2021 EWS Undergraduate Essay Prize: Alp Eren Pirli, Boğaziçi University, for Telegraphic Naturalism: Technological Determinism in The Reef

Telegraphic Naturalism:

Technological Determinism in The Reef

Alp Eren Pirli, Boğaziçi University,

            In a 1912 letter to her friend Bernard Berenson, Edith Wharton names her novel The Reef (1912) as “Ethan’s successor” (Lewis and Lewis 266). As Kate Gschwend argues, Ethan Frome (1911) is a work in which Wharton articulates a deterministic “belief in technological innovation as an instrument of . . . progress” (9). Ethan Frome postulates “that a community that is denied access to technological innovations is destined to stagnate” by placing the titular Ethan Frome’s outmoded sawmillin contrast with “the progressive power of electricity,” suggesting “social atrophy” for communities unfortunate enough to be built around obsolescent technological structures (Gschwend 9). Taking on the mantle of “Ethan’s successor,” The Reef holds its predecessor’s community-oriented premise under the microscope of the individual by turning its focus to how contemporaneous channels of communication such as the telegraph alter discursive power relations between people, as they allow their users to relay “[i]nformation . . . in a manner that seemed to ‘annihilate’ space and time” (Müller 517). Although The Reef seems completely captivated by the power of new channels of communication as delineated by Müller, it does not fail to register an astute awareness of the correlation between utilizing said channels and occupying positions of privilege. Indeed, in the process of drawing an environment of individuals governed by the effects of electronic media, The Reef critically reflects on the manner in which these media fundamentally operate under the hierarchies of class and gender. It follows, then, that communication technologies are presented in The Reef as forces that determine—and even reify—such social hierarchies.

While Ethan Frome introduces some modern, technologically deterministic elements, itultimately puts forward a typical (hereditary) take on naturalism, underlining the immutability of Ethan’s “poor economic situation—which he has inherited from his father” (Drizou). In her essay, Gschwend envisions a Wharton enamored with technological developments at the turn of the twentieth century, visiting “the 1900 International Exposition in Paris that emphasized new modes of energy,” and furnishing “her Lenox estate” with “electric lights . . . in 1901” (12). It is this Wharton who “projects a powerful expression of technological determinism” in Ethan Frome (Gschwend 12). Two years after the publication of The Reef, however, Wharton’s letters suggest an unabashed belief in electronic media’s capability to transfigure the individual in such a way as to radically upend social relations. Writing to poet Corinne Roosevelt Robinson in a letter dating to 1914, Wharton mentions that the “proficiency in telephoning & telegraphing” that she “had acquired” in her “wonderful New York fortnight reduced” her “to absolute inarticulateness—of tongue & pen” (Lewis and Lewis 314). In The Reef, just as in this letter, electronic channels of communication transcend the limits of mere technological determinism à la Ethan Frome, going so far as to alter the very linguistic faculties of the individual. If Ethan Frome, then,is an exposition of the burgeoning buds of technological determinism in Wharton’s mind, The Reef displays these erstwhile buds in full bloom.

In particular, The Reef appoints telegraphy inter alia as a determining factor of utmost importance in the life of the individual, going so far as to represent the telegraph as a spatial displacer of the human body in the case of Sophy Viner. Hence, if “[l]iterary naturalism . . . foregrounds the role that social and biological forces play in characters’ destinies” (Drizou), The Reef nominates the presence of electronic media, with the telegraph at the forefront, as another such force. In centering electronic media as determining factors, The Reef reveals that these media invariably interact with the social forces of class and gender. Thus, The Reef works as a landmark example of what I call “telegraphic naturalism.”1 As a text of “telegraphic naturalism,” The Reef seeks to frame its individual characters and their positions of class and gender within the communication modes and networks of electronic media.

