The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Sexual Purity and Relentless Indecision in Wharton’s The Reef


Sarah Emsley



Pat Menon writes in her essay “‘Beings of a Different Language’: Pragmatist Meets Idealist in Edith Wharton’s The Reef” (The New Compass 2 [2003]) that she suspects herself of a “wish to shield [herself] from the endless anxieties experienced by the characters, or, at a further remove, from Wharton’s own despair.” While the anxieties of Anna Leath and the protestations of her suitor George Darrow do indeed seem endless, I question the conclusion that the ending of The Reef represents Wharton’s own despair. Menon makes several excellent points about the novel’s structure (especially the parallel scenes of introduction, of Darrow as a man of action and Anna as a contemplative character), Anna’s fear of sexual experience, and the question of whether desire can mediate between pragmatism and idealism; however, her analysis of the ending of the novel suggests, wrongly, I think, that Wharton was not in control of her material. She says that “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 conclusion returns to the biographical model of criticism invoked at the beginning of the essay, where Menon states that “By the time of the publication of The Reef in 1912,” Wharton’s affair with the “compulsive Casanova” Morton Fullerton “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.” It’s quite possible that Wharton’s composition of The Reef (and indeed, of many of her subsequent novels) was influenced by the passionate sexual affair she had with Fullerton, but to assert that the novel was built on that experience is to overemphasize the directness of the relation between fiction and life.


            The co-incidence of the end of the affair with Fullerton and the publication of The Reef is not sufficient to link the two stories definitively, and we should allow Wharton what we allow other writers—the benefit of our faith in her imaginative powers to create characters and situations beyond her immediate experience. In doing so, we leave open the possibility that the ending of the novel is not simply an autobiographical expression of misery and despair, but a carefully constructed representation of the problem of making a definitive moral choice.


            Menon is right to claim that the novel does much more than show both Anna and Sophy learning that “women do not live in a fairytale.” Her use of the work of William James to illuminate the contrasts between pragmatism and idealism in the novel is a very helpful investigation of the complex philosophical themes Wharton explores through her fiction. But in addition to criticizing the double standard of sexual innocence as it is applied to women, and in addition to contrasting two ideological positions, Wharton both experiments with the idea that men ought to be held to a higher standard of sexual purity, and suggests, finally, that reconciling idealism and pragmatism may be impossible.


            In one of the many scenes in which Anna agonizes over whether or not she can ever be with Darrow now that she knows the secret of the sexual affair with Sophy Viner, which he dismisses as “a moment’s folly … a flash of madness” (Edith Wharton, The Reef [New York: Scribner, 1996] 268), she is torn between thinking objectively about the situation and feeling desire for the fallen man she had idealized. She wishes the secret had never come out: “suddenly she was filled with anger at her blindness, and then at her disastrous attempt to see” (295). Her scruples get the better of her for a while again, and then the next day she recovers from her doubts, remembering that “Darrow had said: ‘You were made to feel everything’; and to feel was surely better than to judge” (299). The excruciating changes of Anna’s mind are due to the conflict between feeling and judging.


            She “resolved […] to marry Darrow and never let the consciousness of the past intrude itself between them; but she was beginning to think that the only way of attaining to this state of detachment from the irreparable was once for all to turn back with him to its contemplation” (300). Anna is driven relentlessly onward in her desire to ask “Had such things happened to him before?” After another sleepless night, she decides that “she must snatch herself out of the torpor of the will into which she had been gradually sinking, and tell Darrow that she could not be his wife” (305). While “passionate reactions of instinct fought against these efforts of her will,” “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” (306). It is when she turns to the example of Sophy that she thinks she can see her way more clearly.


            She confronts Darrow with the question, “‘Do such things happen to men often?’” (310). He has urged her to look at life as it really is, and that’s exactly what she’s trying to do. Her curiosity, now that she has started to look, makes her ask something she doesn’t really want to discuss. And his reluctance to tell her about life as it really is means that all he can say is “‘I don’t know what happens to other men. Such a thing never happened to me…’” (310). What he means here is, such an adventure never happened to me before. What she is asking is, has he had sexual affairs before. Menon is certainly right that they don’t speak the same language. Darrow has had affairs before—his feeling of “ownership” of Lady Ulrica Crispin (31) is evidence that his affair with Sophy is not the first. This question of male sexual honour is something that Anna has never thought of before. Now that she is looking at life, she actually wants to know: do unmarried men, even seemingly honorable unmarried men such as Darrow, have sex? It’s a simple question, really, and he is the one who has said she should learn to look at such things without hypocrisy.


