Friday, March 30, 2012

Wrapping up The Reef: Life's just a perpetual piecing together of broken bits

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

This is the penultimate post on this. The remaining one will be a bit of oddball speculation about Catholicism in The Reef and in The Wings of the Dove.

It's an interesting twist on conventional plotting that both Book 3 and Book 4 end with a  sense of completion. Typically, the last scene of a middle book leaves at least a sense of something unresolved so you want to keep reading. Not in the case—the novel could have ended with either. If it wrapped up with Book 3 it would have been a happy ending. If it wrapped up with Book 4 it would have been a sad ending. And we go into Book 5 wondering which it will be.

I don't want to spoil it so just a few things you might want to look for.

Pay attention to the larger social picture. In our modern individualist understanding of marriage, it's up to the two people getting married and everyone else be damned. For the characters of this book—like the characters of any classic English novel—marriage is also an issue for first a family and then the larger society.  In Book 3, we saw how George's vision of social order led him to conspire against the marriage of Sophy an Owen. In book 5, one of the big issues for Anna in deciding whether she will accept George after all is the happiness of Owen and Effie.

Does Anna know what she wants? That has been a major, if not the major theme of the book. Here is a simple question: Does Anna ever make a  decision and, if you think she does, can you find the moment where she makes the decision?

There is moment in The Philadelphia Story where Tracy learns that Mike had not, contrary to what everyone had worried, taken advantage of her sexually when she was drunk.  She is both relieved that he didn't and demanding to know why not. Anna never gets drunk nor says anything quite that shocking but the sentiment is there. Watch for the moments when it happens.

The Wings of the Dove makes a big thing of willful renunciation as a way of absolving our sins. Wharton holds out the possibility here too but never allows it. It never works for anyone. Watch for it.

Another parallel with The Philadelphia Story: In the movie, Dexter tells Tracy she'll never be a complete human being until she can understand human frailty. George says something very similar to Anna in Chapter 32 of this book.
What I meant was that when you've lived a little longer you'll see what complex blunderers we all are: how we're struck blind sometimes, and mad sometimes—and then, when our sight and our senses come back, how we have to set to work, and build up, little by little, bit by bit, the precious things we'd smashed to atoms without knowing it. Life's just a perpetual piecing together of broken bits."

She looked up quickly. "That's what I feel: that you ought to----"

He stood up, interrupting her with a gesture. "Oh, don't—don't say what you're going to! Men don't give their lives away like that. If you won't have mine, it's at least my own, to do the best I can with."
"The best you can—that's what I mean! How can there be a 'best' for you that's made of some one else's worst?"

He sat down again with a groan. "I don't know! It seemed such a slight thing--all on the surface—and I've gone aground on it because it was on the surface. I see the horror of it just as you do. But I see, a little more clearly, the extent, and the limits, of my wrong. It's not as black as you imagine."
Anna is hinting here that George could make it right by marrying Sophy. George, who embodies a more modern morality approaching our own, thinks he and Anna should be able to patch it up and thinks she needs to accept—to have more regard for—human frailty.

That last paragraph also includes the closest moment we get towards explaining the significance of the title for the thing George would have gone aground on would be a reef. That's what a reef is, something invisible just below the surface.  But what exactly did George go aground on?

And Anna. She too is aground. She keeps trying to move forward but she is stuck firmly on something. What?

Final thought
As I've pointed out: Wharton's own sexual experience was closer to Sophy's than to Anna's even though Anna's biography and social standing is much closer to hers. There are, of course, obvious reasons why a woman of Wharton's position wouldn't want anyone to identify her with a character who'd had an adventure. But she read this novel to the man she'd had the affair with and he would have known.

What George confesses to having done to Sophy is what Morton Fullerton did to Edith Wharton. He gave her the sexual and emotional satisfaction she'd wanted all her life and, like Sophy,  she could believe it was happening to her and she fell madly in love. And he tired of her. (By the way, it's painful to read the great novelist's love letters to Morton because Wharton is so much his student, as if she knew nothing of life until he showed her.)

Okay, keeping that in mind, could one (hidden) message in the novel be quite the opposite of what everyone assumes. Read it without knowing about Morton Fullerton and you might, as many critics do, see pure condemnation of George. But Sophy gets something loving and losing and so did Wharton. Could this have been Wharton's way of saying, "Anna Leath is what I would have become without you?"

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