Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Edith Wharton's "Bad Heroine": Sophy Viner in 'The Reef.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Edith Wharton's "Bad Heroine": Sophy Viner in 'The Reef.'

Article excerpt

More than two decades ago in her thoughtful comparative study of Edith Wharton and Henry James. Millicent Bell observed Wharton's interest in what James called the "bad heroine"--the type of woman with no fortune, like Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove who is "forced to make shift with her beauty and wit." Bell remarks: "Her [Kate's] dilemma was one that continued to interest Edith Wharton, and in Sophy Viner of The Reef and Susy Branch of The Glimpses of the Moon it is again her central focus."(1) Bell, of course, goes too far when she suggests that each of these characters is the "central focus" in the novel in which she appears. Nonetheless, there are certain helpful implications in Bell's suggestion that I want to explore in this paper, which will focus exclusively on The Reef's Sophy Viner.

To recall, Sophy is the young American who, after a brief affair in Paris with the diplomat George Darrow, becomes "the reef" upon which founders, several months later, George's intended marriage to the widow Anna Leath, when Anna learns about the affair during George's visit to Givre, the country estate where, after leaving Paris, Sophy has become governess to Anna's young daughter and fiancee to her step-son. Despite the generally high quality of scholarship devoted to The Reef, exemplified particularly in those studies that explore the links between the novel and Wharton's painfully educative affair with the sexual adventurer Morton Fullerton,(2) most critics have tended either to ignore, or oversimplify and sentimentalize Sophy by turning her into the naive victim of George Darrow's selfishness.(3) This misreading may be attributed to three primary causes. The first is that she is never a focalized character, but is instead viewed from the perspectives of what Cynthia Griffin Wolff calls "flawed interpreters."(4) The second is that The Reef depends more, proportionally, on the scenic mode of presentation than any other Wharton novel, despite her reservations about fiction containing large amounts of dialogue.(5) The third reason, closely related to the other two. is that--as George Darrow observes without realizing the implications of his insight--Sophy, who wants to be a professional actress, is already an actress "in life"(6) when she meets George. Primarily for these reasons, almost all readers of The Reef have not seen Sophy Viner clearly. They have therefore not discerned that, as well as being sensitive and considerate, she is also a sensual, ambitious, and deceptive young woman whose drive not only to survive in but also enjoy the world is chastened by a realistic, at times bleak, assessment of her personal assets (such as social class); she is also a young woman who occasionally resents the patriarchal standards that control her world, but who lacks both the power and the sustained inclination to challenge these standards openly. It is this complex young woman whom I want readers to recognize in the following discussion: the Sophy Viner who scrambles--often by using her sexual attractiveness as a strategy of empowerment--to create a free self within stifling, almost naturalistic bounds: and who improvises roles in response not only to the demands of specific situations but also her own deepest needs.

Most of our perceptions of Sophy in Book 1 are, of course, filtered through George's consciousness; more importantly, George's ability to really see her is diminished by several factors. The most significant is first, his patronizing, sexist tendency to place all women within certain narrow categories.(7) and second, his resentment toward Anna Leath. When we meet George, he is on the pier at Dover, trying to control emotions that have been provoked by a telegram from Anna, who has asked him, because of an "Unexpected obstacle" (p. 351), to delay his visit to Givre. George is frustrated, humiliated, and enraged by what he perceives to be her demeaning treatment. He feels diminished as a man.(8) Almost everything George observes during Book 1 is influenced by his sometimes partially repressed and controlled, but often intense, almost pathologically self-absorbed ambivalent reaction to Anna, whom he believes to be fearful, socially restricted. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.