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The Other Two by Edith Wharton: Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:03 Introduction to 'The…
  • 1:00 Theme of Marriage
  • 2:35 Theme of Feminism
  • 3:48 Theme of Illusion vs. Reality
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Edith Wharton's short story 'The Other Two' examines marriage from a different perspective. The story discusses divorce and society's view of it. From the topic of marriage, the themes of feminism and societal perception also arise in the story.

Introduction to ''The Other Two''

What's our reaction today when we hear the word divorce? In all likelihood, it is that of indifference. Divorce proceedings happen with such frequency that there is little, if any, shock value attached to them. When Edith Wharton wrote the short story ''The Other Two,'' divorce held a negative connotation in the minds of most people. It occurred only in the most extreme circumstances.

To compound the matter, as the story opens, we learn that Mrs. Alice Waythorn has already been divorced twice. She is returning from her honeymoon with Mr. Waythorn, her third husband. Mr. Waythorn is aware of her situation and the perception this casts upon her. During their courtship, ''He knew what was said about her.'' Society casts an askew glance at Mrs. Waythorn because ''society has not yet adapted itself to the consequence of divorce.'' Edith Wharton uses divorce to examine several themes in her story, including marriage.

Theme of Marriage

The story isn't about the Waythorns and their marriage, but marriage in general. Alice Waythorn has been twice divorced. Her first marriage occurs as a ''runaway match at seventeen.'' Alice never says much about her first husband, but what she does say is that, ''it was easy to believe the worst of him.'' Her second marriage ''was a passport to the set whose recognition she coveted.'' Of these two marriages, there is no indication that Mrs. Waythorn married for love.

What does this say about marriage? Is it a reputable institution? Or, is it an institution that must be upheld, no matter the circumstances? Wharton mentions that, after Mrs. Waythorn's first divorce, ''there had always been a faint undercurrent of detraction.'' The circumstances of her divorce are of no concern to these societal members; instead, it is the perception that she has committed an offense against them through her divorces. To them, Alice is a blemish on their upstanding reputation.

Alice Waythorn's third marriage is different. Wharton spends the story focusing on her relationship with Mr. Waythorn. Alice's only concern is for her daughter and Mr. Waythorn. Wharton describes how Mr. Waythorn finds in Alice a ''refuge in a richer, warmer nature than his own.'' At the end of the story, despite her deception and the company of her ex-husbands, Mr. Waythorn laughs with his wife over their current situation. This conclusion seems to indicate that marriage is about finding common ground with your partner and working through the difficulties. Marriage takes effort in order to find happiness.

Theme of Feminism

Throughout ''The Other Two,'' Alice displays an inner strength and confidence that shows her character and individuality, through which Wharton develops the theme of feminism. Alice has a ''way of surmounting obstacles without seeming to be aware of them.'' Does this mean that she defies the expectations regarding her behavior imposed by a patriarchal-governed society? No. She still acts in a manner so that her ''conduct remained irreproachable.'' Alice, however, in every difficult situation, gives the impression that she has ''discovered the solution of the newest social problem.'' She appears in a manner that ''must be her own social justification.''

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