Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Blogging the Reef: It is time to speak of Sophy

(To read all posts about The Reef click here.)

There is a persistent strain in the criticism of this book that Edith Wharton is not fair to Sophy Viner. For much of the twentieth century it was common to suggest that Wharton looked down on Sophy and that her purpose to indict Sophy for snobbish reasons.

Since the 1980s, we have known better than to make that mistake because we now know that the Sophy's affair is based on one that Wharton herself had with a journalist named Morton Fullerton. Far from looking down on Sophy, Wharton identifies with her. And yet the sense remains that Sophy is not treated fairly in the novel. Why?

I think the current sense that there is something unfair in the treatment of Sophy derives from the feeling that Wharton has refused to allow Sophy to tell her own story. Meaning that we never get inside her head. There is never any free indirect speech telling us what Sophy thinks. So everything we learn about her comes through the consciousness of others. And there are very good reasons to doubt the motives of those others.

And yet, Sophy Viner remains a compelling and likeable character. In fact, she is easily the most likeable character in the book. This is a sad story entirely because of her. The other characters in this novel may have it hard but we never feel that any of them have had it harder than they deserve nor do we worry that they won't manage to pull through. Sophy Viner, on the other hand, will haunt you if you read this book. You'll wish you could meet her and help somehow.

So, no, Wharton is not unfair to her. Quite the contrary. And rather than ask whether Wharton should have let Sophy tell her story, I'd suggest that the real challenge to us is: Can we treat Sophy as an end and not a means? For all the other characters, especially George Darrow but also Anna Leath and even Owen Leath, treat her as a means to achieve some end of their own.

And let's talk some more about George because he has an interesting history. As I said above, the affair Sophy has is based on one that Wharton herself had with a man named Morton Fullerton. He has come up before on the blog. For Morton was Merton. Henry James based Merton Densher on Morton Fullerton. And that makes for an interesting contrast in itself. For James's Merton is a relatively moral character compared to Kate Croy who is a consumer of persons. Wharton's George Darrow is very much a consumer of persons with regards to Sophy.

Whose name, oddly enough, means wisdom. That could be an accident in that Wharton just needed a girls name and she liked the sound of Sophy but I don't think so.

A couple of things to note. Tragedy makes its appearance again and that, I think, should have us thinking of the contrast between this modern sad story and tragedy. Lily Bart's story is a tragedy but Sophy's is just sad. And, somehow that makes it worse.

Darrow, not surprisingly, wants to see her life in tragic terms. That, of course, is right in character as then she could be a purely aesthetic object, a means for his pleasure and not an end in her own right. (And I ask you, isn't that exactly what Merton tries to do with Milly Theale?)

Let's wrap up with a little erotic voyeurism as is only appropriate for the day after Valentine's.

The influence of Keats' The Eve of St. Agnes on Wharton's Ethan Frome is much discussed but I don't that anyone has noted the reference to it here. George is sitting in his room, which adjoins hers, and he listens to her moving and imagines what he might see if he were in her room (it's a sort of auditory voyeurism):
Now and then a sound from her room brought before him more vividly the reality of the situation and the strangeness of the vast swarming solitude in which he and she were momentarily isolated, amid long lines of rooms each holding its separate secret. The nearness of all these other mysteries enclosing theirs gave Darrow a more intimate sense of the girl's presence, and through the fumes of his cigar his imagination continued to follow her to and fro, traced the curve of her slim young arms as she raised them to undo her hair, pictured the sliding down of her dress to the waist and then to the knees, and the whiteness of her feet as she slipped across the floor to bed...
That ellipsis is in the original. The source for that is this:

Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
  Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
  Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
  Loosens her fragrant boddice; by degrees
  Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:       
  Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
  Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
  In fancy, fair St. Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.

And the affair is not unlike Porphyro and Madeline in some ways.

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