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Women’s Studies, 39:238–261, 2010 Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0049-7878 print / 1547-7045 online DOI: 10.1080/00497871003595794

print / 1547-7045 online DOI: 10.1080/00497871003595794 GWST0049-78781547-7045Women’sWomen’s StudiesStudies,

GWST0049-78781547-7045Women’sWomen’s StudiesStudies, Vol. 39, No. 3, Jan 2010: pp. 0–0

RIGHTS AND JUSTICE IN EDITH WHARTON’S THE REEF

RightsAlicia Mischaand JusticeRenfroein Wharton’s The Reef

ALICIA MISCHA RENFROE

Middle Tennessee State University

“We are all bound together in this coil

.”

—Anna Leath, Edith Wharton’s The Reef

In this comment to her fiancé, George Darrow, Anna Leath suc- cinctly summarizes the tangled connections that bind the char- acters together in Edith Wharton’s The Reef (1912). Often described as the most Jamesian of Wharton’s novels, The Reef tracks the complicated relationships among Anna Leath, her childhood sweetheart George Darrow, her step-son Owen Leath, and her daughter’s governess Sophy Viner. Anna and Darrow reunite by chance after the death of Anna’s husband, Fraser Leath. While on his way to see Anna, Darrow meets Sophy Viner during a Paris stop where they have a brief affair, and when Darrow finally arrives at Givré (Anna’s home), he discovers that Sophy is actually Anna’s young daughter’s governess and that she is also engaged to Owen. In a conversation with Sophy shortly after they are reunited at Givré, Darrow describes their relationship in a way that highlights several of the novel’s concerns:

As to my reasons for wanting to help you, a good deal depends on the words one uses to define rather indefinite things. It’s true enough that I

to any past kindness on your

part, but simply to my own interest in you. Why not put it that our friend- ship gives me the right to intervene for what I believe to be your benefit? (165, ellipses in original)

want to help you; but the wish isn’t due to

I would like to thank John Hart, Mary Papke, Allen Dunn, Charles Maland, and Otis Stephens for commenting on various versions of this article. I would also like to thank au- diences at the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities conference and at the John J. College of Criminal Justice’s Law and Literature conference for their perceptive questions and comments on earlier versions of several parts of this article. Address correspondence to Alicia Mischa Renfroe, English Department, MTSU P.O. Box 70, 1301 East Main Street, Murfreesboro, TN 37132. E-mail: mrenfroe@mtsu.edu

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As the emphasis in this passage on Darrow’s “right” suggests, Wharton often employs the language of the law—in this example, rights—to define the “indefinite things” central to her narrative. Here, Darrow asserts a right that stems from “friendship” as he pledges to become an advocate, of sorts, for Sophy. Indeed, these characters bind themselves to each other in quasi-contractual relationships that create a dizzying array of competing rights, duties, and obligations and that raise questions about the possibility of justice itself. Although William Moddelmog has noted convinc- ingly of The House of Mirth that “the law serves as one of the dis- courses structuring Wharton’s narrative,” only a few critics have explored the significance of legal discourse in Wharton’s other works (340). 1 This article will argue that, for Wharton, legal dis- course plays an important role in constituting identity by provid- ing a language through which choices can be justified for one’s self as well as be judged by others and by defining conceptions of justice and what it means to be a just person. Indeed, her characters often justify themselves and their actions through appeals to rights, duties, and privileges that seem to provide inherent justifications for their decisions. By rendering several shifting love triangles (Anna—Darrow—Sophy; Anna—Owen—Darrow; Darrow—Sophy—Owen) and the ensuing complications, Wharton highlights the limitations of an absolute conception of justice

1 For instance, Laura K. Johnson argues that The House of Mirth (1905) and Glimpses of the Moon (1922) “evaluate competing claims within the legal definition of marriage” and that Wharton’s “preoccupation with the law’s terms created an unresolved tension in her fiction” (947). Taking a different approach, Elaine N. Orr suggests that The House of Mirth provides an alternative model of negotiation to the legalistic “contractual negotiation” (55) in which “human interaction is adversarial, competitive, and self-interested” (56). For Orr, “relational or empathetic problem solving, on the other hand, is the alternative pattern of negotiation whispered in Wharton’s novel through Lily’s desire for friendship and her dawning awareness of the need for emotional, and not merely monetary, connections” (56). Several pieces have also appeared on Summer (1918), including my “Prior Claims and Sovereign Rights: The Sexual Contract in Edith Wharton’s Summer.” In this article, I situ- ate rights-claims specifically in the context of the social contract and its underlying sexual contract. See also Rhonda Skillern’s “Becoming a ‘ Good Girl’: Law, Language, and Ritual in Edith Wharton’s Summer” for an account of Charity’s integration into the Law of the Father as well as its manifestation in our patriarchal legal system. On The Reef, Anne MacMaster notes that “Wharton’s plots often feature two women who assert competing claims for the possession of one man, the legal claim (like marriage or engagement) usually preceding the other—illegitimate—claim” (29); however, MacMaster does not provide an in-depth analysis of the way that law or legal language might work in the text.

