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Edith Wharton’s “Souls Belated” Essay

Point of view always influences the way readers perceive events. In literature, the point of view the author chooses not only affects the way readers perceive and interpret events, but it also determines, to some extent, what the readers can actually see. That is, point of view guides the way readers interpret events and draw conclusions by limiting or illuminating the amount and nature of the information from which conclusions can be drawn. In “Souls Belated,” Edith Wharton uses point of view to illuminate the thoughts of each character individually, while concealing the thoughts of the other, and eventually to highlight the vastly different mindsets of both characters involved.

Wharton first does this by revealing Lydia’s thoughts to the readers while hiding Gannett’s. At the exposition, the story is told in third person, from Lydia’s point of view. This technique allows readers to see directly into Lydia’s mind. To know what Gannet is thinking, however, they must accept Lydia’s version of his thoughts: “He was thinking of it now, just as she was; they had been thinking about it in unison ever since they had entered the train” (673). Since readers have no direct insight into Gannett’s brain, they have no way to know what he is really thinking, but neither do they have, as yet, any substantial reason to doubt Lydia’s interpretation of events.

The third-person-limited point of view is particularly effective because it allows readers to view Lydia’s thoughts, opinions, and interpretations as facts. If Wharton had chosen to tell the story in first person, from Lydia’s point of view, the narrative would be clearly subjective. Readers would be aware of the limitations of a first person narrator. Consequently, they would have plenty of incentive to question the accuracy of Lydia’s perception. On the other hand, if the narrator were omniscient, it would describe Gannett’s thoughts as well as Lydia’s and thereby remove all questions in this matter. The actual third person narrator seems removed enough from the action to appear to be an impartial observer; this inclines readers to accept the narrator’s statements as facts. That the point of view is limited, however, also leaves in question whether Lydia’s view of Gannett is correct, whether readers should accept it at face value; this is what creates the subtle suspense of the story.

Wharton builds on this suspense by suggesting that Lydia does know Gannett well enough to know his mind, or, at least, that Lydia thinks she knows Gannett well enough to know: “now that he and she were alone she knew exactly what was passing through his mind; she could almost hear him asking himself what he should say to her…” (673). This not only further inclines readers to accept Lydia’s interpretation of Gannett’s thoughts and emotions, but it also encourages them to be sympathetic to her. Lydia knows what Gannett is thinking, and she dreads it. Since readers know Lydia’s mind but not Gannett’s, they cannot help but see the situation through her eyes.

In order to see properly through Lydia’s eyes, in order to know why she dreads Gannett inevitably speaking to her, readers need to have some sense of her personality. The point of view helps accomplish this as well; it allows readers to extract information about Lydia’s personality from her reactions to her own memories. For example, when Lydia remembers her ex-husband and her reasons for leaving him, “[she] had preferred to think that Tillotson had himself embodied all her reasons for leaving him…. Yet she had not left him till she met Gannett” (673). From this, readers know that Lydia, at the beginning at least, is not self-secure enough to have left her husband to be on her own. She could not turn from him without having someone else to turn to. However, “this discovery had not been agreeable to her self-esteem” (673), indicating that not only is Lydia aware of her own insecurity but also that it is something which bothers her. Lydia wants to think of herself as an independent woman but so far has not been as wholly independent as she would like to be.

Once readers understand this part of Lydia’s personality, they are better prepared to understand why Lydia struggles against dependency. Specifically, she struggles against marrying Gannett because she views it as a particularly tempting form of dependency. Lydia fears that by marrying Gannett, she will lose whatever sense of self she has developed since leaving her husband; similarly, she worries that Gannett will lose his sense of self in marrying her. “To look upon him as the instrument of her liberation; to resist herself in the least tendency to a wifely taking possession of his future; had seemed to Lydia the one way of maintaining the dignity of their relation” (675). At the same time, however, she realizes that this view of their relationship is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain: “she was aware of a growing inability to keep her thoughts fixed on the essential point – the point of parting with Gannett” (675). Through what the narrator says and does not say about their relationship, readers can infer that Lydia is growing dependent on Gannett but is still trying to fight against it.

The insight Wharton gives readers into Lydia’s personality contrasts sharply with how little they know of Gannett. Because of the narrator’s limited point of view, readers know only as much about Gannett as Lydia knows. Readers know what Gannett says and what he does, as well as what Lydia presumes he thinks, but they have no way to observe Gannett’s thoughts for themselves. Even at one point where the narrative seems to shift to a more omniscient point of view, the narrator can only say, “He looked at her hopelessly. Nothing is more perplexing to man than the mental process of a woman who reasons her emotions” (678).