            Wharton’s novel opens with a brusque telegram from Anna Leath to George Darrow: “Unexpected obstacle. Please don’t come till thirtieth. Anna” (5). The telegram meets Darrow not merely as a string of printed words upon a piece of paper, but rather as an aural message whose words are “hammered . . . into George Darrow’s brain,” whose “syllables” strike Darrow “like a discharge of musketry” (5). Ever since the inception of the telegraph, its users have “often treated the telegraph as a speaking machine” (Menke 80). Wharton is no exception to this rule, as made evident by this excerpt in which Anna’s voice envelops Darrow as soon as he takes the telegram out of its envelope. Moreover, the fact that the “syllables” of this telegram “drip slowly into his brain . . . shaking, tossing . . . like the dice in some game” evokes a tactile sensuousness (Reef 5). This audio-tactile message awakens in him a memory of an instance of tactile communication between him and Anna: “Darrow had felt a slight pressure of the arm on his, a pressure faintly but unmistakably emphasizing the exclamation: ‘Isn’t it wonderful? – In London – in the season – in a mob?’” (Reef 6). This haptic message sent from Anna’s arm to Darrow’s is “fragmented and disjointed” in form in the way that Menke describes the apparent shape of telegraphic information (19), and subject to “maximum linguistic compression” in terms of content as Hochfelder describes the dearth of words in telegrams (81). By carefully positioning this tactile memory after Darrow’s initial contact with Anna’s telegram, Wharton associates telegraphy with the absolute propinquity of two bodies in haptic rapport. It is no coincidence that Wharton would associate the two, for ever since the 1840s, the telegraph was seen as a force which “might inaugurate a new intimacy in human interaction” (Morus 463). This presumed “intimacy” would “dissolve the distance between . . . individuals” (Butchard 101). In fact, Anna’s telegram does more than “dissolve the distance between” her and Darrow; it gives her the strength to have “flung back the fortnight on his hands” (Reef 10). Disrupting conventional configurations of time with a physical metaphor, Anna’s telegram pronounces itself the first “reef” of The Reef; it makes Darrow run aground in travel and induces in him “a traveling paralysis” with its power of instantaneous communication (Culbert 540). Darrow exits the train a changed man. He is now extremely sensitive to tactile sources of communication; the “umbrellas” and “elbows” of fellow pedestrians appear to tell him “[s]he doesn’t want you, doesn’t want you, doesn’t want you” as they come into contact with him (Reef 11).

            If the telegraph transforms Darrow, so does it transform everyone else in the narrative; as Linda Wagner-Martin observes, “the taint of this opening mood colors much of the subsequent narrative” (193). At first glance, however, Sophy Viner appears unfazed by this telegraphic transformation. While Anna’s communicative endeavors “tacitly” lead Darrow to “draw his own conclusions,” such conclusions simply come prepackaged in Sophy’s parlance (Reef 8). The fact that Sophy replies with “[n]ot a trunk, but my trunk; I’ve no other” instead of the “conventional ‘Oh, would you?’” after Darrow asks whether she has “lost a trunk” marks her as a different communicative species inasmuch as Sophy’s discourse—unlike the discourses of Anna or Darrow—does not possess telegraphic elements (13). Sophy gives Darrow the conclusion of her statement up front, whereas Darrow’s elliptical reply demands a conclusion to be drawn by the receiver, as speculated by Darrow himself: “’I may probably have to go back to London. I’m – I’m waiting . . . expecting a letter . . .’ (‘She’ll think me a defaulter,’ he reflected.)” (13). As in the case of Anna’s telegram, Sophy has to “think” and participate in the creation of the meaning in Darrow’s reply. According to Richard Menke, the telegraph “demands the most frenzied form of participation” as a rule (127), and Wharton extends this rule to oral language as spoken by Darrow. In comparison, Darrow does not need to participate in Sophy’s message to understand what she says, for her message contains its own conclusion. The rule of “participation” is not the only facet of telegraphy that cannot find its place in Sophy. “[T]he telegraph’s status as a high-speed means of communication” (Butchard 111) alters “people’s perceptions of time” (Müller 509), but Sophy is certainly not among this list of “people.” There is a disjunction of temporal perception between Sophy and Darrow. When Darrow expresses his shock at how Sophy has lived at Mrs. Murrett’s “all this time,” a dazed Sophy can only wonder at how it “seem[s] . . . so awfully long ago” to Darrow (Reef 16). The fact of the matter is that Sophy is too slow for the telegraphic Darrow, as the narrator notices: “It made the time pass to listen to her” (17). Thus, Sophy is depicted as a non-telegraphic person in language and perception.