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predicated on competing rights and problematizes the version of the self underlying that account of justice. Though philosophical and legal debates about rights fall outside the scope of this article, it is important to understand, in general terms, how rights work. One potentially useful, if reduc- tive, description of rights is Isaiah Berlin’s account of positive and negative liberty in his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.” For Berlin, these two types of liberty involve different versions of rights, and he focuses his analysis on two key questions. He claims that negative liberty concerns itself with this question:

“What is the area within which the subject—a person or a groups of persons—is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference from other persons[?]” (2). In contrast, positive liberty has a different concern: “what, or who, is the source of control or interference that can deter- mine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” (2). Put in simple terms, negative liberty depends upon precisely this kind of right—the “freedom from” something or someone—while positive liberty depends upon the “freedom to” act or not act. As several scholars suggest, Berlin’s account privileges negative lib- erty and defines freedom as a right not to be interfered with by others. 2 Feminist critics target this tendency to emphasize negative liberty at the expense of positive liberty as a major flaw in classical liberalism. Describing the general direction of feminist jurispru- dence, Martha Minow notes:

Feminist work specifically reflects upon relationships between people rather than treating people as autonomous, with identities existing prior to their social relationships. Feminists criticize the assumption of autono- mous individualism behind American economic and political theory and legal and bureaucratic practice, for this assumption rests on a picture of public and independent man rather than private and often dependent, or interconnected, woman. (194)

Carol Gilligan’s important critique, In a Different Voice, identifies a foundational opposition between a masculine “ethic of justice”

2 Numerous political theorists and legal scholars take issue with Berlin’s approach. See Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice for one example.

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conceptualized primarily in terms of rights and a feminine “ethic of care” conceptualized primarily in terms of responsibility and self-sacrifice (64–105). 3 This ethic of justice emphasizes rights rather than responsibilities and privileges rights that limit inter- ference from others. Questioning the idea that justice is a complete virtue, Gilligan argues:

The notion that virtue for women lies in self-sacrifice has complicated the course of women’s development by pitting the moral issue of goodness against the adult questions of responsibility and choice. In addition, the ethic of self-sacrifice is directly in conflict with the concept of rights that has, in the past century, supported women’s claim to a fair share of social justice. (132)

In her follow-up article “Remapping the Moral Domain: New Images of Self and Relationship,” Gilligan calls attention to different ideas about responsibility as “commitment to obligations and respon- siveness in relationships” (4). Those operating within an “ethic of justice” view responsibility in terms of “personal commitment and contractual obligation” (7). For those operating within an “ethic of care,” responsibility resonates differently as “ as acting respon- sively in relationships, and the self—as a moral agent—takes the initiative to gain awareness and respond to the perception of need” (7). Gilligan ultimately argues for an integrated conception of justice. Wai Chee Dimock highlights a similar problem in Residues of Justice: Literature, Law, Philosophy by calling our attention to “the conceit of the scales,” an essential component of the Western conception of justice as equivalence (1). For Dimock,

this conceit, with its attendant assumptions about the generalizability,

proportionality, and commensurability of the world,

self-image of justice as a supreme instance of adequation, a ‘fitness’ at once immanent and without residue, one that perfectly matches burdens and benefits, action and reaction, resolving all conflicting terms into a weighable equivalence. (1–2)

underwrites the

3 Dimock and others note some problems with Gilligan’s gendering of justice without analyzing possible social aspects that may produce the difference between men and women. I agree with Dimock’s claim that Gilligan’s approach is “unduly polarizing” (8) even as it highlights an important distinction.

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Focusing more specifically on an adversarial system of justice and the language of rights upon which it relies, Dimock argues that in “describing the world (and dividing the world) always in categorical terms, always in terms of those with ‘right’ and those with ‘no right,’ such a language can render only a categorical verdict: an unconditional victory for one party and an unconditional defeat for the other” (183). Using Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) as a key example, Dimock points out that Chopin’s Edna Pontellier operates on an just such an “adversarial grammar” which assumes that an individual either has a right or not; “in her [Edna’s] particular syntax, the right holder turns out to be a nonsubject, a nonentity, a ‘nobody [who] has any right’” (193). 4 Further, since the defeated party is a “threat” to the victor, “its consignment to a ‘nobody’ is likewise necessary” (193). For Dimock, this “adversarial grammar” typifies the classical liberal conception of rights:

claimed must be felt, from the other side, as a

highly unsubtle pressure. Theorists from Bentham to Hohfield thus speak

of a ‘correlativity’ activated by the concepts of rights, the complementary

genesis of a positive and a negative term, so that whenever their exists a right holder entitled to a benefit, there must also exist a complying party obligated to yield that benefit. (196)

A right so forcefully

This account of rights, with its emphasis on winners and losers, on those who have a right or a “no-right,” produces a concept of justice as “absolute” in its vision of “a world exactly equal to the verdict it sees fit to pronounce” (197). Such a vision presumes stability and equivalence that Wharton denies in The Reef. Indeed, Wharton reveals the ways in which this “adversarial grammar” facilitates not the claiming of a right but the erasure or renuncia- tion of some rights. For Wharton, rights operate not only in the public sphere of political conversations but also in the private sphere of close per- sonal relationships. Interestingly, though many critics see The Reef as Wharton’s attempt to come to terms with her affair with Morton Fullerton, these critics overlook Wharton’s tendency to describe her relationship with Fullerton in the same legalistic terms that

4 Dimock quotes Edna’s language. See The Awakening (147).

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she often deploys in the novel. 5 In a letter to Fullerton dated May, 1909, Wharton acknowledged that the affair was likely over and proposed a renegotiation of the terms of their relationship: “the situation is changed, & I, who like to walk up to things, recognize it [sic], & am ready to accept it—only it must be nettement [clearly]!” (Letters 179). Wharton continued, employing the con- tractual language of conditions and exchanges, “I recognize, also, perfect freedom in loving and in un-loving; but only on condition

that it is associated with equal

to carry your soucis cardiaques [affairs of the heart] where you

please; but on condition that you & I become again

comrades we were two years ago” (Letters 180). For Wharton, changing the terms of the relationship would prevent resentment on both sides and would provide stability and predictability in their relationship. She reiterated this point in a letter written sometime late in the summer of 1909 and again characterized their relationship as an exchange: “I know how unequal the exchange is between us, how little I have to give that a man like you can care for, & how ready I am, when the transition comes, to be again the good comrade you once found me” (Letters 189). By winter, the relationship clearly had changed as Wharton pointed out that though she has offered friendship, Fullerton merely avoided her and sometimes did not answer her letters. In a letter written in the winter of 1910, Wharton complained that he had lied to her to avoid seeing her. Apparently, Fullerton told her that he was sick, and when she went to his hotel to check on him, he was not there. As she wrote the letter, she constructed a dia- logue in which each of them asserted his or her rights:

