Set in and around London, "The Reef" is a story of complex morality and its intricately woven place in society. This narrative primarily follows George Darrow and Anna Leath, a young gentleman and a widowed lady who plan to marry. Both of them experience doubts about their union, with surprising outcomes. Darrow has a brief liaison with the delicate, generous Sophy Viner, a kind woman of the working class. She later meets Anna's stepson Owen Leath, who wishes to upset social conventions and marry her. When Anna's discovers the intimate history of Darrow and Sophy, she worries about her stepson's affections and feels concerned about the alliance she herself is about to create. Wharton's talent for balancing emotional turmoil and all the social manners of her time is blended into this philosophical work that explores the metaphorical reefs in the hearts of women.
"Unexpected obstacle. Please don't come till thirtieth. Anna." All the way from Charing Cross to Dover the train had hammered the words of the telegram into George Darrow's ears, ringing every change of irony on its commonplace syllables: rattling them out like a discharge of musketry, letting them, one by one, drip slowly and coldly into his brain, or shaking, tossing, transposing them like the dice in some game of the gods of malice; and now, as he emerged from his compartment at the pier, and stood facing the wind–swept platform and the angry sea beyond, they leapt out at him as if from the crest of the waves, stung and blinded him with a fresh fury of derision. "Unexpected obstacle. Please don't come till thirtieth. Anna."