Who's Owning Who: Climbing the Social Ladder Through Manipulation in Edith Wharton's "The Other Two"

Coming from a family that lived off of inherited wealth, Edith Wharton ended up in a loveless union from the same social class. She was considered the old money that looked down on those with new money, and later in her life when divorce became more acceptable, she was able to get out of her bad marriage (Allen 40). She overcame many obstacles, including her position as a wife in high society in order to gain her desire of being a professional writer. Mirroring her own life, Alice from Wharton’s short story, “The Other Two,” had an inner strength that helped her overcome the obstacles set upon her by the oppression of men through manipulation in order to climb the social ladder.

The Strength of Alice Haskett-Varick-Waythorn

Waythorn often comments on the beautiful, feminine features of his wife. More than that, he notices the strength that she embodies. Contemporary literary critic, Frances L. Restuccia, remarked that although “…femininity in the first reading is a liability, in the second it metamorphoses into a strength” (Restuccia 224). Waythorn notes Alice’s strength, stating that “her very step would prognosticate recovery” (Wharton 221). By speaking of her in this light, Waythorn gives his wife characteristics of a healer with magical power that the illness of her daughter will be forced to obey.

He also notes that “[s]he had a way of surmounting obstacles without seeming to be aware of them” (Wharton 222). This is a sharp contrast to himself as he describes himself as being worn thin by the trivialities that have come up in his own life (Wharton 222). It is this strength over her new husband that helps her go beyond his own ability to remain the most collective of the other people whom he interacts with. He sees this as a feat, but his own ability is no match to the simple, joyful way Alice makes the meeting between all her husbands less awkward through her own easy air.

Margaret B. McDowell pointed out that “Wharton presents women who scorn furtive sexual infidelity, who seek honest relationships with men, and who learn there is no point to an affair-- or in a marriage-- from which love and commitment are absent (McDowell 524). At first, Alice is presented as a heroine figure that is able to come out of a bad marriage to find a more successful one. She learns for herself that “women can liberate themselves” (McDowell 524) with the new found power that divorce gave them to release themselves from unhappy marriages. Alice, not only exercised this power once, but twice as she searched for a relationship that she could get more out of.

It could be argued that this strength could be seen as a selfish defect of her character. This is possible since her mindset is working towards gaining money and status, but as a woman in this time period, it is seen as a strength that pushes her to be able to overcome the illness of her daughter, to overcome the potentially awkward encounter with all her husbands, and the ability to rise above what society thinks of her in order to get a divorce.

Waythorn: Oppression of his Possession

The thoughts that Waythorn expresses and the way he describes his wife show that he thought of her as nothing but a possession. Waytorn describes his “joy of possessorship” of his wife on several occasions and often refers to her as property. He said that he “held shares in his wife’s personality and his predecessors were his partners in business” (Wharton 234). He also refers to her as being “‘as easy as an old shoe’- a shoe too many feet had worn” (Wharton 234). In this way, his wife is objectified and reduced to nothing more than something he possesses; something as lowly as a shoe that has been worn out and used. Her life, actions, and personality traits are molded to fit what he desires and becomes nothing more than what these men have constructed her to be. In doing this, he suppresses his wife by not seeing her as an equal. He doesn’t see her as something that is able to manipulate him, because he is the one that owns and influences her, his possession.

Another possession he is shown to dislike sharing is his house. He despises the fact that Mr.Haskett “had as much right to enter as himself” (Wharton 224). This parallels the way he feels about sharing his wife. Now that he has married her he thinks of her as his possession, but as he realizes that she still shares part of her life with these other men, he immediately resents their connection. This connection takes away some of his ownership and lessens his ‘possessorship’ of her. He grows to accept the presence of these men in his wife’s life, as he becomes more comfortable with Haskett’s presence in his home. At the end of the story, he realizes and accepts the fact that he must have shared possession of his wife with these two other men.

As a possession, Alice is forced to act a certain way in order to mold herself to conform to the standards set by men. Wharton’s “concern with the social pressures placed upon women, the rigid expectations of others with respect to them and the complex choices which confront them” led her to believe that a woman “must exist as a conventionally feminine presence in order to be seen sympathetically as a ‘new woman’” (McDowell 524). In “The Other Two” Alice asks her husband, what he refers to as, the “feminine questions of the office” and then resumes to tell him about the “trivial” activities of her day. Waythorn sees this as Alice’s way of showing him how happy she is to be with him and share these little womanly pieces of her (Wharton 226). According to Wharton, Alice acts this way in order to deal with the social pressures put upon her to act more feminine. This results in her ability to manipulate her outward appearance in order to appear as expected and to successfully accomplish her ambitions.