I look on you as free

the good

I hear you say: “What! I haven’t the right to be absent from my hotel at 9 in the morning, or any other hour?”—You have every right, Dear, over every moment of your time & every feeling.—Only don’t tell me the night

5 For an account of Wharton’s relationship with Fullerton, see R. W. B. Lewis’s Edith Wharton, especially the “Paris and MF” section (159–266). With regard to The Reef, several critics, including Erlich, Keyser, Jones, and Tuttleton to name a few, pay close attention to Wharton’s relationship with Fullerton but do not discuss Wharton’s use of legal language in her letters. For instance, James Tuttleton sees the novel’s theme as “the tortured frustrations of inhibited love,” a theme he connects to Wharton’s much-discussed affair with Fullerton; accordingly, Anna Leath is a “partial portrait” of Wharton (465). Wendell Jones also suggests that “Wharton’s creation of Anna might well have been influenced by her own conflicts with regard to her relationship with Fullerton” (86).

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before: “I am too ill to see you.” Don’t you understand that what hurts me is not the fact of the change, which I find myself able to accept with a kind of cheerful stoicism that reassures me?—It’s not that, Dear, but the pain, the unutterable pain of thinking you incapable of understanding my frankness & my honest desire to let you lead your own life.—You say:

“I will be all you have the right to expect.”—If I have any rights, I renounce them. (Letters 196–97)

In this imagined conversation, both Fullerton and Wharton claim their rights in the negative. Casting her dilemma in the language of rights, Wharton imagined Fullerton protesting her implied claim that he had no right to be away from his hotel and claiming that he would be what she had “the right to expect” while implic- itly suggesting that she too had no right to expect anything. In this strange standoff of negative rights, Wharton renounced her rights even as she recognized that those rights might be mere fiction. With this renunciation, Wharton hoped that they might remain friends if nothing else, though she pointed out that Fullerton’s behavior had complicated any such transition. Wharton’s renunciation of her rights is a move that her fictional characters often duplicate, particularly in The Reef. Indeed, renouncing one’s rights seems the only act of agency available when it becomes clear that competing rights will lead to a standoff where justice cannot be served. The Reef opens with Anna Leath’s cryptic telegram to her childhood sweetheart, George Darrow: “Unexpected obstacle. Please don’t come till thirtieth. Anna” (17). For Darrow, the tele- gram takes on a legalistic character as a statement that carefully breaks a preexisting contractual agreement. Darrow’s reaction to this “obstacle” provides a perfect example of Berlin’s negative conception of liberty with its emphasis on rights as a protection against infringements by others; the “obstacle” infringes on Darrow’s liberty by preventing him from following through on his plans. This attention to negative liberty and negative rights persists throughout the novel. As we later learn, the “obstacle” in this instance turns out to be a competing claim, another obligation, that Anna must fulfill. Thus, Darrow’s implied contract with Anna is already shaped by obligations that precede it. The telegram comes after Darrow and Anna have rekindled their relationship when they accidentally meet after 12 years apart. Darrow views Anna’s attention after their long separation as granting him a

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privilege; when he left her after their most recent reunion, he did so “with the sense that he was a being singled out and privileged, to whom she had entrusted something precious to keep” (20). For Darrow, this exchange amounts to a gift “left to him to do with as he willed” (20). Though he does not explain what the “something precious” actually is, his language makes it clear that he believes Anna has given something up so that his “privilege” is derived from her corresponding loss. Darrow’s reaction to her delay of their plans to meet at Givré, the ancestral home of Anna’s deceased first husband, Arthur Leath, suggests the extent of the privilege he believes that she has granted him. Darrow, then, sees their relationship in highly legalistic terms in which his privilege is clearly defined in relation to Anna’s corresponding duty. Following a rights-based conception of justice and its account of the person, Darrow privi- leges clear-cut contractual obligations in which promises should be kept. Such a conception of their relationship fosters a sense of stability undermined by Anna’s telegram and the “unexpected” nature of the obstacle. Though it is not entirely clear what Anna’s duty may be, at least a part of it may include Anna’s relinquish- ment of the “right to change her mind,” a right which is essential to her own agency. Later, as he hopes for a letter from Anna, he imagines that “its contents might annul the writer’s telegraphed injunction, and call him to her side at once” (55). It is significant that Darrow does not merely want Anna to change her mind again and then to summon him to Givré; instead, he wants an annulment, a legal instrument designed to nullify whatever agree- ment preceded it, which would completely negate her act of agency. Indeed, Black’s Law Dictionary defines “annul” generally as “to reduce to nothing,” a definition that suggests Darrow’s desire “to reduce” Anna’s act of agency to “nothing.” 6 In Darrow’s imag- ination, Anna becomes, in this sense, a non-entity with no rights. In legal terms, her telegram would no longer exist, and the annulment would erase the evidence that Anna did, in fact, change her mind. Since Wharton opens the novel in Darrow’s

6 The full definition is even more telling: “to reduce to nothing; annihilate; obliterate; to make void or of no effect; to nullify; to abolish; to do away with. To cancel; destroy; abrogate. To annul a judgment or judicial proceeding is to deprive it of all force and operation, either ab inito [from the first act] or prospectively as to future transactions.”

