The Reef (1924)

In the final chapter of Edith Wharton’s The Reef, Anna Leath decides to visit Sophy Viner after finally deciding not to marry Darrow. She says that Sophy will be her “anodyne” (360); the medicine that would cure her troubles and “give her back her lost serenity” (360). However, after meeting Sophy’s sister, Anna gives up her search, not just because Sophy has run off to India, but also because of the strange encounter. A dingy hotel room sets the scene for this bizarre final chapter, which is a stark contrast to the setting of the previous chapters in GivrĂ©.

When Anna decides she must talk with Sophy, I don’t understand her intentions. She could have wanted to know the specifics of her relationship with Darro
w since Darrow himself would not tell her, or she could have decided to tell Sophy she was free to
marry Owen. In either case, the hunt for Sophy is much more complicated than Anna expected. Sophy is no longer with the Farlows because she has gone to visit with her sister, Laura McTarvie-Birch. Anna is so sure that Sophy is the answer to all of her problems that she follows this lead to a hotel near the Place de l’Etoile. Upon her arrival, Anna is thrown into a very strange situation with a very strange set of people. First there is this “mute spectator” (363) who takes a break from staring at his hat to stare at Anna in a disconcertingly similar and rude manner. Anna at first assumes that the second man in the hotel room must be Laura’s husband. He is more polite than his friend, but just lounges around chain-smoking. By the end of the chapter however, Laura reveals to us that the chain-smoker is actually Jimmy Brance (367). This means nothing to Anna, but it does mean something to the reader; Jimmy Brance knew Sophy when she worked for Mrs. Murrett a year or two before.

The bedroom scene is very surreal, especially compared to the rest of the novel. When Anna finally has the chance to talk with Laura, she must enter her “dim untidy scented room” (364) where Laura is laying in some state of undress receiving a massage. The bedroom is in a state of disarray, and everything is pink and covered in powder puffs. Laura is described very vaguely at first as “a lady with a great deal of fair hair…. [and] a thickly-ringed hand” (364). Anna is startled to realize that she is looking at “an odd chromo-like resemblance of Sophy.… larger, blonder, heavier featured” (365), but Anna also recognizes some of the same charm and grace that she admired in Sophy. This meeting serves to not only show a resemblance between the two sisters, but to also show what Sophy could become.

After Laura reveals that Sophy has returned to her job with Mrs. Murrett, Sophy and Mr. Darrow’s motives become questionable. It seems to be too much of a coincidence that the novel begins and ends with Sophy being employed by Mrs. Murrett. From the description of Mrs. Murrett in the beginning of the novel, she seems unsophisticated and maybe even unsavory especially compared to Anna Leath. Now Laura, Sophy’s only living family, is portrayed as being just as unsophisticated. The fact that both Mr. Darrow and Sophy have a history with people like Mrs. Murrett and Laura forces me question their backgrounds and characters as well. I think that earlier in the novel, Anna was able to forgive Sophy’s past and bless her marriage to Owen, but now that Anna knows that Sophy has returned to Mrs. Murrett, I think she questions Sophy’s intentions too. The setting of this final chapter, since it is so different from the rest of the book, serves to reinforce this idea. I am still left with a lot of questions at the end of the novel, mainly fueled by the last chapter, and it would be an interesting question to research further.


Sense and Sensibility (1811)

Before I began reading this novel, sense and sensibility were two words that were almost interchangeable. I knew that there was some subtlety between the two definitions, but seeing sense and sensibility in action and embodied by Elinor and Marianne respectively made the definitions more clear to me. Once I saw this pair however, I began to see pairs all over the novel of couples or sisters playing the part of either sense or sensibility.

In the first chapter, the personalities of the two sisters are depicted as complementary opposites. Elinor is described as “the qualified… counselor of her mother…. her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them” (Austen 3). Marianne on the other hand is “sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows her joys, could have no moderation” (Austen 3). Elinor embodies the logical and practical side of sense while her sister illustrates the sensitivity to emotion that is defined by sensibility.

The most important pair that mirrors the sense and sensibility motif is the Steele sisters. “Lucy and Anne Steele together with Lady Middleton and Mrs. Palmer function as parodic reflections of Elinor and Marianne. These reflections are both dim and distorted… [but] not if we focus on Elinor’s capacity for self-control and Marianne’s contrasting inability to control her emotions” (Brown 61). The personality traits I highlighted earlier are heightened by the similarities between the two sets of sisters. Initially, The Dashwood sisters are wary of going to meet with the Steeles because they did not know anything about their character since Sir John is given to exaggeration. When they do meet there are obvious resemblances between the two sets of sisters. Elinor and Lucy both are forced to cover for their sister’s forwardness in conversation or in social situations; Marianne and Anne “both have a tendency to speak with thoughtless exaggeration, to the chagrin of their sisters” (Brown 64). Elinor is given the “task of telling lies when politeness required” (Austen 81) and Lucy similarly is forced to apologize for her sister being impudent or “too familiar” when talking about their beaux and Norland (Austen 82).

Both Elinor and Lucy seem to be more practical and smarter than their sisters in the respect that they are more guarded with their words and actions rather than acting emotionally or impulsively. So far, the similarities between Marianne and Anne are sparser. However, from their conversations in chapter 21, it is obvious that Marianne and Anne are quicker to emotional type outburst as the definition of sensibility suggests. Brown also points to Elinor and Lucy having the same hair color as another mark signifying the similarity between the two girls which is how Elinor and Marianne mistakenly believed that Edward was wearing Elinor’s lock of hair (62).

The most humorous pair that portrays sense and sensibility in the novel is Mr. and Mrs. Palmer because they are such an exaggerated depiction of the title. Mr. Palmer to a fault represents sense. Like Elinor, he appears more reserved in public but also cynical. Mrs. Palmer, representing sensibility is a gushing, “very silly woman” (Austen 75) who constantly laughs and says “Mr. Palmer is so droll” (Austen 74, 76). This husband and wife serve as a warning to Elinor and Marianne. The traits of sense and sensibility when taken to an extreme can be dangerous.

The relationships of the pairs that depicted throughout the novel so far I’m sure will play a role in the second half of the book. I will be interested to see if Jane Austen begins to show us that whether embodying either sense or sensibility is more fruitful. I would also want to finish the reading before I begin to decide if and how Elinor and Marianne are similar to the sisters from Pride and Prejudice.

[Note: the Brown book I am referring to is Devoted Sisters: Representations of the Sister Relationship in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature.]