At the last meeting of my Edith Wharton study group, I learned that the famous American author had a love affair that influenced the writing of some of her novels — a relationship that she kept secret during her lifetime, not even mentioning it in her autobiography. The affair, which ended unhappily, did not come to light until Wharton’s papers were opened for scholarly research in 1968. She died in 1937.
The book that we discussed that evening was The Reef, not one of her better known works, but once the reader is made aware of the author’s romantic fling, it becomes infinitely more interesting to examine. The heroine of the story is an aristocratic widow, Anna, who is drawn into a new relationship with Darrow, a man from her past. When she learns of his involvement with another, younger woman, Sophy, at the same time he has been courting her, the stage is set for fireworks. But there are even more complications — the other woman is now her employee (a governess to her daughter), and drawing attention from Anna’s adult stepson, Owen.
The group speculated on how much of Anna’s character was based on Wharton herself, and how much of her lover, Morton Fullerton, was reflected in Darrow. What made the discussion especially interesting was the dawning realization that some of Sophy’s character seems to come out of Wharton’s experience, as well.
The perspective of the novel begins with Darrow and then switches to Anna. Our leader remarked on how the first section of the book could almost stand alone as a novella. The motivations of the characters are not always clearly defined, allowing for plenty of interpretation. Although coincidence seems to function in an extreme manner in the story, this factor can be overlooked in favor of concentrating on the situation in which the characters find themselves and what they decide to do about their predicament.
As always, Wharton is deeply concerned with women’s options in a severely restricted society, and group members wondered how the female characters and their challenges might have been viewed at the time of the book’s original publication, 1912, as opposed to how they struck us, reading the story almost 100 years later.
Finally, we spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand the author’s choice for the title of her book. It’s clearly symbolic, and could have numerous meanings, none of them very positive. according to the ruminations of our group. One of the members said she grew up on an island in the Pacific and had some unpleasant associations with reefs from her childhood. “They’re really terrible — all kinds of awful things are crawling under the surface!” she shuddered. Was that what Wharton had in mind — or was she referring to a situation in life (specifically, Anna’s life)where a dangerous obstacle lurks, hidden from view, threatening sudden disaster? Ah, such fun to contemplate.