            The reason as to why Sophy is non-telegraphic lies primarily in her financial condition. The first and last instance of Sophy using telegraphy is her spending the last of her money on a telegram to her friends, the Farlows. The telegram fails to “overtake them” as they move to Joigny in order to “cut down” on housing costs (Reef 29, 32). By having this telegram from a financially disadvantaged woman fail to reach a financially disadvantaged family, Wharton emphasizes “telegraphy’s inaccessibility for swathes of the population” (Butchard 110). Telegraphy was largely too expensive to be afforded by hoi polloi. Forty-six years before the publication of The Reef, the Ohio Senator John Sherman defined the telegraph as “a luxury for the rich” (qtd. in Hochfelder 48). A comparison between Sophy and Darrow proves that Sherman’s definition still holds. The mere sight of “the telegraph form” appears “to paralyse Miss Viner’s faculties” since she does not have “a penny to spare” for telegraphing, in sharp contrast to Darrow who has simply “dashed off another telegram to his servant” (Reef 36, 39, 53). Darrow can take advantage of the telegraph with extravagance and without care. With his chance of meeting with Anna deferred “till thirtieth,” he takes advantage of Sophy by using her as a substitute romantic interest while deferring her departure to the Farlows (5). Just as Anna’s telegram acts as a reef for Darrow, so does Darrow act as a “reef” for Sophy. By ostensibly forgetting “to mail Sophy’s letter to the Farlows,” Darrow “imposes his will over hers” (Singley 135). In this sense, Darrow’s power over modes of communication transfigures Sophy into a plaything for him to discard at will. Sophy is defenseless in the face of Darrow’s power, since she lacks the capital to telegraph the Farlows on her own. It is evident that Sophy’s defenseless state is primarily caused by her economic status in relation to Darrow’s, but this is not the only discourse at play. After all, Sophy belongs to the same historical context in which Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote that “the [human] female depends on the male for food” (5). Wharton substitutes communication for food, and doubly binds Sophy’s tongue with the fetters of class and gender.

            The barrier between Sophy and the telegraph further displaces her from her environment. Throughout the novel, she is described in gendered terms distant from modernity: in one paragraph, she is “a dryad in a dew-drenched forest”; in another, she wears “a dusty halo” as though she were a Renaissance Madonna(Reef 30, 39). The descriptive language surrounding Sophy is completely disjointed from conventions of realism and naturalism. As author Julian Barnes quips, “we no longer live in forests” (x). Nor do “we” have divine attributes, for that matter. As the plot progresses, Sophy turns into “one of the elemental creatures whose emotion is all in their pulses, and who become inexpressive or sentimental when they try to turn sensation into speech” (Reef 210). This dehumanizing sentence uttered by Darrow has connotations specifically related to telegraphy as an extension of bodies in communication.

Menke writes that “pulse,” aside from being a term of human physiology, is also “a word that aligns psychology with the rhythmic flows of data on the telegraphic network” (205). Sophy is a closed system in a network of “pulses” constantly in touch with each other; her “pulses” are left unperceived by other bodies. Barred from telegraphy, Sophy psychologically functions differently than those around her; she thinks visually in an audio-tactile world. A surprised Darrow’s “thoughts” are portrayed “tossing like the tree tops,” while a calmer Darrow is intoxicated by a “feeling that . . . was working like wine in his veins” (Reef 140, 175). Through alliteration, Wharton sculpts Darrow as a person congruent “with the rhythmic flows of data on the telegraphic network” in terms of mind and body. Sophy, on the other hand, does not have “a drop of poetry” circulating through her body (210). When Darrow “lifted” Anna’s “hand and kissed it,” the reader knows that Anna “felt the currents between them” (255). Although this is not literally an instance of telegraphic communication, Anna and Darrow are evidently in a mode of electric rapport expressed via the faculty of touch. In contrast, Sophy opts for visual strategies to communicate, such as when she puts on “a slight veil of powder on her face” so as to dissemble the fact that she “had been crying” (187). Not only does Anna easily see through Sophy’s ruse, but she also finds it “distinctly disagreeable” (187). Such examples of visual communication have no place in the communicative sphere occupied by the likes of Darrow and Anna, and Sophy is thereby displaced from this milieu.

            As mentioned above, Anna, like Darrow, is influenced by telegraphy; however, she also displays non-telegraphic behavior à la Sophy. In this way, she is a liminal figure between Darrow and Sophy, between telegraphy and pre-electronic media. While her telegram to Darrow sets off the plot of the entire novel, her subsequent letter of explanation remains superfluous at best. Angry that Anna’s letter did not arrive “within twenty-four hours,” Darrow throws “the unopened letter into the middle of the fire” after having “fingered its thickness and weight” (45, 64). Anna’s telegram, with its instantaneous speed and immediate presence, leaves Darrow craving temporal instantaneity and spatial propinquity. A tardy letter provides neither.Butchard remarks that the “misunderstanding” among Anna and Darrow “can only be resolved by physical proximity” (114), and Darrow admits this accordingly: “the only thing that matters is that we’re sitting here together” (Reef 90). Toward the end of the novel, Anna’s “pulses,” much like those of Sophy, place her outside a network of communication (269). As she tries to communicate with Darrow, “loud pulses” beat “in her temples,” not reaching him (269). Likewise, “nervous pulsations in her throat” forbid her from trying “to speak” (270). This displacement reaches its zenith as the Anna who knows that “[i]t was Sophy Viner only who could save her” from an uneasy future with George Darrow learns that “Sophy’s gone to India” thanks to “Mrs. Murrett’s wire” (284, 289). Anna loses her final chance of salvation due to the speed of telegraphy. Mrs. Murrett’s telegram is a spatiotemporal “reef.” Not only does it prove too fast for Anna to save herself, but it also acts as a physical barrier of the utmost distance between Anna and Sophy, insofar as it directs the latter all the way to India, where it is impossible for Anna to contact her.

