At the beginning of the story, American journalist Paul Garnett is sitting at a Paris cafe chatting casually with another American man whose name he does not know, even though he has become an amiable companion for the last two years. It appears to Garnett that his companion has a family but has likely not had contact with them for some time.
Later that day, Mrs. Sam Newell, an American society woman, summons Garnett to her hotel room. Garnett muses that Mrs. Newell was wealthy but now faces straitened circumstances. She has always used up her resources too quickly but somehow always manages to find a new set of friends, increased credit, or some kind of renewed influence to keep up her standard of living. She amazes Garnett, who sees himself as one of her acquisitions. Garnett observes that Mrs. Newell can be herself with him, neither "scrupulously English" (162), which she aspires to be, nor "artificially American" (162), which she actually is. Garnett met her when his paper put him on assignment to conduct interviews with prominent Americans in London. Back then, he observed her "personality [to be] a little tarnished: she was in want of social renovation" (163).
Mrs. Newell has one child, a daughter named Hermione Newell who lacks individuality and is "invisible in the glare of her mother's personality" (164). Mrs. Newell only seems to only appreciate Hermione because of the ways she can contribute to her mother's social advancement.
Garnett with meets Mrs. Newell, and she wastes no time telling him that she needs a favor. Hermione is to be married to the Comte Louis du Trayas, who comes from a distinguished French family. Garnett realizes inwardly that this marriage it as "a superlative stroke of business" (169) on Mrs. Newell's part. However, Mrs. Newell tells him the last obstacle standing in the way of the marriage is Hermione's father, who has not been part of the family for a long time. She asks Garnett to find the man and ask to come to the wedding. She does not want Mr. Newell there but he must be present on account of French and Catholic tradition. As Garnett ponders this request, Mrs. Newell's friend Baron Schenkelderff enters the room. Garnett finds the man's elegant and artificial manners to be off-putting and leaves.
Garnett is uncomfortable with Mrs. Newell's request, but decides to follow through for sweet Hermione's sake. He eventually manages to track down Mr. Newell's address. The morning that Garnett is going to find Mr. Newell, he stops at his customary cafe and enters into conversation with the American man who is always there. The man accompanies Garnett who discovers, to his surprise, that the man with whom he has shared many a conversation is actually Samuel Newell.
Mr. Newell has seen the announcement about Hermione's upcoming marriage and refuses to consent to anything, dryly wondering why Garnett is caught up in the affair. Garnett endeavors to change Newell's mind, as Comte's traditional French parents are growing wary and might end the engagement of they find out that Mr. and Mrs. Newell are so badly estranged.
That afternoon, Mrs. Newell is angry to hear of Garnett's failure and proclaims that she will go reason with her husband in person. The Baron scoffs, calling this a terrible idea. Later, Hermione contrives to speak with Garnett alone. She is filled with emotion and tells Garnett to leave her father alone because he has been through enough. She is willing to forsake her own happiness if it means he can maintain his peace and quiet. Garnett relays Hermione's message to Mr. Newell, who agrees to attend the wedding. He comments that his wife always gets what she wants.
The wedding day arrives and Mr. Newell makes his first appearance during the nuptial celebration. When Mr. Newell meets Hermione in the church, she throws herself on him in a hug. He is unshaken, and walks her down the aisle obediently. Garnett observes that everyone at the wedding is somehow one of Mrs. Newell's marionettes, including himself, which he regrets slightly. However, he begins to change his mind once he sees how his actions have brought a daughter back together with her father.
"The Last Asset" is one of Wharton's longest short stories and first appeared in Scribner's in 1904. Like many of her other works, it deals with the foibles and flaws of New York's upper crust against the background of relationships and class conflicts. It is also reminiscent of Henry James's work, as Wharton explores the subject of Americans living abroad.
Wharton wrote "The Last Asset" through Paul Garnett's perspective. Garnett, a newspaper reporter working in Paris, does not reveal much about himself, like a true journalist. As a narrator, he focuses solely on his observations of the people around him. Throughout the story, it becomes clear that Garnett is disillusioned by the artificiality of society and finds solace in moments of truth.
He is keenly aware of his position as one of Mrs. Newell's "marionettes," and anticipates that she is planning to ask him to do something unsavory from the moment she summons him. As far as his autonomy, Garnett vacillates between the poles of grudgingly carrying out Mrs. Newell's wishes and allowing her to pull his strings like a puppet, or making choices based on his own rational and moral belief system. He almost backs out of finding Mr. Newell, but eventually decides to because it will make Hermione happy. He is a realistic, flawed character who moves between moments of malleability and independence.
Mrs. Newell, however, exemplifies one of Wharton's common themes – social evolution. Mrs. Newell is constantly changing, adapting, moving through new friends, new credit, and new cities in order to maintain her standard of living. Garnett marvels at Mrs. Newell's "prodigality" (161) and her voraciousness. She is calculating, manipulative, and quick to use anyone and everyone, including her own daughter and husband, to further her own financial ends. In this sense she is certainly the fittest character in the story, and fights tooth and nail to rise to the upper echelons of society. Hermione's wedding is Mrs. Newell's greatest accomplishment, as she has finally found a way to finally secure steady wealth and material comfort.
The title of the story refers to Mr. Newell. Wharton reveals little about Mr. Newell, but he remains the crux of the tale. Mrs. Newell's social rehabilitation cannot take place unless he attends Hermione's wedding. In this sense, Mrs. Newell only sees her estranged husband as an asset, another acquisition that will enable Hermione's marriage once it is in her possession. Meanwhile, Mr. Newell's pain at being discarded threatens to foil her plans. In fact, it is pure love and emotion that allows the marriage to happen. Therefore, despite all of Mrs. Newell's machinations, it is Garnett's affection for Hermione, Hermione's love for her father, and Mr. Newell's fondness for his daughter that bring Mrs. Newell her final asset - not money, which is her preferred currency.
Wharton often wrote vague endings for her stories, leaving readers to discuss the underlying meaning. Both Garnett and Mr. Newell are somewhat bitter that Mrs. Newell has once again managed to manipulate everyone around her to further her own ends, they also find happiness in enabling Hermione's happy marriage. Meanwhile, Hermione proves herself to be independent from her mother. She is a pure soul who is willing to give up her marriage for the sake of her father's comfort, while her mother does not consider anyone's feelings.