The Reef is not I think one of Edith Wharton’s more popular novels. It is the one everyone calls Jamesian. I think part of the problem, popularity-wise, is that it sets out by putting us in the consciousness of a man, George Darrow, who is incorrigibly snobby. There’s the snobbiness of having a standard of taste that reveals broad experience and reading, and the snobbiness that comes with having a social position and assuming that one has broad experience and reading. Darrow’s is the latter snobbiness. He’s no Swann. At the beginning of the book he meets a young American in Paris, a Daisy Miller cast-away without Miller’s family money given the name Sophy Viner – an almost insurmountable moniker as far as readerly sympathy goes. However, Viner is sympathetic, young, and unbearably patronized by Darrow, who escorts her around Paris due to circumstances I don’t really want to get into.
No, what is important here is that Darrow, who is hunting for bigger social game, in effect makes Viner his girlfriend, or, as they would say at the time, his mistress. Here, Wharton does a wonderfully subtle thing, something that James must have loved. Her problem is how to make us know that after Darrow spent some time escorting Viner around Paris, they became sexual. How to do this without becoming vulgar. This isn’t just a matter of censorship because American publishers would freak if one described the beast with two backs too narrowly – it was more a matter of tone. There has to be a certain tone to this affair if the book is going to work.
Thus, the wonderfully subtle thing. Darrow’s hotel room in Paris is right next to Viner’s. On his last morning of this visit to Paris, Wharton gives us, first, a post-coital shower, blotting out the Parisian landscape, then a look around Darrow’s room, which he perceives, for the first time, is in need of some cleaning, and then this great melodic invocation of a knowledge that, by indirection, seeks direction out:
“A different noise aroused him. It was the opening and closing of the door leading from the corridor into the adjoining room. He sat motionless, without opening his eyes; but now another sight forced itself under his lowered lids. It was the precise photographic picture of that other room. Everything in it rose before him and pressed itself upon his vision with the same acuity of distinctness as the objects surrounding him. A step sounded on the floor, and he knew which way the step was directed, what pieces of furniture it had to skirt, where it would probably pause, and what was likely to arrest it. He heard another sound, and recognized it as that of a wet umbrella placed in the black marble jamb of the chimney-piece, against the hearth. He caught the creak of a hinge, and instantly differentiated it as that of the wardrobe against the opposite wall. Then he heard the mouse-like squeal of a reluctant drawer, and knew it was the upper one in the chest of drawers beside the bed: the clatter which followed was caused by the mahogany toilet-glass jumping on its loosened pivots...”
Those squeaks and creaks and jingles = Joyce, in Ullyses, will have Bloom imagine the jingling of his bed, the bed Molly lies on with Blazes Boylan. Consciousness is more repressed, or at least, represses itself, in Wharton’s world. What I love is the realisitic ellipse. All of those things, and their sensual properties, mark what isn’t being said. And that gap accrues a force – the umbrella and the wardrobe, here, are moral witnesses. For a snob such as Darrow, incredibly harsh witnesses – since in this story, the fall is not so much Sophy’s, but that of the male snob.
I love how Wharton accomplishes this.