            Anna learns to see reality beyond the fairytale ideal of male and female sexual purity, but she continues to hold both men and women to a high standard of sexual and ethical conduct. In showing Anna’s insistence on knowing whether, and why, men conduct sexual affairs, Wharton inverts the double standard and proposes an unconventional, yet still feminist, argument. Instead of suggesting that women should be judged as men are, permitted all the freedoms that men enjoy, Wharton raises the question of whether men should instead be held to the same standard of sexual purity that they expect of women. Darrow would be appalled to find that Anna had had a casual affair, yet he hopes, even expects, that she will overlook the one he had with the woman Anna later hired as a governess for her daughter. I don’t mean to suggest that Wharton necessarily agrees that male sexual honour should be held to Anna’s ideal standards, but I think she does enjoy inverting convention by focusing primarily on the problem of Darrow’s fallen state.


            Anna struggles with the question of whether to forgive Darrow for having the affair when he was on his way to see her and for having kept his secret until the observations of Owen (her stepson and also Sophy’s fiancé) brought it to light. She cannot quite bring herself to put his past behind her, and she is keenly aware that her future relations with him will also have an effect on Owen and her daughter Effie. As Menon suggests, “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.” Over and over again, Anna thinks she has made her choice, first to give him up forever, then that they must marry because she cannot live without him. It may seem that Wharton’s method of sending her characters back and forth for endless confrontations throughout the second half of the novel is excessive. The technique, however, imitates the struggle of the mind between warring impulses and judgements. There is something relentless about this series of interviews, and, I would argue, the relentlessness is the point.


            In her essay, Menon objects that “certainty is elusive,” but instead of examining why that might be within the context of the novel, she concludes that the uncertainties in the narrative may be due to Wharton’s “personal uncertainties.” She writes that “it is the chaos rather than the truth that seems, to me, to triumph,” and that Wharton is not going to provide the reader with the satisfaction of closure: “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.” Darrow’s pragmatism and Anna’s idealism are irreconcileable, and there is no ultimate scene of reunion or forgiveness. Sexual desire has thus far proven inadequate to bridge the divide between their two worlds, no matter how much either character has hoped that it will help.


            In the last pages of the novel, Anna determines to visit Sophy: “She would seek the girl out and tell her that she had given Darrow up” (328). She traces Sophy to the apartment of Sophy’s sister Laura at the Hotel Chicago—but there she encounters a strange scene in “a dim untidy scented room” with a “Larger, blonder” version of Sophy (331-32). Laura tells her that “‘Sophy went away last night’” (333), and it turns out that she has gone to India, with her previous employer, Mrs. Murrett. Anna thanks her and turns to leave. This scene is the end of the novel, and we have no further access to Anna’s thoughts.


            Does this scene suggest that Anna can dismiss the idea that Sophy is more honorable, because she can now see Sophy as a fallen woman, potentially like her vulgar sister? Or does the fact that Sophy is really gone confirm that she has held to a higher path? The last thing we know is that Anna has determined to give Darrow up once and for all. Will she? Even if she doesn’t, she hasn’t forgiven him, and they are locked in an endless struggle between feeling and understanding because the sexual jealousy persists. Anna can’t quite understand, doesn’t want to understand, doesn’t want to be complicit, but doesn’t want to be alone. Darrow maintains that his actions are understandable, and that it’s just that she doesn’t understand how life really is. The situation is hopeless. No one can forget, or forgive. Sophy leaves, determined to remember. Owen leaves, haunted by what he suspects. Anna stays, haunted by what she knows, and Darrow stays, plagued by the fact that the secret ever came out to destroy his second chance with Anna, and yet persisting in the belief that he was not wrong.


            Menon argues that “The ugliness of the conclusion […] 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 of escaping from the suite, make it impossible to forecast what Anna’s subsequent reaction will be, although there is nothing to suggest it will not be a repetition of past oscillations.” In fact, it seems likely that it will be a repetition of the struggle between pragmatism and idealism. If we are to fault Wharton for anything in the ending of The Reef, perhaps we should criticize her for maintaining the strict separation of her hero and heroine as ideological types. The conclusion of The Reef is inconclusive not because of Wharton’s personal despair, or because she doesn’t know how to resolve the conflict, but because, as an artist, she is interested in the problems of ethical indeterminacy, and she shows how some dilemmas may be simply unresolveable. Sooner or later Anna will have to make a choice, but even if they do marry, she may decide later that it was the wrong choice, and the vacillation may continue. Choice in the short term may be possible, but we cannot know whether a given choice will endure, and Wharton’s novel presents us with the uncomfortable possibility that choices are never as fixed as we think they are. Life continues beyond the last chapter, tense, chaotic, and, in this case, indefinable indefinitely.






Emsley, Sarah. “Sexual Purity and Relentless Indecision in Wharton’s The Reef: A Reply to Pat Menon.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 3 (June 2004) <>