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point of view and alternates between Darrow and Anna for the rest of the novel, readers do not know Anna’s reason for the change until much later when her perspective becomes the focus. As the language in the opening section suggests, contractual logic infuses Darrow’s perception of their relationship and enables him to reduce it to clear-cut rights and privileges that erase Anna’s prior obligations. Wharton complicates this initial account of Darrow’s rela- tionship with Anna by creating the first in a series of triangles:

Darrow, Anna, and Sophy. Through a chance meeting, Darrow falls into an affair with Sophy, a beautiful young woman he had briefly met during an earlier visit to her former employer, Mrs. Murrett. Like Darrow, Sophy also uses the language of rights in the classical liberal sense (as a way to claim a right to a particular thing), and she clearly connects rights with ownership and property. When Sophy and Darrow discuss Darrow’s past relationship with Lady Urlica, another member of Mrs. Murrett’s circle, Sophy explains:

Yes—I was envious of Lady Urlica

I’ve always wanted: clothes and fun and motors, and admiration and

And how do you suppose a girl can see that sort of

thing about her day after day, and never wonder why some women, who don’t seem to have any more right to it, have it all tumbled into their laps, while others are writing dinner invitations, and straightening out accounts, and copying visiting lists, and finishing golf-stockings, and matching ribbon, and seeing that the dogs get their sulphur? One looks in one’s glass after

all! (32, ellipses in original)

yachting and

because she had almost all the things

Sophy’s language suggests her belief that ownership should be based on some entitlement to the things owned, some sense of fundamental fairness, of justice, in the distribution of wealth. Sophy’s situation also provides a compelling example of the para- dox that rights claims have historically presented for women and other disenfranchised groups. On one hand, the extension of many legal rights to such groups provide important recognitions of claims to personhood (the right to vote, the right to own property, etc.); however, on the other hand, such rights become empty claims lacking the weight of enforcement and recognition by others. Sophy’s logic simultaneously mirrors and critiques the legal system’s faith in its ability to negotiate competing rights and

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render justice. According to this logic, the assertion of a right invokes an inherent assertion of the justice of the claim. However, as Sophy’s economic situation suggests, material conditions often limit such an absolute exercise of justice. The economic difference between Sophy and Darrow is obvious from their first exchange in which Darrow plays the hero and searches for Sophy’s lost trunk. When Darrow comments, “You’ve lost a trunk,” Sophy immediately corrects him: “Not a trunk, but my trunk” (26 emphasis in the original). Unlike Darrow, Sophy is not so well-off as to afford a cavalier attitude toward her somewhat meager belongings. Darrow later views Sophy’s economic situation as an “injustice” that “he felt the desire to right” (60). By characterizing her situation as an “injustice,” Darrow can justify their affair as the means through which Sophy can improve her situation (60). Darrow offers Sophy a deal that couches their relationship in legal terms:

Don’t you think one friend may accept a small service from another without looking too far ahead or weighing too many chances? The question turns entirely on what you think of me. If you like me well enough to be willing to take a few days’ holiday with me, just for the pleasure of the thing, and the pleasure you’ll be giving me, let’s shake hands on it. If you don’t like me well enough we’ll shake hands too; only I shall be sorry. (77)

Darrow’s offer consciously evokes legalistic language and reasoning, and much like an actual legal case, a single point becomes the crux of the issue; in effect, he reduces their situation to a single fact that “the question turns entirely on” (77), and this version makes his earlier actions irrelevant. The legalistic language also enables him to transform their sit- uation into a contractual one created by “talking as man to man”; by gaining her consent, he can replace his earlier sense of guilt with a contract formed between equals. Sophy sees only the promise of their agreement; she states that Darrow is “giving” her “the only chance” she has “ever had” (77). For Darrow, the agree- ment fixes the relationship in terms he can handle: “At the outset, he had felt no special sense of responsibility. He was satisfied he had struck the right note, and convinced of his power of sustaining it” (81). This supposedly simple sexual contract then becomes the basis of the explosive revelations at Givré. The relationship

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between Darrow and Anna cannot then be separated from Darrow’s relationship with Sophy. In Book II, Wharton shifts the point of view to Anna Leath and her home, Givré, which Wharton consistently presents in terms of balance and symmetry. The first description is of a “grassy court” from the entrance of which a “level drive” leads to a gate that opens on to “an equally level avenue of grass” (87). Givré, situated in “middle France” (88), sits upon this level ground, and a “double flight of steps” meets at its front door (87). Wharton repeats the word “court” several times in this opening description which suggests that Givré symbolically represents the seat of justice. Similarly, in “Wharton’s Reef: Inscriptions of Female Sexuality,” Rebecca Blevins Faery proposes that Givré represents a “web of law and custom” (94). This reading is reinforced by Givré’s

name in an earlier manuscript version; in “Fairy Tale Love and The Reef,” Elizabeth Ammons reports that Wharton originally named Givré “Blincourt” which Ammons reads as “‘blin[d]court’[ship], hence ‘the reef’” (617). An equally plausible reading, especially in terms of Wharton’s use of the word “court” and the descrip- tions emphasizing balance in the final version, is Blin[d]court, a name which evokes the adage, “Justice is Blind,” and its most familiar icon, Justitia, the blindfolded goddess who holds a scale in one hand and a sword in the other. While this expression generally indicates fairness, Wharton inverts it to suggest that blindness does not guarantee such fairness and to call our attention to the importance of perception in judgment. Like Givré, Anna Leath’s first appearance in the novel is also described in terms of balance: “In the court, half-way between house and drive, a lady stood” (87). Anna’s identity is also directly linked to that of Givré; when Anna first saw it as Fraser Leath’s

to hold out to her a fate as noble

young bride, Givré “seemed

and dignified as its own mien” (88). In her reading of the binary pair Nature/Culture, Sherrie Inness links Anna with Culture, which represents, among other things, “the web of law” (77). Sim- ilarly, Moira Maynard associates Anna with justice, noting that “her love of justice constantly harries and thwarts her. Unlike the unaffiliated Sophy, Anna feels the impingement of other people’s opinions and needs upon her desires” (289). The young Anna is partially attracted to Fraser Leath because his “scale of values is the same as hers” (95), and at first, “the sober symmetry of Givré

