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Edith Wharton showed her concern with the social pressures placed upon women and the constraining expectations of others with respect to them through her fiction. Wharton portrays her female characters straying from expectations, both societal and personal, with a positive outcome. In “The Other Two,” the female lead, Alice, divorces two husbands and finds happiness with a third, showing the unconventional act of divorce in a positive light. In “Roman Fever,” Wharton shows one of the two main characters, Grace Ainsley, come out on top of a conflict due to her past defiance of expectations, connecting positive outcomes to a defiance of role culture. Both women defy these expectations by rejecting monogamy, Alice in her multiple marriages and Grace by marrying a man who didn’t father her child. Edith Wharton questions the traditional values of monogamy and obedience in “The Other Two”and “Roman Fever” to highlight her feminist portrayal of women as individuals.
Amongst the restrictions encountered by women around the turn of the century was the expectation of monogamy. Without any system for women to attempt to provide economically for themselves, as society expected women to fill the role of dependent wife, it was uncommon for women to consider divorce. Margaret McDowell describes the society as “unwilling to recognize their very existence as human beings entitled to adult privileges and responsibilities” (539). James Woodress notes that Edith Wharton herself “endured 28 years of unhappy married life before divorcing her husband”. Wharton exhibited her unconventional approval of divorce in her own life but also through her literature. At a time when divorce was frowned upon in American life and literature, Wharton took a sympathetic and encouraging view on divorced women. McDowell notes that she tends to celebrate the woman’s freedom to terminate a marriage, rather than pitying the woman who liberates herself from a constraining role (535). In the last century American women have moved from a position in which “their attitudes and conduct were governed by fixed conventions and by standards of propriety” toward a position of “relative freedom, in which they can act on the basis of whatever promises the most fulfillment for them as individuals in a particular situation” (McDowell 531). Wharton’s sophisticated approval of women’s liberation even before the turn of the century, placed her ahead of her time and ahead of other American authors (537).
Edith Wharton relates her female characters’ successes in society to the rejection of the social norm of monogamy in her short story “The Other Two.” “The Other Two” ends with the image of Alice Haskett-Varick-Waythorn functioning normally amongst her current husband and two ex-husbands. Alice learns how to be the ideal wife through her multiple marriages and finds her ideal husband through her divorces. Her third husband, Waythorn, eventually accepts Alice’s past behavior, displaying the positive attitude Wharton adopted towards divorce. The casual, yet uncomfortable, closing scene of Alice and the three husbands sitting down for tea together indicates that divorce and social success can go hand in hand.
The story begins after Alice marries her third husband, Waythorn, who sees her as an ideal wife. Waythorn sees the irony of Alice’s success as a wife when he realizes her perfection comes from experience with former husbands. Alice’s marriages taught her valuable lessons about relationships and her divorces allowed her to utilize that knowledge. Waythorn appreciates his domestic happiness in light of how Varick and Haskett shaped Alice’s values. Waythorn “perceived that Haskett’s commonness had made Alice worship good breeding, while Varick’s liberal construction of the marriage bond had taught her to value the conjugal virtues.” Alice also benefits from her two divorces by finding happiness with Waythorn and not being stuck with either exes. Alice finds success after divorcing with her exceptional performance as a wife and happy life with her third husband.
Waythorn’s eventual acceptance of Alice’s past reveals the ideal reaction to women’s freedom to divorce. When Waythorn married Alice, he expected her to “shed her past like a man.” According to the standard of monogamy, Waythorn expected to be the only man in Alice’s life. The topic of Alice’s ex husbands proves awkward for the newly married couple at first. After Waythorn notices Varick pour a shot of alcohol in his coffee, he reacts to Alice making his coffee in this way Alice responds by blushing a “sudden, agonizing red.” This muted response indicates that the subject of Alice’s past with Varick an avoided topic, and Alice’s blushing makes it seem like she is ashamed. They do not discuss the incident any further, but the passing incident illuminates the negative stigma surrounding Alice’s divorce.
