Contributing to Edith Wharton’s imaginative explorations of evolutionary theory and to her ironic portrayals of marriage, “The Other Two,” appearing in The Descent of Man and Other Stories (1904), foreshadows her later novel, The Custom of the Country (1913). Alice Waythorn’s ability to adapt to the different styles of her three husbands illustrates the common understanding of Darwinian notions of sexual patterns and evolutionary survival. Her third husband’s honeymoon glow is marred by the news that her first husband, Mr. Haskett, will be going to the Waythorn home to see his 12-year-old daughter, Lily, who has contracted typhoid. Shortly after receiving this unsettling news, Waythorn learns that he must also conduct business with Alice’s second husband, Gus Varick. Initially Waythorn experiences discomfort when he associates with either of Alice’s previous husbands, but Varick’s investment with Waythorn’s firm and their common social circle ease his disquiet. It is her first husband, Haskett, however, whose devotion to Lily and whose respectful humility disconcert Waythorn. Haskett’s makeshift tie, attached with elastic, annoys the fastidious and elegant Waythorn by underscoring the differences between Alice’s first marriage—to the poor and socially inept Haskett— and her third, to Waythorn himself. It prompts him to realize that Alice has totally obliterated her former self. When Waythorn investigates Haskett’s earlier life in Utica, New York, he learns that Haskett gave up a profitable business in order to move to New York City to be near his daughter. Consequently, Waythorn discerns more about Alice’s values, her sense of motherhood, and her ambition.
Correlating to the typhoid that seriously infects Lily for a time, the pervasive fluidity of Alice’s identity affects all three of her husbands, throwing them temporarily off balance. Their recovery entails change, especially with Waythorn, who cannot return to his former naive state. He learns that Alice’s adaptability encompasses her deceit, her implacability, and her ties with her past. He concludes that, like a member of a syndicate, he has become a partner with his two predecessors in the business of constructing Alice’s personality. Her ability to make life comfortable, however, overrules his tarnished illusions and his sense of irony. Appreciating her domestic art as well as her acquired worship of good taste and respect for fidelity, he believes that he owns the last and most valuable one-third of her that remains. The final scene projects the success of the extended marital family and Waythorn’s evolved condition. Circumstances cause the two previous husbands to visit his house simultaneously. As the three men smoke cigars in Waythorn’s library, Alice enters and quickly dissipates any discomfort. When she serves Waythorn the third cup of tea, he laughs.
Conventional readings of this story see Waythorn as disillusioned with the hypocritical Alice, even faintly contemptuous of her, but willing to adapt to the marriage for the sake of the respectability and comfort she provides him. On another level, however, Alice—from whose thoughts we are pointedly excluded—rather than Waythorn may have the last laugh. The men all seem the same to her, as demonstrated when she forgets which of the three husbands prefers brandy in his coffee. In true Darwinian fashion, she has not merely survived but also has made the best home she can for herself and her daughter. Alice has quite brilliantly learned to play the marriage game and win it, as is “the custom of the country” in which she lives.
Caws, Mary Ann. “Framing in Two Opposite Modes: Ford and Wharton.” The Comparatist: Journal of the Southern Comparative Literature Association 10 (May 1986): 114– 120.
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Scribner, 1975. Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.