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had suggested only her husband’s neatly balanced mind” (96). Years later, the house becomes “the place one came back to, the place where one had one’s duties” until eventually Anna believes that “one could hardly, after so long a time, think one’s self away

from it without suffering a certain loss of identity” (89). Anticipating Darrow’s arrival and “conscious of that equipoise of bliss which the fearful human heart scarcely dares acknowledge,” Anna attempts

and in so

“to see the house through the eyes of an old friend

doing she seemed to be opening her own eyes upon it after a long interval of blindness” (89). Her descriptions of both “blindness” and a “scale of values” in relation to herself suggest a version of Anna herself as Justitia. Wharton’s linking of Anna with Justitia also indicates the importance of perception in making judgments. In “Images of Justice,” Dennis E. Curtis and Judith Resnik trace artistic repre- sentations of justice in Western culture. Their study highlights

several tensions in interpretations of Justitia’s blindfold: “Interpreta- tions of the blindfold as representing separation and distance, as a sign of the judge apart, connote a justice somehow barred from

receiving some kinds of

knowledge, some kind of sight” (1760). Anna faces precisely this dilemma; she must make judgments without access to all of the relevant information. Though, metaphorically speaking, Anna loses her blindfold and now may “see” clearly, she is left with the scales, the conceit Dimock identifies as central to the idea of jus- tice as equivalence. Against the backdrop of Givré as a kind of court of justice, the language of rights becomes increasingly prominent, and as I will discuss in a moment, Sophy Viner is put on trial. Though critics often see Anna and Sophy as opposites, Anna, like Sophy, often relies on legal language to define herself and her relation- ships with others, and for Anna, the language of rights operates in several different ways. Like Sophy, the young Anna Summers links rights with property ownership, in particular, property in the person. When the young Anna sees Darrow exchanging a look with another girl, she feels “a rage of possessorship” that inspires her to “assert her right to him at any price” (93). Anna believes that “none but she had a right to be so looked at” (93), and here, her logic reduces Darrow’s other love interests to non-entities with no rights, a move she will replicate as an adult

But to judge requires

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in her treatment of Sophy. However, while Sophy’s focus is clearly material possessions, Anna claims a property right in Darrow’s personhood, which, in turn, facilitates her own self- objectification based on Darrow’s right to look at her. Anna’s logic mirrors Darrow’s original interpretation of their contract in which he viewed his “privilege” as derived from Anna’s corre- sponding loss. Though critics often discuss the Sophy–Anna–Darrow triangle, few note the significance of Anna’s relationship with Owen, and another important triangle is that of Anna–Owen–Darrow. Unlike her younger self, the adult Anna views rights in concur- rence with her obligations to her child, Effie, and her step-son, Owen Leath; these duties to others alter her conception of her relationship with Darrow. In this sense, the adult Anna comes much closer to the “ethic of care” described by Gilligan. For instance, as Anna contemplates marriage, she questions “her right to introduce into her life any interests and duties which might rob Effie of a part of her time, or lessen the closeness of their daily intercourse” (298). Before Darrow’s arrival at Givré, Anna has an important conversation with Owen, and in order to understand the duty Anna feels for Owen and the ways in which that duty influences her actions, a close evaluation of their rela- tionship is helpful. In contrast to the symmetry of Givré and Fraser Leath, Owen has a “charmingly unbalanced face” and “a quaintly twisted reflection” of Fraser Leath’s mind (100). Dur- ing her marriage to Owen’s father, Anna sees Owen as “the voice of her secret rebellions” (101). These descriptions place Owen in an antithetical position to the justice of Givré. Anna later explains their relationship to Darrow as based “on odd brother and sister terms” (116). The terms seem odd indeed when Anna further describes their relationship to Darrow as a strange connection now based on a parent/child bond: “Owen’s like my son—if you’d seen him when I first came here you’d know why. We were like two prisoners who talk to each other by tapping on the wall” (235). This strange closeness is also implied in Anna’s conversations with Owen. In one instance, while she watches from the court as Owen approaches, she recalls fancying that Owen’s “response was warmer than that of her own child” (102). Owen “understands” things “in a tacit way that yet perpetually spoke to her” (102). Anna thinks:

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this sense of his understanding was the deepest element in their feeling for each other. There were so many things between them that were never spoken of, or even indirectly alluded to, yet that, even in their occasional discussions and differences, formed the unadduced arguments making for final agreement. (102)