            The impossibility of contact between Anna and Sophy has a connection to the class-determined dichotomy of tact and nature, which Darrow formulates to separate the two women. Visualizing Sophy as a “dryad in a dew-drenched forest,” Darrow opines that “mankind would never have needed to invent tact if it had not first invented social complications,” placing the idea of a Sophy identified with nature opposite to his concept of “tact” (30). “[S]ocial complications” are constantly “invented,” however, and the telegraph is one such complication. Being a “kind of medium or extension of man,” the telegraph “alters the patterns of interdependence among people, as it alters the ratios among our senses,” thus building new social dynamics over old ones (McLuhan 90). Tact is the human adaptation to such dynamics, and Anna, a woman of higher social rank relative to Sophy, is never without it.

In Darrow’s mind, Anna’s “adaptability, her appropriateness,” is not “nature, but ‘tact’” (Reef 25). It must not be forgotten that the sting of Anna’s telegram still reverberates through Darrow as he conceives this thought. Darrow evidently does not perceive Anna’s curt telegram as being tactless, for tact finds its opposite in the quality of being natural in Darrow’s dichotomy, as it applies to Sophy. In fact, the natural Sophy, owing to her financial condition, would not be able to hand over such a tactful telegram to Darrow. Though Darrow finds a temporary refuge in Sophy’s naturalness, it is just that—temporary. Darrow’s pondering about nature and tact as they apply to Sophy and Anna respectively coincides with his wondering whether the former is “not unfit . . . for all subsequent contact with life” (26, original emphasis). The word “tact,” coming from the Latin word “tactus” meaning “a touch, handling, sense of touch,” has a connection to telegraphy in its etymology (“tact (n.)”). Electronic media like the telegraph are “only incidentally” associated with other senses; they are “primarily tactile” (McLuhan 249). Sophy, deprived of tact and telegraphy, loses all touch of her spatial environment, finding herself in India, while the tactful Anna still has a hold of her present station in life. The dichotomy of tact and nature as formulated by Darrow thusly demarcates a spatial boundary between Anna and Sophy based on class distinction.

            A character closely associated with Sophy is Adelaide Painter, who is responsible for Sophy’s hire as the governess of Effie, Anna’s daughter. This action corroborates Anna’s view that Miss Painter’s “appearance here always coincides with a catastrophe” (128). Adelaide Painter possesses characteristics of obsolete and primitive media, which contributes to her catastrophic presence in the narrative of the novel. As Sophy and Owen Leath’s engagement crumbles to dust due to Sophy and Darrow’s erstwhile escapade, Miss Painter shows a “stolid . . . unawareness” of the events about her (240). Indeed, Miss Painter is “as tightly sealed up in her unconsciousness” of this situation “as a diver in his bell” (180). She shows the same environmental disconnect displayed by Sophy above, in contrast to “Darrow’s strained attention” which decodes the most minute of gestures (180-1). This is not her only similarity to Sophy, though.

The narrator uses the simile of a “machine which recorded facts but had not yet been perfected to the point of sorting or labelling them” to describe Miss Painter (169). She is like a primitive medium of information, with the fatal flaw of recording all there is. Sophy suffers from the same condition. As a Darrow confronted by Sophy about their past affair reminds her that “[t]ime modifies . . . rubs out . . . more quickly than . . . [she] think[s],” Sophy retorts by declaring that she does not “want to forget – to rub out” (207). Darrow can compartmentalize information in temporal parameters, which allows him to forget them over time. If Miss Painter is a “machine,” then Darrow must be an upgraded edition with new features. As is the case with Sophy, Wharton once again ascribes telegraphic illiteracy to the lower classes by likening Miss Painter—an unrefined “spinster of South Braintree” who only feels “hostility toward the creed and customs” of continental high society—to rudimentary machinery (126).

