Thursday, February 19, 2009

Men and social status

February 19, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #14
Edith Wharton, "The Other Two"

"In the library he found a small effaced-looking man with a thinnish gray beard sitting on the edge of a chair. The stranger might have been a piano tuner, or one of those mysteriously efficient persons who are summoned in emergencies to adjust some detail of the domestic machinery. He blinked at Waythorn through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and said mildly: 'Mr. Waythorn, I presume? I am Lily's father.' Waythorn flushed. 'Oh-' he stammered unconfortably. He broke off, disliking to appear rude. Inwardly he was trying to adjust the actual Haskett to the image of him projected by his wife's reminiscences. Waythorn had been allowed to infer that Alice's first husband was a brute." (Edith Wharton, "The Other Two")

In this quote, Waythorn meets, for the first time, her wife's first ex-husband (that manages to sound confusing even on paper...) Initially dismissing him as a "nobody", Waythorn then attempts to relate his wife's description of Haskett with the real person. Before actually meeting Haskett in the library, Waythorn notices the shabby hat and umbrella in the hall. While conversing with Haskett, Waythorn observes his "made-up attached with an elastic". He goes on and muses upon the question of why should this detail, as ridiculous as it seems, symbolize Haskett.

In my creative writing class last quarter, one of the key underlying message that my professor was trying to get across is "show, not tell". "The Other Two" reminds me of Hemingway (e.g., "Hills like White Elephants", "The Old Man and the Sea"...) in that they both execute the art of showing to perfection. In this case, the initial embarassment of Waythorn is represented by the "oh" followed by the dash. Waythorn's perception of Haskett's accessories (tie, umbrella, hat) shows that he is a man who likes to compare his social status with that of others. All of this is being subtly expressed without actually being said. As I know that this is actually easier said than done (believe me I have failed so many times in my creative writing class), I really admire Wharton's technique in this story.

The phenomenon of men comparing themselves to one another, however, is easily seen in the society, even nowadays. It may not be restricted to the case of husbands dealing with their wives' ex-husbands. Take a high school reunion as an example. Successful men are always careful to include the fact that they make a lot of money/have a beautiful wife/drives a sports car, to obtain the praise and recognition of others. It is funny how this always reminds me of dogs marking their territory; men, at least some of them nowadays, feel the impulse to show off and to make their mark to others as to where they stand in society. I also noticed that when men encounter other men that are lower than they are in either wealth or social class (those two usually go hand in hand with each other), they appear sympathetic, but deep down, most feel happy. When men encounter other men that are higher than they are in terms of social status, they appear glad for these men's achievements, but most hold much jealousy and envy in their hearts. Waythorn is no exception. This may very well be Wharton's subtle attempt to mock men in this aspect.

1 comment:

  1. 20 points. It's surely true that the "trophy wife" is alive and well today too.