idealism) is unrestricted to time or place, and, despite Anna’s residence in a French setting, and Darrow’s position as an American diplomat, I don’t think Wharton has the European-American dichotomy in mind.

[6]  Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (New York: Scribner’s, 1964), 191.

[7]  The Custom of the Country (1913), which she worked on concurrently with The Reef, was perhaps an over-correction, covering a much larger scene. It would be with Summer (1917) and The Age of Innocence (1920), that she would regain the balance between the interior life and the demands of the society within which it was lived.

[8]  Edith Wharton, The Reef (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965), 83.

[9]  Freud’s paper on “Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Repression” was published, coincidentally, in 1908, near the start of  Edith Wharton’s affair with Fullerton. I do not know to what extent Wharton was aware of Freud’s work at this time, although about ten years after the publication of The Reef, writing to Berenson about a mutual friend, she was scathing: “Above all, please ask Mary not to befuddle her with Freudianism and all its jargon. She’d take to it like a duck to—sewerage. And what she wants is to develop the conscious, and not grub after the subconscious. She wants to be taught first to see, to attend, to reflect. (Letters 21 February 1922, 451).

[10]  Edith Wharton, “George Eliot,” Bookman 15 (May 1902): 247-51.

[11]  Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words (New York: Oxford UP, 1977), 219.

[12]  R.W.B. Lewis, Edith Wharton: a Biography (New York: Harper and Rowe, 1975), 544-8.

[13]  A characteristic of the lectures that was first pointed out to me by Brian Crick.






Menon, Pat. “‘Beings of Different Language’: Pragmatist meets Idealist in Edith Wharton’s The Reef.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 2 (December 2003)  <>