            Another point in which Miss Painter becomes a representative of an obsolete medium is her very surname. Carol Singley argues that Miss Painter’s name makes her out to be “an artist who attempts to ‘paint’ a new picture for her friend Madame de Chantelle by persuading her to approve Owen’s marriage to Sophy” (133). Needless to say, her figurative painting burns to a crisp as the plot of the novel unfolds. Running counter to Miss Painter’s artistry, Darrow can produce “precise photographic picture[s]” of locations in which he is not situated “without opening his eyes,” as if photography were an innate extension of his mind (Reef 63). Menke asserts that “painting seems a feeble and secondhand experience” in comparison to “the mental sun-picture” produced by the newer medium of photography (145). The trajectory of The Reef is an affirmation of this assertion: the mentally photographic Darrow is largely unperturbed by the myriad vicissitudes that trouble those around him at the same time as the painting of “Owen’s marriage to Sophy” disintegrates into nothingness.

            The telephone is another medium through which Darrow extends his body in space. Anna’s uncertainties about her future with Darrow seem to dissipate altogether just by her hearing “Darrow’s voice pronounce her name” over the telephone (Reef 247). Jeffrey Sconce remarks that “telephony . . . put[s] the listener in immediate, fairly intimate, and ultimately physical contact via a wire with another interlocutor across time and space” (62). Anna is captivated by this very “contact” during and after this abrupt call. She cannot understand after the call “[w]hy . . . she said that she would see him” even as she perceives herself “enveloped” by “the sense of his presence” as though “his arms” were physically “about her” (Reef 248). Her not knowing whether “her ‘Yes’ had reached him” seals this instance of telephone communication as a unilateral extension of Darrow’s body (247). It is uncertain whether Anna has successfully extended her body over to Darrow; what is certain is the fact that Darrow’s extension of his body effectively takes control of Anna’s mental faculties for a substantial moment. Darrow’s utilization of the telephone determines her reply. In this sense, Darrow can extend his body and determine Anna’s actions while she is displaced from her own mind, unaware of the reason why she replied back to him long after the fact. The telephone, then, is yet another medium in the line of photography and telegraphy that has the capability to displace bodies from their environment. In The Reef,the displacing function of the telephone evidently works in adherence to a gender binary which places the masculine body above the feminine body. Unlike Sophy, Anna is not bound by any economic constraints whatsoever; indeed, Anna and Darrow seem to be on equal footing as they talk over the telephone. In spite of this, it is Darrow who is permitted to extend his body over to the feminine other, domineeringly inscribing his will on Anna’s body.

            Therefore, it is evident that Wharton never “depends on a fantasy of disengaged information,” as Menke says of “the seamless, telegraphic interconnection promised by Victorian realism” (212). While radical technological innovations do appear to reconfigure standard dynamics of time and space, they are still very much bound to the prevalent realities of modern life. Abandoning earlier visions of “seamless, telegraphic interconnection,” Wharton comprehends that electronic media in fact exacerbate the alienation of individuals brought about by the elevated disparities between individuals according to their class and gender positions. Wharton, “a careful observer and a sharp critic of her surroundings” (Drizou), observes that new channels of communication such as the telegraph add to the oppression enforced by the determining hierarchies of class and gender, and finds these channels to be probes with which she may critically delve into the wounds of modernity. And critical she must be, for these probes are the same tools that chafe these wounds. Wharton’s engagement with naturalism thus dons a view of technology that embraces at much as it criticizes the mode of telegraphic communication in The Reef.

            While Wharton’s “telegraphic naturalism” finds its fully-fledged expression in The Reef, it can shed much light to the appreciation of Edith Wharton’s later oeuvre. The Reef’s critical outlook on electronic media “colors much of” Wharton’s “subsequent narrative,” as Wagner-Martin says of Anna’s fateful telegram. The Reef, in this manner, produces a “reef,” beyond which is a wider territory where Wharton’s observations of the intersection between electronic media and the discourses of class and gender may be further examined. A glimpse of this can be caught in The Custom of the Country (1913), in which “a gestureless mute telegraphy . . . pass[es] between” seemingly separate opera-boxes, wholly surrounding Undine Spragg’s field of perception (77). Another glimpse of this sort can be caught in The Age of Innocence (1920), in which residents of the old New York already molded by telegraphy anticipate “the fantastic possibility that they might one day actually converse with each other . . . from one town to another” via the newfangled telephone (163). Before attempting to catch such glimpses, however, The Reef itself must be breached. Assessing this work by Wharton as a text of “telegraphic naturalism” complicates Wharton’s take on modernity insofar as the discourse of technological determinism joins the naturalist focus on class and gender and expands the scope of modern forces beyond the control of the individual.


1. In his work Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems (2008), Richard Menke uses the term “telegraphic realism” to analyze the influence of the telegraph and other electronic media on realist narratives. “Telegraphic naturalism” is an attempt to demonstrate this influence in the context of literary naturalism.

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