The Other Two Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 25-page guide for the short story “The Other Two” by Edith Wharton includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Subversion of Gender Roles and Marriage as a Partnership of Men.
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.”
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.
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.
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…