Summary:

The Reef has been hailed by critics as Wharton's most "Jamesian" novel while James himself admired its "Racinian" virtues. The novel focusses on the lives and fates of three central figures, all of them Americans abroad:  George Darrow, a bachelor-diplomat; Anna Leath, a wealthy widow whom he hopes to marry; and Sophy Viner, a young, working-class woman with whom Darrow enjoys a costly tryst in Paris.

As the novel begins, Darrow travels to France from England to see Anna Leath, who has deferred his offer of marriage. Anna's cryptic telegram, acknowledging an "unexpected obstacle," compels him to adjust his plans and return to England, but his attention is diverted when he meets the young Sophy Viner (clearly herself an "unexpected obstacle") and, charmed by her, decides to show her about Paris, introduce her to French culture, and set her up in his hotel. Though he barely recalls it, Darrow previously had met Sophy when she was working at the home of a disagreeable woman in London. Quite unconsciously, Darrow slips into a romantic dalliance with Sophy, affording little thought to the consequences.

Darrow's actions have their ramifications, as Sophy ultimately is engaged, by remarkable (if not believable) coincidence, as a governess to Anna Leath's daughter at Givre, the Leath family's French estate. To further complicate matters, Sophy accepts the marriage proposal of Anna's quick-tempered stepson, Owen Leath. After much suspicion on the part of Anna and Owen, Darrow's past with Sophy is uncovered. Sophy and Darrow each leave the premises, parting in different directions and deferring their respective marriage plans (Anna had agreed to marry Darrow). Darrow returns to Givre but Anna finds it difficult to fully trust him, plagued as she is by his fling with Sophy. Wharton's narrative leaves us hanging at the novel's end, admitting the possibility that Anna will accept Darrow after all. What seems most certain is that, given the limits of her class and gender, Sophy Viner--who has left for India to work, once again, for her former employer--is destined to assume a fate similar to that of her sister Laura, a singer who apparently doubles as a prostitute, with whose dreary, sordid image the novel closes.

Discussion Questions:

1. Consider to what extent Wharton's novel functions as a social critique. What does it say about society's codes of sexual behavior? (Do men and women endure the same consequences, for instance, for exra-marital affairs?) Is Wharton critical of the behavior of George Darrow? Who pays the penalty for his indiscretions?

2. Discuss Wharton's use of point of view. To whose consciousness do we have access in this novel? Does this perspective shift at all? If so, when, and to what effect?

3. Who wields the most power in this novel, including, for instance, the minor characters? Who has the least agency? Why?

4. What function do letters (including telegrams) serve in this work?

5. Compare the novel's main characters with others in the Wharton canon.  For instance, might we place Sophy Viner in a lineage with other of Wharton's symbols of "loveliness in distress," as both Sophy and Lily Bart (The House of Mirth, 1905) are described? What connections or distinctions might we draw between Anna Leath and, say, May Welland (The Age of Innocence, 1920)?  Does George Darrow resemble other of Wharton's male protagonists?

6. Discuss Wharton's use of houses--interiors and exteriors--in this novel, considering, for example, the significance of Givre.

7. Consider the scenes in which Sophy and Darrow enjoy the theatre in Paris. What importance do these moments have for Wharton's own narrative drama? Is the work finally a tragedy?

8. Why does Anna seek out Sophy at the end of the novel? What does she hope to accomplish?

9. Much of the criticism on The Reef tends to focus on Anna Leath and George Darrow. With the understanding that our access to her is limited, consider what kind of reading of Sophy Viner the narrative promotes. Does Wharton seem to sympathize with her?

10. Based on the clues Wharton provides, is it likely Anna will return to Darrow? Why or why not?

--Contributed by Emily J. Orlando, University of Maryland