Waythorn waits for his new wife, Alice, to come downstairs. She is tending to Lily, her young daughter from her first marriage. The young girl has fallen quite ill, so the Waythorns have had to cut their honeymoon short and return to New York. Waythorn does not mind, though, and reflects on how unflappable his wife is. He recalls that when Alice first appeared in New York, her last name was still Haskett even though she and Mr. Haskett (Lily's father) were already divorced. Any taint of scandal surrounding Alice vanished when she entered high society and married Gus Varick. She and Varick divorced, too, and after that, New York society still accepted Alice. Now, as Alice's third husband, Waythorn is pleased with her and admires how she surmounts obstacles so elegantly.
When Mrs. Waythorn comes downstairs, she looks worried. She explains to her new husband that Lily's father, Mr. Haskett, wants to come visit his daughter. Normally, Lily goes to see him, but as she is ill, this arrangement can no longer work. Mr. Waythorn agrees, and Mrs. Waythorn is relieved.
The next morning, as Waythorn leaves the house to go to work, he is repulsed by the idea of his wife's ex-husband walking through his door and entering his home. As luck would have it, Waythorn finds himself smashed in beside Mr. Varick on the train that day. The two men exchange pleasantries and discuss how Mr. Sellers, Waythorn's business partner, is ill. Mr. Varick remarks that he starting to get into investing. The two men part ways, but Waythorn is shocked when they end up at the same lunch restaurant later that day. He watches the other man enjoy his food and observes with some dismay how calm he seems – their chance meeting that morning has had no obvious effect on him. Waythorn wonders if the idea of Haskett ever bothered Varick when he was married to Alice.
When Waythorn returns home, he notices that Mrs. Waythorn is cheery and lighthearted. He asks if she saw her ex-husband and she hesitates and says no, but the nurse saw him. Later, when she is serving Waythorn coffee, she accidentally puts cognac in it, which is how Varick takes his coffee. Both husband and wife are embarrassed by her mistake but do not discuss it.
The next morning at his office, Waythorn's senior partner asks him to stop by Varick's and help him sort out his investment (because Sellers is still sick). Waythorn is hesitant but remains professional and accepts the assignment. During their interview, Waythorn admires Varick's carefree, easygoing manner. Waythorn recalls a rumor that the Varicks' money troubles were part of the reason for their divorce. Nevertheless, he finds solace in the fact that he has the upper hand in the interaction with his wife's ex-husband.
Over time, Waythorn begins to get used to the idea of Haskett's visits, especially because he never sees him. However, one day, Haskell is startled to find a small, wan man with a gray beard sitting in his library. Haskett introduces himself to Waythorn in a quiet and resigned manner. After a brief exchange, Waythorn goes upstairs; he is annoyed at himself for suffering so acutely. He knew his wife had already been married twice, but his encounter with Haskell has disturbed him. He gazes at a picture of his wife in her earlier days and begins wondering about her life before she met him. She seems to be different with each of her husbands, which Waythorn describes as an "obliteration of the self" (75). He muses that Haskett seems inoffensive, concluding, "a man would rather think that his wife has been brutalised by her first husband than that the process has been reversed" (75).
One day, Haskell tells Waythorn he does not like Lily's French governess. Waythorn is annoyed but secretly agrees with the man. He is even more annoyed when Haskett reveals that he and Mrs. Waythorn did in fact speak when he first came to their home (but they have not spoken since). Waythorn wonders why his wife felt the need to lie to him.
The fact that he finds Haskett rather agreeable unsettles Waythorn. He learns that Haskett is working at a lower-paying job because he wants to be near his daughter. Waythorn is the sort of man that ignores unpleasant things until they are under his nose, and at this point, he finally decides to have a direct conversation with his wife. It does not go well, and Mrs. Waythorn is completely flustered, but they agree to let the governess go. After that, Haskell speaks to Mrs. Waythorn more regularly about matters related to their child, and in her mind, he becomes almost like another domestic servant.
