Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Getting caught up on The Reef

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

There has been a slight break because I picked up another book, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and got caught up in it. Much to my surprise.

Anyway, a few thoughts on Book three of The Reef before moving on.

There is something that looks like the turning point in the novel in Book 3 and something that actually is. The thing that looks like the turning point is the arrival of Adelaide Painter. Adelaide is a magnificent character worthy of Dickens. She seems to turn everything around.

We know better though because book three ends like a Shakespeare comedy with two marriages planned and everyone happy. Why do we know better? Because there is a thick handful of pages on our right still so we know there is a lot of book left. Something will go wrong if only to fill up the rest of the story. It may only be temporary as far as we know now; perhaps we will get hijinks and much hilarity before everything reverts to happiness again? Who knows?

What we do know is that someone has done something that will cause it all to gang aft gley. That someone is our buddy George Darrow and the thing he has done, the more significant turning point, is his conversation with Sophy in which he tried to sow seeds of doubt in her mind about her proposed marriage to Owen. You really want to read this one for yourself. George Darrow doesn't want that marriage to take place but the cards he has to play are extremely limited, What is he going to do? The answer to that is quite chilling.

A solution for society
But why does George want to stop the marriage? For most modern readers that is the real puzzle. We can appreciate that it would make him uncomfortable given his own behaviour but why does he have this righteous sense that it ought not to be allowed? He has no problems with his own marriage going ahead and his behaviour has been at least as bad as Sophy's and arguably worse.

The answer is, or at least seems, obvious. He feels this way because he is committed to some old-fashioned ideas about women and marriages. And that is true enough but it doesn't go far enough. For what makes George and Anna different from you and me is that they both see marriage as involving much more than just the two people getting married. A marriage is a social occasion and its impacts on multiple people need to be considered. And I don't mean here that they just worry about whether other people will object, they also want make sure a marriage is beneficial and not harmful to others.

And thus the root of George's old-fashioned considerations. He thinks that Owen marrying Sophy will harm multiple people in his circle.

And don't think that he thinks this way because he doesn't understand how other people feel. Read the conversation he has with Sophy and think about the tactic he uses to try and shake her away from Owen. It's chilling, as I say, and one of the reasons it is so chilling is because his insight into her character is so penetrating.

What he fails to see, is just how far-reaching his meddling will be just as he has failed to see how much of an impact his having had sex with Sophy had on her in the first place.

And don't hate George. I know, I keep saying this. But George is so much like us. For him morality is ultimately a matter of personal preference and moral argument is just a matter of trying to sway others to his moral preferences. That is the way most people think now.

The flip side is more complicated. On the surface it seems obvious.

In chapter 21, George and Anna have a conversation about the efforts she wants him to make and is making herself to try and help clear Owen's way to marry Sophy. A complex project because Anna wants to do it in a way such that the boy's grandmother will also be happy. George expresses unhappiness that Anna should need to be so involved in other's lives. Now, the irony here is that George is just as involved. The difference is, at lest as Wharton has the story unfold here, the reasons they each have to feel involved. George is involved because it is in his interest to be involved. Anna is involved because she genuinely cares about the happiness of others.
This did not seem to Darrow to simplify his case as much as she appeared to think; and once more he had a movement of recoil. "There's no possible reason for my being mixed up in this affair!"

Anna gave him a reproachful glance. "Not the fact that I am?" she reminded him; but even this only stiffened his resistance.

"Why should you be, either--to this extent?"

The question made her pause. She glanced about the hall, as if to be sure they had it to themselves; and then, in a lowered voice: "I don't know," she suddenly confessed; "but, somehow, if they're not happy I feel as if we shouldn't be."

"Oh, well--" Darrow acquiesced, in the tone of the man who perforce yields to so lovely an unreasonableness. Escape was, after all, impossible, and he could only resign himself to being led to Madame de Chantelle's door.
And we are entirely on Anna's side when we read that. It seems like perhaps Edith Wharton must have been too.  If we remember our Jane Austen, we will know that the most important virtue for Austen is to be amiable. And Austen makes an important distinction between merely being polite and genuinely amiable, the latter requiring us to actually have affection for other human beings. And reading the above we might easily conclude that Anna has genuine amiability and George does not.

But should we be? Is Anna really any better than George? For you can wish others to be happy for all sorts of reasons. We might consider young Effie and ask whether Anna's concern for her is enough. Anna clearly wants her daughter to be happy but she wants her to be happy so she can run away to South America with her soon-to-be new husband. Is her concern for Effie genuine love or is just a desire to make everyone happy so she can do what she wants?

How different is Anna from George after all? And did Wharton herself see that as a potential issue?

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