The narrative still does not describe exactly what Gannett is thinking; it only describes Gannett’s action, then makes a general statement which may or may not apply to Gannett specifically. Readers have no way of knowing whether Gannett actually thinks this statement or not; for all they know, it could be what Lydia is thinking, what she presumes about Gannett’s state of mind. Not only does this point of view technique make the readers want to know what Gannett is thinking, but it also binds them emotionally to Lydia. They want to know what Gannett is thinking as badly as she does.

After building up sufficient desire, Wharton finally satisfies the readers’ curiosity by shifting the point of view to allow them access to Gannett’s thoughts. This shift also corresponds with an important twist in the plot; it comes at the beginning of their last conversation in the hotel room, just before Lydia suggests to Gannett that the only was to resolve their relationship is for her to leave him. “Gannett threw away his cigarette; the sound of her voice made him want to see her face” (685).” Limited though it is, this is the first time readers can witness Gannett’s thoughts directly. Throughout the conversation, the shift intensifies. “She sank again on the sofa, hiding her face in her hands…. Gannett stood above her perplexedly; he felt as though she were being swept away by some implacable current while he stood helpless on its bank” (688). Now, the roles are reversed: readers can know Gannett’s emotional state from what the narrator tells them, but they must divine Lydia’s from her words and actions.

That this point of view shift comes before Lydia’s suggestion to leave Gannett is important because it brings with it a tone shift. When the readers can see Gannett’s desires and emotions, they begin to feel sympathy for him. Now they can see the events through his eyes, too. Conversely, when the narrative distances itself from Lydia’s thoughts, it distances the readers from Lydia as well. While this distance does not necessarily cancel out any sympathy the readers have for Lydia, their sympathy for her does not overpower their sympathy for Gannett. Indeed, it is because of this newfound sympathy that Lydia’s, “My leaving you,” (689) does not seem to the readers like a desirable outcome. Since they now sympathize with both characters, they do not like anything that would cause either one of them pain. An act that would cause both characters pain would be doubly bad.

Wharton continues this sympathy for Gannett by telling the last section of the story, where Lydia actually tries to leave him, from his point of view. Wharton also uses this point of view to answer many of Lydia’s, and therefore the readers’, questions. For instance, the readers now get to see how Gannett views marriage, particularly marriage to Lydia. “Even had his love lessened, he was now bound to her by a hundred ties of pity and self-reproach; and she, poor child! must turn back to hum as Latude returned to his cell…” (690). Gannett feels responsible for Lydia as well as bound to her; he possibly even feels somewhat fatherly toward her, as if she was a child who he had an obligation to look after. These are all attitudes opposed to Lydia’s pride and desire for independence.

As Gannett watches Lydia walk away from the hotel, his thoughts continue:

If any thought emerged from the tumult of his sensations, it was that he must let her go if she wished it. He had spoken last night of his rights: what were they? At the last issue, he and she were two separate beings, not made one by the miracle of common forbearances, duties, abnegations, but bound together in a noyade of passion that left them resisting yet clinging as they went down. (690)

From this statement, readers know Gannett’s true attitude toward marriage, that it is a spiritual joining that would give him some sort of right to Lydia. Not only is Gannett’s opinion of marriage contrary to Lydia’s opinion of it, but it also conflicts with what Lydia believes Gannett’s opinion to be.

Their isolated points of view heighten the contrast between Gannett’s and Lydia’s feelings toward marriage. This separation reminds the readers that although they can see into both Lydia’s and Gannett’s minds, there is no way for either character to know what the other is thinking. Each character is completely cut off from the other; the only way they have to intuit thoughts is for them to interpret the words and actions of the other, just as readers must do, in turn, for each character.

The isolation that lets the readers see this limitation is the same isolation that hides, ironically, the limitation from both characters. Lydia, for example, felt “she knew exactly what was passing through his mind” (673), even though it is her uncertainty that makes what Gannett is thinking so nervewracking for her. In the same way, Gannett later feels that Lydia is walking into a world where “no one would understand her – no one would pity her – and he, who did both, was powerless to come to her aid…” (690). If Gannett truly understood and pitied Lydia, he would have understood that she is too independent to want is pity.

But perhaps the most telling point of view shift comes at the end of the story, where Wharton retreats into an omniscient, objectively descriptive narrator. As Gannett watches Lydia leave the boat and come back to the hotel, back to him, “[he] sat down beside a table; a Bradshaw lay at his elbow, and mechanically, without knowing what he did, he began looking out the trains to Paris…” (691). The distance of the point of view echoes Gannett’s distance from his own emotions. He acts mechanically, not knowing what he is doing because he does not know what he is feeling. Indeed, the distance of the narrative reflects the net numbness of the conflicting emotions that Lydia and Gannett are both feeling. Each must resign himself to marrying the one he loves.

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