As for Varick, he and Waythorn have concluded their business affairs and Waythorn has found him more than tolerable. The two men strike up a little friendship and as a result, Varick gains re-entry into the Waythorns' social circle. One night at a party, Waythorn even sees Varick talking to his ex-wife, Mrs. Waythorn. Later, when Waythorn asks her about it she becomes very accommodating and apologetic. He gets frustrated and thinks, "[has] she really no will of her own – no theory about her relation to these men?" She seems "'easy as a worn shoe' – a shoe too many feet [have] worn" (80-81).
Winter continues, and Mrs. Waythorn's behavior becomes irreproachable. When Waythorn married her, he thought she would be able to develop a new identity separate from her past, but circumstances have forced the newlyweds to maintain relationships with both of Alice's ex-husbands. Waythorn becomes weary with the complicated situation, and wonders why his wife has to be so acquiescent and tactful. However, as time wears on, he becomes more comfortable with the presence of "the other two" in their life. He feels like he is part of a syndicate and only possesses a third of his wife, even though it is the most important third. His wife has acquired many social skills and graces, and for that, Waythorn feels that he is in debt to his predecessors. Upon realizing this, "he [passes] into [a phase] of complete acceptance" (83).
One evening, Waythorn comes home and meets with Haskell in the library. He offers the man a cigar and they speak easily. The cigar smoke creates a sort of intimacy between them. Soon Varick arrives unexpectedly. He is surprised at Haskett's presence but quickly recovers. Waythorn offers him a cigar as well, and he accepts.
A servant informs Waythorn that his wife plans on having tea in the library, and before he can alter the arrangement, she strolls in breezily. She is stunned to see all three of her husbands in one room but composes herself and asks the other two how they are doing. It is awkward, and the two ex-husbands stammer excuses. However, Alice laughs it off and begins to serve the tea. She gives the first cup to Waythorn, who also laughs.
“The Other Two” is light in tone but presents an insightful perspective on the the nature of marriage, identity, and gender relations at the turn of the century. "The Other Two" was published in 1904 and also appeared in the collection The Descent of Man and Other Stories that same year. Many critics deemed "The Other Two" to be an excellent comedy of manners. Its tone and content are often compared to Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country (1913).
When the story begins, Mr. Waythorn is pleased with his new wife, Alice. He is not troubled by her first two marriages; especially since society has not shunned her in the wake of divorce and she appears to be generally unaffected by her ex-husbands. In fact, Waythorn sees her lack of anxiety about her past as her best trait. However, external circumstances bring both of Alice's ex-husbands back into the couple’s life, which Waythorn initially finds to be uncomfortable. Over the course of the story, though, he finds it disturbing to see how much his wife defines herself by her husband(s).
Waythorn’s discomfort with his wife’s past derives from the fact he learns things about her that that shatter the image he had of her when they married. When he meets Mr. Haskett, he is actually disappointed to see that the man is kind and devoted to his daughter. Haskett's inoffensive nature forces Waythorn to consider the idea that his wife, not this man, was the aggressor in their divorce. Alice's complicated history momentarily debases her in Waythorn's eyes. He muses, “she was ‘as easy as an old shoe’ –a shoe that too many feet had worn” (81). This sentence carries an overtly misogynist tone. Waythorn is uncomfortable with the fact that his wife had a life before he came along.
Waythorn’s insecurities do not last long, however, as he realizes that neither ex-husband presents any kind of threat to his marriage. Simultaneously, he has grows to appreciate the domestic skills Alice has honed in her two previous homes. It is possible to interpret Waythorn's adaptability as indicative of his ability to evolve and grow, much like his wife. By the end of the story, he is sharing cigars and tea with the his wife and her two ex-husbands, laughing.
In "The Other Two," Alice embodies the theme of evolution. As critic Abby Werlock writes, “Alice Waythorn’s ability to adapt to the different styles of her three husbands illustrates the common understanding of Darwinian notions of sexual patterns and evolutionary survival.” Ultimately, Alice's adaptability has benefited her, Werlock writes, because, “in true Darwinian fashion, she has not merely survived but also has made the best home she can for herself and her daughter.”
Alice has navigated two divorces and three marriages with aplomb, managing to emerge without garnering any criticism from society. She is a modern female character, who is able to choose the life she wants and discard it when she does not want it anymore (within the confines of societally acceptable gender roles). She earns mild censure from her husband which she is able to overcome.