Friday, March 23, 2012

Blogging The Reef: Book 4

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

Sophy steps out
One of the recurring claims you see in criticism of this novel is that it is a pity we are not given any access to Sophy Viners's interior life. Generally the claim is a moral one: that Wharton has slighted poor Sophy by giving the two higher class characters (Anna and George) an interior life and denying Sophy one. But she has done no such thing: Sophy has an interior life, we are just not given special access to it.

If anyone is guilty of snobbery here it is the critics who won't see that a woman like Sophy could have an inner life without a novelist having to tell us what it is.

More importantly, however, the novel simply would not work any other way. This is the case for two reasons.

The first is that we get a surprise from Sophy in book 4. She does something that we might have guessed but couldn't have know for sure. It is a revelation about her feelings for George and her choices as a consequence. And it is magnificently done: Sophy's actions are both a surprise but also within her character. It's a surprise and yet it makes perfect sense when it happens. If Wharton had been telling us what Sophy had been thinking leading up to it there would be no revelation.

The second issue is moral and, I think, one of the central themes of the novel. There are things that are acceptable in love and there are things that are not. George Darrow has behaved in a callous way towards Sophy. What did he do wrong? He has not paid sufficient attention to her interior life and, paradoxical as this may sound, it is absolutely necessary that we not have any privileged access to that interior life ourselves in order to appreciate this.

What I mean is this: we can figure out other people's interior lives without having access to their thoughts. In fact, that is the only access we do have outside of novels. Sit in a coffeeshop and discretely check out someone you don't know. Study their face and their actions and ask yourself how much you know of their interior life.

That is how we deal with other people all the time. As lovers we have to be aware of our loved one's interior life from what we can outwardly observe. To fail to do this is a sin. We can make mistakes, of course, but it is not acceptable to fail to try and understand their secret feelings and desires.

Now you may be tempted to say you can't be sure of anything but that is always the case. But there are lots of things we cannot know with 100 percent certainty that we nevertheless know. And his outward reading is how we decide how to treat people. If we go back and read book one carefully, we will see lots of evidence that George's kindness to Sophy is having a very profound effect on her.

And then he has sex with her. It shouldn't have come as  surprise to him that she has feelings, very profound feelings for her. But it did.

Why? Because George is a consumer of persons. He is someone who treats people as means and not as ends.

He's not a monster. He's a lot like you and me in fact. The depth of Wharton's moral charge here is against modern morality in general as much as it is against George. (And it is, as I have said before, a far more convincing portrait and charge than what Henry James gives us in The Wings of the Dove.

 Part 2 tomorrow whoops make that Monday. Busy weekend.

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