One of my favourite novels by Edith Wharton is The Reef, which she wrote while she was working on the much longer novel The Custom of the Country. The Reef was published in 1912, and it’s been called the most Jamesian of Wharton’s novels because of parallels with several novels by Henry James, including The Portrait of a Lady 1881). I’ve written about the ending of The Reef here, in a response to an essay by Pat Menon in The New Compass.
Just as Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady learns of the intimacy between Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond when she sees Osmond seated and Madame Merle standing (at a time when a man who didn’t know a woman well would be standing if she were standing, and seated only if she were seated first), Owen Leath in The Reef discovers the intimacy between his fiancée Sophy Viner and George Darrow when he glimpses the two of them alone in the study. Owen’s mother Anna, who has hoped to marry Darrow, insists that it isn’t odd for “two people who are staying in the same house” to be “seen talking together — !” But the tell-tale fact, as Owen says, is that “They were not talking. That’s the point — .” Through the window, he says, he could see Darrow “sitting at my desk, with his face in his hands. She was standing in the window, looking away from him.” The scene is a turning point, as it is for Isabel, as it leads Owen to begin to watch his fiancée more closely.
There is a series of confrontations in The Reef as these characters try to determine what has happened and what will happen next. It’s a novel about difficult decisions, and about the difficulty of making any decision. Will the truth emerge, will Anna forgive Darrow, will she give him up? She must decide how to reconcile her future with her ideals. She has cherished honour as “her deepest sentiment,” but is obliged to consider now whether she will accept Darrow’s philosophy: “Life’s just a perpetual piecing together of broken bits.” I find the confrontations, and the ambiguous ending of this novel, fascinating, and I would recommend The Reef to anyone who wants to explore more of Wharton’s novels in the year of her 150th birthday.