26 pages 52 minutes read

Edith Wharton

The Other Two

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1904

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Summary: “The Other Two”

Edith Wharton’s short story “The Other Two,” published in The Descent of Man in 1904, is an ironic exploration of marriage and divorce. Mr. Waythorn, a rich New York stockbroker, and Mrs. Alice Waythorn, twice divorced, are newlyweds. While divorce is stigmatized at the time, society has excused Alice’s divorces and approves of her new marriage to Mr. Waythorn. Yet Mr. Waythorn soon finds out that he has not fully understood the consequences of his wife’s divorces. Neither of them can escape Alice’s two earlier marriages, as they find themselves caught in situations involving the lives of her two ex-husbands, “the other two.”

Part 1

Mr. and Mrs. Waythorn have cut their honeymoon short due to the illness of Lily Haskett, Mrs. Alice Waythorn’s daughter from her first marriage to Mr. Haskett. The narrator provides limited background on Alice’s first marriage; society had “excused” her divorce since she married so young and “as nothing was known of Mr. Haskett it was easy to believe the worst of him” (Part 1). As for her second marriage to Gus Varick, society excused this divorce as well since “even Varick’s staunchest supporters admitted that he was not meant for matrimony” (Part 1).

Alice’s third marriage to Waythorn caused a “momentary reaction. Her best friends would have preferred to see her remain in the role of the injured wife” (Part 1). In addition to the concern raised by the multiple marriages is Waythorn’s temperament itself, he had “somewhat unstable sensibilities” (Part 1).

At the beginning of the story, when Waythorn awaits his wife’s arrival for dinner, he expects her to arrive with her usual calm, optimistic demeanor. He is concerned when he sees her upset, thinking her daughter’s illness is worse than feared. But her concern is over the fact that her ex-husband wants to visit his daughter Lily in their home.

Part 2

Waythorn worries about Haskett’s visit as he leaves for work, deciding to stay away from home as long as possible to avoid running into Alice’s first husband. Ironically, Waythorn ends up on the train next to Varick, his wife’s second husband. They make small talk as Varick informs Waythorn that Waythorn’s business partner, Sellers, is ill with gout. Waythorn is surprised; he knew nothing since he was on his honeymoon. He worries about someone seeing the two of them together, so he makes an excuse to get up and leave.

At lunch, he sees Varick again, but Varick does not see him. Secretly he watches Varick, who seems to relish his meal and does not at all seem to be agitated by their meeting on the train. Instead, Varick seems utterly absorbed in the sensory delight of making his coffee with brandy: “Had the morning’s meeting left no more trace in his thoughts than on his face?” (Part 2).

At dinner Waythorn chats with his wife, and he admires her happy, child-like calm. When Waythorn finally asks if Alice saw Haskett when he came to visit, Alice avoids answering directly, saying instead: “I let the nurse see him” (Part 2).

As Alice makes Waythorn’s coffee, Waythorn takes delight in the “joy of possessorship. They were his, those white hands with their flitting motions, his the light haze of hair, the lips and eyes” (Part 2). But Waythorn suddenly stops Alice. She is midway in making his coffee with brandy, the drink that Waythorn saw Varick take great delight in earlier that day. Waythorn never takes cognac in his coffee. Alice had forgotten her new husband’s preference and blushes at her mistake.

Part 3

Waythorn’s partner Sellers asks Waythorn to meet with Varick for business matters since the doctor has ordered Sellers to stay home. Waythorn reluctantly agrees, although he is embarrassed at what the people in his office must be thinking about the two of them meeting. Both Waythorn and Varick speak with the utmost respect and politeness, and Waythorn is particularly determined not to be outdone in civility: “He was glad, in the end, to appear the more self-possessed of the two” (Part 3).

On one of Haskett’s visits to see his daughter Lily, Waythorn is caught off guard. Lily had recovered, so “the thought of Haskett passed out of Waythorn’s mind” (Part 3). He didn’t realize that Haskett was in his home until he finds Haskett in his library, and he is flustered. As he talks to Haskett, he realizes Haskett is nothing like he imagined: “Waythorn had been allowed to infer that Alice’s first husband was a brute,” while Haskett seems mild-mannered, as if “life had worn down his natural powers of resistance” (Part 3).

Back in his bedroom, Haskett is tormented as he thinks about his wife’s first marriage, questioning his understanding of it: “And it startled him to think that she had, in the background of her life, a phase of existence so different from anything with which he had connected her” (Part 3). He thinks about Haskett’s cheap tie and imagines Alice “secretly feeling that she belonged in a bigger place” (Part 3) during that first marriage. He wonders at her big shift in fortune: “Haskett’s very inoffensiveness shed a new light on the nature of those illusions. A man would rather think that his wife has been brutalized by her first husband than that the process has been reversed” (Part 3).

Part 4

On a later visit to the Waythorn home, Haskett asks to speak to Waythorn because he is unhappy with Lily’s governess. Haskett worries that the governess is teaching Lily to be deceptive and too anxious to please. When Waythorn tells Haskett to tell Mrs. Waythorn himself, Haskett replies that he did try to tell her on his first visit to their home. Waythorn suddenly realizes then that Alice had lied to him; she had allowed him to think she had not seen Haskett on that first visit. Haskett in his timid yet decisive manner insists on his right “to have a voice in Lily’s bringing up” (Part 4).

Waythorn is “deeply shaken” (Part 4). He does not doubt Haskett’s integrity, realizing he is motivated solely by his concern for Lily. Waythorn has investigated Haskett, learning that Haskett has sacrificed much in order to be near his daughter, including giving up “his share in a profitable business in Utica” (Part 4).

When Waythorn talks to his wife, she protests that Haskett’s behavior was “very ungentlemanly” (Part 4), which annoys Waythorn. Waythorn insists that Haskett should be given his rights to consult on Lily’s welfare: Alice “burst into tears […] she expected him to regard her as a victim” (Part 4). The governess is fired and Haskett meets with Alice as needed.

As for Varick, he continues to meet with Haskett about his business since Sellers is still in treatment. Waythorn grows accustomed to Varick’s presence. They start to talk socially outside the office as well. But Waythorn is shocked when he sees Varick talking with Alice at a party. Alice explains that she thought it was “less awkward to speak to him,” but Waythorn is “sicken[ed]” by her “pliancy. Had she really no will of her own—no theory about her relation to these men?” (Part 4).

Part 5

Society is happy to see the Waythorns’ acceptance of Varick as now both can be invited to parties without social awkwardness. Waythorn becomes accustomed to seeing her past husbands. In fact, he starts to appreciate how her two earlier marriages actually made her a better wife to him since both marriages taught her, in different ways, how to be more accommodating to husbands.

One afternoon, Waythorn finds Haskett in Waythorn’s library waiting for Mrs. Waythorn. They share a cigar in the intimacy of the library: “The little man no longer jarred on him” (Part 5).

But then Varick arrives to see Waythorn on business. And the sudden awkwardness of the three of them in the library is palpable. But Waythorn offers Varick a cigar as well. Mrs. Waythorn arrives next in the library, ready for tea, and she sees all three of them:“The three men stood awkwardly before her, till Varick, always the most self-possessed, dashed into an explanatory phrase” (Part 5).

While the men stand embarrassed, Mrs. Waythorn quickly regains her composure. Finding herself again seemingly perfectly at ease, she offers each of them a cup of tea.