Once Waythorn realizes, however, what an ideal wife Alice was because of her experiences, he expresses the positive view that it was better “to own a third of a wife who knew how to make a man happy than a whole one who had lacked opportunity to acquire the art.” Including the misogynistic notion of “owning” women, Waythorn’s final opinion portrays previous marriages as the opportunity to acquire the art of making a man happy. Waythorn’s continued ignorance in the midst of a small acceptance could represent the general society in the early 1900s. No matter how women see their actions, men in society can interpret them according to the set expectations. Alice may have divorced her two husbands because she was unhappy, but Waythorn rationalizes it according to his standards of women as designated man pleasers. Despite these sexist shortcomings, Waythorn does accept Alice’s past divorces and positively credits her for the decisions. The closing scene of all four characters coexisting, portraying a woman functioning successfully in society after divorce, shows Wharton’s positive view of female divorcees.
In “Roman Fever,” Wharton connects Grace Ainsley’s rejection of monogamy and others’ expectations of her with Barbara, Grace’s daughter and the winning point of the two women’s argument. Grace’s rebellion, characterized by her excursion to the Roman Colosseum with Delphin Slade, Alida Slade’s fiancee, is against Mrs. Slade’s narrow definition of her. This defiance of expectations through an illicit sexual encounter symbolizes the rejection of monogamous values. Alida’s expectations of Grace are described in the story about Great Aunt Harriet arranging the death of her sister. This shows the origin of the two women’s ideas of rivalry and the defines the roles for women who love the same man. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ainsley are expected to fill those roles, which explains the fake letter from Delphin that Mrs. Slade sends to Grace, just like Great Aunt Harriet sent her sister to her death. The surprise ending of the story, when Mrs. Ainsley reveals that she has committed a devious act of her own, going against the assigned roles of their love triangle, “demonstrates how hopelessly enmeshed they are in the fictions about women’s place” (Bauer 687). As Mrs. Slade finds out that she’s been viewing Mrs. Ainsley “through the wrong end of her little telescope,” and that Grace was capable of more than her role allowed for, Grace reaps the benefits of her deviation from the standard. Having Mrs. Ainsley come out on top at the end of the story shows Wharton’s preference for Grace’s individualistic approach.
Though Grace is married to Horace Ainsley, she had the child of Delphin Slade. Mrs. Slade comments on Barbara’s vibrance in comparison to her parents, “Babs, according to the new standards at any rate, was more effective – had more edge, as they say. Funny where she got it, with those two nullities as parents. Alida Slade unwittingly credits her own deceased husband for Barbara’s “effective” character, essentially complementing the result of Grace’s defiance. Alida represents the repressions of patriarchal culture, while Grace shows the rejection of standard domestic values. Wharton juxtaposed Mrs. Slade, whose behavior is traditional, with Mrs. Ainsley, whose behavior challenges social expectations. Grace is expected to be stately and cooperative, initially portrayed as married and similar to the dull Horace Ainsley by Mrs. Slade, and viewed as a knitting-obsessed matron by her daughter. Grace proves both these assumptions wrong, showing that she is more than what others expect of her. This is an example of Wharton’s suggestion “that individual women can liberate themselves, even in a patriarchal society” (McDowell 538). Grace liberated herself from Alida’s standards. The manifestation of this liberation into such a desirable form as Barbara indicates that Wharton approves of the effort.
Showing the positive sides of women rejecting the traditional value of monogamy implies Wharton’s general feminism and approval of women’s liberation. McDowell notices that the women in Wharton’s stories become more than the dependent wife or the dignified matron, in turn, attempting to “destroy the authority of the simplistic and traditional formulations through which society had defined their acceptable roles” (537). Women have struggled to set their place in society, working around unrealistic standards, such as monogamy. Without the freedom to have multiple partners or provide for themselves, women were expected to depend on one man for the rest of her life. Wharton’s portrayal of women as individuals shows that she rejected this sort of gender subordinate order. The women in her stories are not connected to one single man who provides their livelihood, rather, they explore their options with different men. This step to separate the woman from the man in fiction reveals Wharton as a feminist in a society where the implication of monogamy was complete dependence.
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