Social Climbing Through Manipulation

Restuccia observed that “Wharton’s feminism reflects a tension very much alive in contemporary feminist theory: the apparent incommensurability of a social, humanist feminism that advances a position” (224). In other words, Wharton often tied feminism to the ability to advance in circumstance through climbing the social ladder. Each time that Alice remarried, she was able to further her status. She started with the poor and humble Mr. Haskett, climbed higher to highly regarded socially but poor Mr. Varick, and even higher to the social and well-off Mr.Waythorn. The text stated that “Alice Haskett’s remarriage with Gus Varick was a passport to the set whose recognition she coveted” (Wharton 221), but she later ended it due to a “lack of funds” (Wharton 228). This showed that she had plans in mind every time she married or decided to divorce. Alice used each man to advance her situation and her ambitions.

This is also shown in the stark contrast between the homes she lived in with each husband. Waythorn says that “from the man’s appearance and manner of speech he could reconstruct with curious precision the surroundings of Alice’s first marriage (Wharton 230)”. Waythorn remarks that Haskett had a shabby hat and umbrella and a “made-up tie attached with an elastic (Wharton 230)”.  From these things, Waythorn pictures a life for Alice quite different for the one that he has brought to her. Waythorn describes his drawing room filled with a mantelpiece and lots of chairs (226). All of these things give hints to a life that is much better than the life that Mr. Haskett had to offer Alice. The juxtaposition of these two men and lifestyles shows a disparity between money, proving a social climb taking place with Alice.

To climb this social ladder, Alice progresses through the manipulation of others. She allows others to believe that she had been “rescued” from Mr. Haskett, thus gaining reputation by helping society accept her divorce (Wharton 223). After Waythorn meets the humble Mr. Haskett, he realizes that he “...had been allowed to infer that Alice’s first husband was a brute” (Wharton 229) and is forced to ponder on the idea of his wife having been the cause for the divorce. He realizes that she had “shed the shade of existence which the marriage with Haskett” had brought upon her and had been replaced with one that was better off and more suitable to the social climate she lust after (Wharton 228). Through manipulating others’ perceptions of her previous marriage, she was able to gain sympathy as she divorced and remarried in a time when this action was looked down upon.

She continues to manipulate others’ through portraying emotions that will help her achieve her goals. This especially influences Waythorn’s reactions as he sees his wife’s emotions come out. For example, when she receives Mr. Haskett’s letter, she appears to Waythorn as miserable and distressed. Seeing her reaction, he accepts the fate of having this man in their house. This causes her entire demeanor to change to that of happiness and pleasure (Wharton 223). This immediate change of emotion, occurring after her request came about, shows how Alice was able to play on her husband’s reactions in order to have her plea accepted.

Another peak into Alice’s true character happens when Mr. Haskett asks Waythorn to talk to her about firing Lily’s nanny. Automatically, a “flame of anger” came about her and then her nature subdued to merely being caused by an “outrage of motherhood” (Wharton 232), as she tries to cover up her emotions to take the upper hand in the situation. Her claws come out as she calls his actions “ungentlemanly” and states “[i]t’s not as if he can be a help to Lily” (Wharton 232). Here again, her reaction changes to one that she deems would be more conducive for her to get her way. “[Waythorn] saw that she expected him to regard her as a victim” (Wharton 233). He realizes that being a gentleman has nothing to do with it and begins to speculate that his wife had only received custody of their daughter because the law often gave it to the mother. Observing the changes in his wife’s emotions and attitude helps him begin to understand that she is working to manipulate his response.

Ironically, Waythorn notes that he “always refused to recognize unpleasant contingencies till he found himself confronted with them and then he saw them followed by a spectral train of consequences” (Wharton 232). Waythorn purposely chooses to ignore the manipulation until things come up that show his “possession” has worked to manipulate his thinking and decisions. Then, the consequences become clear that he is joint owner to this woman’s past, with her other two husbands, on her way to the top of the social ladder. What he has seen as being feminine and beautiful comes into focus as being a feminine strength and manipulation that only makes him think that he owns her. Alice, in return, continues to march up the social ladder through the manipulation of the different men in her life. Seen in a self-centered light, Alice does not help better the position for woman or humble men towards a feminist plight. Instead her actions work to manipulate men for her own selfish gain through her ability to overcome the ‘possessorship’ of her husband. On the other hand, Edith Wharton was able to overcome her own obstacles to become a professional writer. She used this position to write stories about the problems in the social class and to aid the cause of the Allies in World War I. Although Alice showed a side of woman working to overcoming obstacles for their own gain, Wharton showed in her own life the ability to overcome obstacles to better the cause for others. 

Works Cited

Allen, Brooke. Twentieth Century Attitudes: Literary Power in Uncertain Times. 1st ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publishing, 2003.

McDowell, Margaret B.. "Viewing the Custom of Her Country: Edith Wharton's Feminism." Contemporary Literature 15(1974): 521-531.

Restuccia, Frances L. . "The Name of the Lily: Edith Wharton's Feminism." Contemporary Literature 28(1987): 223-238.

Wharton, Edith. "The Other Two." American Literature. Comp. William E. Cain. New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc, 2004.