Monday, March 12, 2012

Blogging the Reef: Speak now or forever hold your peace

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

This novel, as many others have noted before me, seems the most classicist of all the Wharton novels. The story arc is symmetrical reaching its peak here in book three; at the centre of the story. And it is a notable trait of classicist fiction that it doesn't pull any tricks on you. When we read the following in the middle of a classicist novel, we know things are about to go badly:
Anna Leath, from the terrace, watched the return of the little group.

She looked down on them, as they advanced across the garden, from the serene height of her unassailable happiness. There they were, coming toward her in the mild morning light, her child, her step-son, her promised husband: the three beings who filled her life.
No one now expects this to end happily for Anna. The mystery is not whether it will go wrong or even, for that matter, what will go wrong, but how it will go wrong.

And it's all up to George for now.

I put the old Anglican admonition to speak now or forever hold your peace in the title. That is quite literally George Darrow's predicament regarding the announcement of the engagement between Owen and Sophy. At first he doesn't speak but he makes this choice from base motives. He is driven by shame.

Here is a question: How would Darrow have behaved if he had been motivated primarily by guilt rather than primarily by shame? Would he have rushed to Anna and confessed all? That would require some real confession from Darrow but it would also put a burden on her to forgive him, or not. It certainly wouldn't make her happy.

Another option would have been for him to gently remove himself, tell Anna that he couldn't marry and make a great renunciation in the name of ... well, in the name of something. But what?

Being a classicist novel, the marriage that Anna wants is about more than just she and George. She wants a marriage that makes a social statement and has social implications just as the marriages of Pamella to Mr. B and Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy do. George could renounce his happiness on the grounds that his own behaviour has made him unworthy of her. In that case the great renunciation would mean something.

Except you can't quite picture our buddy Darrow doing that can you? It's not that he is unaware of the possibility. It just would never occur to him to do it. So all he can do is see the unhappiness that such a thing would cause and think it is better to keep quiet so as to ensure happiness. He behaves like a classical hero in being driven by shame and honour and accepting fate but he is no hero. And, as I have said before, don't dismiss or hate him on those grounds. Are we so different? Would we renounce our shot at a happy marriage on the grounds that our previous behaviour had compromised any real value such a marriage might have?

Darrow cannot, as it turns out, be quite so calm about Sophy's proposed marriage. And that is odd  given how, in Chapter 17, he remembers the affair.
The essential cheapness of the whole affair--as far as his share in it was concerned--came home to him with humiliating distinctness. He would have liked to be able to feel that, at the time at least, he had staked something more on it, and had somehow, in the sequel, had a more palpable loss to show. But the plain fact was that he hadn't spent a penny on it; which was no doubt the reason of the prodigious score it had since been rolling up. At any rate, beat about the case as he would, it was clear that he owed it to Anna--and incidentally to his own peace of mind--to find some way of securing Sophy Viner's future without leaving her installed at Givre when he and his wife should depart for their new post.
Notice the sense that he ought to have made some sort of sacrifice for it but is aware that it cost him nothing and that heightens his shame. The shame he remembers is his own, not hers.

And yet, he cannot accept the marriage. What upsets him? Again, it is honour and shame. In his view, a woman of Sophy's stature cannot marry Owen. He wishes her a happy life but he wishes her this happy life in her own place.

And that is an interesting sub-theme of the novel: men who cling to convention as a greater moral value than the rightness or wrongness of their own conduct. Fraser Leath, for all his anarchist tendencies, was a conventionalist beneath it all. George might be disheartened to realize how much he has in common with his predecessor.

Except that he never will realize for he never asks himself questions about the ends of life. He only cares about means.

He is also, as I've noted before, fatalistic. In Chapter 19, now fully informed of Owen and Sophy's intentions, he tosses and turns wondering what to do. All he knows is that he wants to stop this marriage. He doesn't even know why for, to know that, he'd have to seriously examine ends. The problem, by the way is NOT that he is not self aware enough to notice it. When he first learns of the marriage, he goes fora  walk in the storm:
In respect of his own attitude, he saw at once that the discovery made no appreciable change. If he had been bound to silence before, he was no less bound to it now; the only difference lay in the fact that what he had just learned had rendered his bondage more intolerable. Hitherto he had felt for Sophy Viner's defenseless state a sympathy profoundly tinged with compunction. But now he was half-conscious of an obscure indignation against her. Superior as he had fancied himself to ready-made judgments, he was aware of cherishing the common doubt as to the disinterestedness of the woman who tries to rise above her past.
"Superior as he was" he still resents Sophy rising above her state. And he is half conscious of an obscure indignation towards Sophy. Why isn't he fully conscious? Because he'd never ask the question. As far as he is concerned, he and Sophy are in clear different categories. He remains what he is even though he had an affair with her. She only confirms for him what she always was by having the affair.

I opened this with the suggest that this novel seems classicist. George Darrow behaves like a classical figure. He is the one whom, if this novel really were classicist, we should expect to face the tragic end and would redeem himself by making a great renunciation for the greater good. That is, in fact, exactly what Merton Densher (based on the same real-life model) does in The Wings of the Dove. It is most emphatically not the sort of thing we should expect from George Darrow.

Here is a thought. It is quite likely that Morris Fullerton was the lover of both Henry James and Edith Wharton. Who knew him better?

Or if, like me, you don't like that sort of autobiographical question, who understood the morality of men like George, Merton and Morris better? I'd say Wharton wins that one. In The Wings of the Dove, Henry James reveals himself as an old-fashioned romantic fool when he has Merton make his great renunciation. in The Reef Wharton gets it right. This is what trying to re-embrace that sort of classicist tragic ideal really gets you. Far from being in the thrall of the old master, The Reef is Wharton's refutation of his work.

George Darrow never makes a real moral decision. After he tosses and turns, George embraces fate:
When at last he fell asleep he had fatalistically committed his next step to the chances of the morrow.

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