Their connection defies reduction to a simple exchange that pro- duces corresponding rights and duties in the parties. By establishing this strange connection between Anna and Owen, Wharton intro- duces yet another triangle, Anna–Owen–Darrow, that further complicates any attempt to describe these relationships in terms of clear-cut rights, duties, or contractual obligations between two parties. As these relationships become more and more complicated, it becomes more and more difficult to determine the justness of a particular action or decision. Both Anna and Darrow have pre-existing commitments that

impact their relationship, particularly when they make additional promises to Owen and to Sophy. In both cases, contractual logic falters when confronted with this web of complex, interconnected relationships. Darrow becomes uneasy when he realizes that Anna has obligations to Owen, just as he has obligations to Sophy, that complicate their obligations to each other. Indeed, Darrow’s logic follows the legal system’s attempt to rank relationships based on legal categories. He seems troubled by Anna’s sense of duty to Owen and states that when Owen is settled, Owen must recognize that Darrow has “the first claim” on Anna (120). In spite of Darrow’s uncertainty, Anna refuses to offer further explanations, again asserting her promise to Owen: “I’ve promised Owen not to tell anyone” (121). Eventually, Darrow promises to help Anna secure Owen’s future happiness, though Darrow does not know that this promise involves Sophy Viner; Darrow states that “together” they “can’t fail to pull it off!” (131). At the end of this exchange, they share “a long kiss of communion” (127) that Darrow may see as at least a partial fulfillment of the girlhood “promises” “which her lips were afraid to keep” (41). This sexual promise awakens Darrow to the “high privilege of possessing her,” and he likens her to “a picture so hung that it can be seen only at a certain angle: an angle known to no one but its possessor. The thought flattered

.” (128, ellipses in original). His

sense of ownership is later echoed by Anna as she experiences

his sense of possessorship

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feelings that are “richer, deeper, more enslaving” than “any she had known before” (292). Here, this informal contract, with its sexual overtones, facilitates the commodification of the self, and it is not surprising that Wharton describes these feelings as “enslaving” for Anna. Darrow’s promise to help Anna to aid Owen creates yet another triangle: Darrow–Sophy–Owen. At Anna’s request and without knowledge that Sophy is involved with Owen, Darrow becomes an advocate, of sorts, for Owen by seeking the approval of Owen’s marriage by Madame de Chantelle, the representative of “the forces of order and tradition” (132). Here, Darrow simultaneously occupies two conflicting and presumably mutually exclusive roles— Sophy’s former lover who vaguely promised to “help” her and Anna’s fiancé who promised to serve as Owen’s advocate. Caught in these competing roles, Darrow quickly realizes that his rela- tionships can no longer be understood as rights or obligations between two parties. As he laments his plight, he realizes that “the situation, detestable at best, would have been relatively simple if protecting Sophy Viner had been the only duty involved in it” (148). Though Darrow believes his duty to Sophy is “paramount,” he must still recognize his “contingent obligations” (148). 8 Legalistic language becomes increasingly prominent in the conversations between Sophy and Darrow as the situation becomes increasingly more complex. These conversations foreshadow Sophy’s trial. According to Darrow, when Sophy arrives, “her first impulse was to defend her right to the place she had won, and to learn as quickly as possible if he meant to dispute it” (147 emphasis mine). However, Darrow soon realizes that he lacks the necessary facts to make a “judgment” about her (164), and, somewhat at a loss, he appeals to her to “listen” to his “reasons” because “there’s

7

7 See Carol Pateman’s The Sexual Contract for an account of the sexual contract that precedes and underpins the social contract and the legal contracts that flow from it. Pateman’s emphasis on the sexual contract highlights that moment when women become “subordinated to man as men” instead of as paternalistic fathers (3). 8 Darrow reiterates this dilemma: “He had patched up as decent a conclusion as he could to an incident that should obviously have no sequel; but he had known all along that with the securing of Miss Viner’s peace of mind only a part of his obligation was discharged, and that with that part of his obligation his remaining duty was in conflict. It had been his first business to convince the girl that their secret was safe with him; but it was far from easy to square this with the equally urgent obligation of safe-guarding Anna’s responsibility toward her child” (161).

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been time, on both sides, to think them over” (164). This atten- tion to “both sides” reinforces the adversarial nature of the situa- tion as well as the conception of justice as a way to resolve competing claims, one of which must trump the other. Sophy assumes that he is renewing his “offer” to help her out of more than a sense of personal obligation to her; she implies that he offers his help because he believes he “owes” something to Anna Leath (165). Darrow, refusing to respond directly to her allega- tion, points out that, when it comes to reasons, “a good deal depends on the words one uses to define rather indefinite things,” and he appeals to what he calls a “right” granted by their friend- ship to “intervene” in her “benefit” (165). Here, their competing visions of their respective rights set the stage for a standoff. Like a good courtroom lawyer presenting her own “case” with “cold lucidity” (166), Sophy uses Darrow’s own words against him and, after getting Darrow to admit his friendship with Anna, makes the logical leap that, just as his friendship with her affords him certain “rights,” his friendship with Anna might create the justification, or even the “duty,” for his advising Anna not to keep Sophy as Effie’s governess (165–66). Sophy finally explains that she will not, in any case, be Effie’s governess long because she has “had another offer” (167); however, Sophy does not explain that this offer is a marriage proposal from Owen. When Sophy later learns that Darrow has spoken to Madame de Chantelle about Sophy’s potential marriage, Sophy powerfully asserts the language of rights in her own defense and questions Darrow: “By what right, I should like to know? What have you to do with me, or anything in the world that concerns me?” (193). When Darrow explains that Madame de Chantelle is against the marriage, Sophy reminds him of his earlier promise “to say nothing” about their affair and accuses him of believing that she has no “right” to marry Owen (193–94). Thus, Darrow finds himself torn between his obligation to Sophy and his obligation to Anna. As this confusing series of agreements suggests, complex relationships cannot be reduced easily to clearly defined rights and duties that dictate a particular course of action. These competing rights require an outside arbiter of justice, Madame de Chantelle, to make a final determination and pass judgment on the “charges” against Sophy (185). Darrow’s first perception of her is quite telling; he notes that “she thought a

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great deal of ‘measure,’ and approved of most things only up to a certain extent” (132). Indeed, Madame de Chantelle possesses “the inanimate elegance of a figure introduced into a ‘still life’ to give the scale” (132). Put another way, she provides the standard of measurement, and as Owen’s grandmother, she must approve his marriage. Darrow’s access to Madame de Chantelle’s court depends on his tie to Anna as well as his background. His ancestral link to the Everards provides “incontestable claims” for acceptance as Anna’s husband:

The fact that they offered such firm footing—formed, so to speak, a friendly territory on which opposing powers could meet and treat—helped him through the task of explaining and justifying himself as the successor of Fraser Leath. (134)

The diplomat Darrow can evoke his lineage to secure the ground from which to make his case. Indeed, this characterization of “opposing powers” again echoes the sense of Givré as a court, here with Madame de Chantelle as judge. Her power becomes apparent through Wharton’s quite interesting use of the legally significant term “summons.” Black’s Law Dictionary defines a summons as: “a means of acquiring juris- diction over a party.” 9 Significantly, Darrow is “somewhat discon- certed by the summons” he receives to meet with Madame de Chantelle (179). Caught between competing claims and cast in the role of reluctant advocate, Darrow clings to his “promise” to Anna and defines his position in contractual terms even as he admits that “he promised her his help—but before he knew what he was promising” (202). Acknowledging this promise, he admits that he wants to speak on Sophy’s behalf and claims, “I don’t see how I can make it either for or against her” (202). Once again, his language implies a standoff between two sides. Lacking both property and social position, Sophy has no standing in the “court” that will decide her fate. She is excluded and left without a true advocate until the intervention of Adelaide Painter, Madame de Chantelle’s pragmatic American friend, who is also frequently

9 The Black’s Law Dictionary definition of “summon” is also significant: “to serve a summons; to cite a defendant to appear in court to answer a suit which has been begun against him; to notify the defendant that an action has been instituted against him, and that he is required to answer it at a time and place named.”

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“summoned” to Givre for “every domestic crisis” (153). Though

Sophy is the object of this dispute over Owen’s potential mar- riage, she is not a party to it and thus does not receive a summons of her own. In Madame de Chantelle’s court, Sophy’s claims, whatever they may be, simply do not exist. Adelaide subtly criticizes Madame de Chantelle’s approach by highlighting its adversarial nature; she points out that “Madame

de Chantelle seems to imagine

ought to have a dossier—a police record” (203) and admits that Sophy could be “‘traced’, as they call it in detective stories” to

uncover damaging information (204). Adelaide finally convinces Madame de Chantelle to approve the marriage by yoking legal and ethical justifications. She argues, “when I say that if you part two young things who are dying to be happy in the lawful way, it’s ten to one they’ll come together in an unlawful one? I’m insinuat-

ing shocking things against you

that you’ll care to assume such a responsibility before your Maker” (205). Adelaide’s interpretation of the case plays to Madame de Chantelle’s view of the situation as an adversarial one by implying that the couple might step outside the law if the law, here represented by Madame de Chantelle, does not provide an adequate solution. The situation itself exceeds this final judgment. Owen’s reve- lation that Darrow and Sophy have had an affair reveals the impossibility of justice in this complex series of relationships. At first, Anna is skeptical of Owen’s “grievance” (229), and Darrow temporarily convinces Anna that Owen’s accusations are the result of a misunderstanding, even though her intuition suggests otherwise. In his defense, he calls up his original promise to Anna to help Owen as the basis for his questionable interactions with Sophy and further claims that this promise “pledges” him “to silence” (236) so that he cannot provide any explanation to Owen. Eventually, Darrow can no longer evade Anna’s questions, and she finally accepts that Owen’s allegations are true. Darrow then asserts his promise to Sophy to justify his silence; he argues that he was “bound” not to reveal that he had met Sophy in Paris (251). In both examples, Darrow relies on a rights-based account of justice predicated on contractual obligations to justify his deci- sions and his own view of his obligations. Also, Darrow evokes legalistic language to assert his right to a fair hearing. For instance,

in suggesting for a moment

that a young American girl

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Darrow complains that Anna will not “allow” him “a voice” (265) when she dismisses him “without a hearing” (266). He urges Anna, “be just to me; it is your right” (267). Here, Darrow’s remark con- flates Anna’s identity as a just person with the very language that renders that model of the self a paradox. Here, her “right” simply masks what Darrow views as an obligation, a duty, to do him justice. As these promises consume the text, Wharton describes the court as having been damaged; indeed, Darrow “noticed that the gale of two days before had nearly stripped the tops of the lime trees in the court” (253). Anna’s viewpoint suggests a similar mutilation of justice; she states that “it was as though he and she had been looking at two sides of the same thing, and the side she

had seen had been all light and life, and his a place of graves

(255, ellipses in original). Anna’s shifting view of the complex series of promises further suggests the intensity of her relation- ship with Owen. At first, she recognizes her connections to both Owen and Darrow, claiming that “We’re all bound together in this coil” (253). However, like Darrow, she later attempts to cate- gorize her obligations. Her duty to Owen soon reasserts itself as she contends that she “owed herself first to him–she was bound to protect him not only from all knowledge of the secret she had surprised but also–and chiefly!–from its consequences” (256). Similarly, Anna also implicitly acknowledges her duty to Owen as she places Owen’s rights ahead of her own. When Sophy explains that she plans to leave Givré, she describes her mistake as “daring to dream I had a right” (284) and indicates that she is informing Anna before Owen due to her obligations as Effie’s governess. Anna responds thus: “Owen has a right to ask that you should consider him first before you think of his sister” (222). For Sophy, confessing her love for Darrow is an act of self justification; as she puts it, “it is that that justifies me” (284). In contrast, Anna asserts a negative conception of liberty, arguing that Sophy had “no right” to let Owen love her (284). Just as Darrow earlier reduced Anna to a non-entity with no right, so to does Anna erase Sophy’s act of self-justification. In this sense, The Reef offers a powerful critique of rights by highlighting a central paradox: the language that articulates a claim to selfhood makes possible the erasure of the self it calls into being. As the novel nears its conclusion, then, it seems that Wharton has resolved the problem of justice in the way that the legal system

.”

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does—by simply erasing the parties whose “claims” do not fit the structure and privileging those with rights that do. Indeed, the structure of the novel itself highlights this problem. Because point of view alternates between Darrow and Anna, neither Sophy nor Owen may testify on their own behalf. Both characters may be erased because they are not granted control of the narrative. With Sophy and Owen absent, it seems that justice can be served in the usual fashion—Anna and Darrow can resolve their dispute supposedly apart from the many obligations they have incurred with Sophy and Owen. Anna acknowledges that “there were cer- tain dishonors with which she had never dreamed that any pact could be made” because “she had had an incorruptible passion for good faith and fairness” (277). However, Anna comes to an important recognition: “how can there be a best for you that’s made of someone else’s worst?” (289). In this moment, Anna seems to recognize the threat to the self that is produced by claiming a right defined through and created by a corresponding loss to another. However, Anna cannot completely escape the logic of this system. Later, she recalls Darrow’s prediction that “when she had explored the intricacies and darknesses of her own heart her judgment of others would be less absolute” (293), and she real- izes that “she and Darrow belonged to each other” (292). 10 Only after Anna sexually consummates their relationship does she come to feel that they were “bound together as two trees with

interwoven roots” (328). Their new relationship subsumes Anna’s sense of duty to Effie and, by implication, to Owen as well. Anna states that “she was his [Darrow’s] now, for life: there could never be any question of sacrificing herself to Effie’s welfare, or to any abstract sense of duty” (315). Anna recognizes then that Darrow gains new rights when she acknowledges that the sexual contact confers “privileges” that “however deferentially and tenderly he

marked a difference and proclaimed a right”

(324). With this comes the recognition that his right derives its

claimed them

content from her loss.

10 Anna in part justifies her decision by universalizing Darrow’s behavior as she imagines that her first husband might have had affairs as well: “she wanted to think that all men were like that because Darrow was like that; she wanted to justify her acceptance of the fact by persuading herself that only through such concessions could women like herself hope to keep what they would not give up” (295).

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Their sexual relationship appears to provide full performance of the unspoken terms of their original agreement, yet it is the performance of this contract that leads Anna to question not only the equivalence of the exchange itself but also the idea of justice as equivalence. Some part of Anna still remains troubled because she does not keep her word; that is, Anna reminds herself that “Sophy had kept her word, lived up to the line of conduct she had set herself; and Anna had failed in the same attempt” (315). In measuring herself against Sophy, Anna finds herself lacking. Anna highlights one of the fundamental justifications for the law—its ability to provide some sense of stability by encouraging (or sometimes forcing) people to follow through on the promises they make. Though Anna concedes to herself that “Darrow had been right in saying that their sacrifice would benefit no one,” “she seemed dimly to discern that there were obligations not to be tested by that standard” (328). This need of some “standard” for evaluating obligations that do not fit the existing categories sends Anna once again in search of Sophy Viner. Anna turns to Sophy, who represents an “external chance” that provides Anna’s “only escape” (328). Only Sophy, now absent, can provide justice for Anna. Through a perverse inversion of Sophy’s trial, Wharton’s bizarre conclusion highlights once again the familiar debate about the nature of justice. What happens when justice cannot be served by defining and adjudicating among rights, privileges, and duties? In contrast to the balance of Givré and Madame de Chantelle’s elegant figure “to give the scale,” a different space entirely awaits Anna when she follows a “winding passage” to Sophy’s sister’s apartment. Unlike Givré, this space is characterized by its unbalanced décor, for example, a sofa in one corner and a grand piano in the other (330). As several critics point out, Anna also cannot identify the people in the room; the parties in this court defy categorization, and Anna’s experience has left her com- pletely unprepared for such an environment. Anna then enters Laura’s very pink bedchamber, a color scheme that has provoked much commentary. For instance, Rebecca Blevins Faery notes that “pink has been, throughout the novel, the sign of illicit sexuality” (95 n4). However, the bedchamber is also strangely reminiscent of Madame de Chantelle’s sitting-room which is described, in argu- ably more subtle terms, as decorated with “purple satin upholstery”

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and a “rose-wood fire screen” (178), and even Madame de Chantelle herself has a “slight pinkness of the eye-lids” (180) which rein- forces some connection between the characters. However, while Madame de Chantelle’s summons are always answered, Laura calls for Jimmy Brance, another associate of Mrs. Murrett’s and a link to Sophy’s past, and receives “no response from the person summoned” (334). In this perverse scene of justice turned upside down, then, summonses are ignored, and all is stagecraft and empty gestures. Anna can find no standards, absolute or other- wise, to guide her behavior so that she simply fades out with “an inaudible farewell” and a “murmured word of thanks” (334). The lack of a straightforward ending—of closure—suggests the ten- sion inherent in a conception of justice that depends primarily on the language of rights to adjudicate claims. 11 As The Reef sug- gests, some relationships, with their complex rights and duties, escape this structure and point us to what Dimock calls “the very domain of the incommensurate” (10). As Dimock explains, “literary justice is a point of commensurability rationally arrived at, but it is simultaneously registered as a loss, a strain, a necessary abstraction that necessarily does violence to what it abstracts” (9). In elucidat- ing competing rights predicated on a complex array of promises, Wharton reveals precisely how this language of commensurability and absolutes-ness facilitates the erasure of the very self it seeks to call into being and to protect at all costs.

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