Analysis of Edith Wharton’s Souls Belated

Edith Wharton’s “Souls Belated” centers on Lydia Tillotson, a divorced woman, who travels with Ralph Gannett, a successful writer, but refuses to marry him so that she can maintain her self-esteem. McDowell detects the implied contradictory nature of marriage as represented in the story: Marriage “may be an artificial formality and a mere extraneous convention when love invests a liaison outside of marriage, but that compromise with conventions may undergird love more satisfactorily than the troublesome seeking of freedom from conventions” (83). At the core of the contradictoriness of marriage lies the issue of Lydia’s identity.

According to Stuart Hall, there can be three different ways of conceptualizing identity, the Enlightenment subject, the sociological subject, and the postmodern subject. The Enlightenment subject “was based on a conception of the human person as a fully centred, unified individual, endowed with the capacities of reason, consciousness and action, whose ‘centre’ consisted of an inner core. . . . The essential center of the self was a person’s identity” (275). While Hall acknowledges the individual’s unified nature, he observes that the individual, however, was “formed in relation to ‘significant others,’ who mediated to the subject the values, meanings and symbols—the culture—of the worlds he/she inhabited” (275). Hall defines this as sociological subject. In effect, the individual can assume far more complicated forms than either the Enlightenment subject or the sociological subject. Hall writes, “The subject assumes different identities at different times, identities which are not unified around a coherent ‘self.’ Within us are contradictory identities, pulling in different directions so that our identifications are continually being shifted about” (277).

Edith Wharton/The Berkshire Edge

Among the five sections that form the story, with the exception of the fifth, where Gannett plays the role of observer, four have Lydia as the central intelligence. She emerges at the beginning as a woman with “the capacities of reason, consciousness and action,” the attributes of an Enlightenment subject. Lydia justifies her leaving Tillotson for Gannett by the former’s dull regularity and the latter’s refreshing ideas. It is implied that Lydia’s final rejection of Tillotson is due to the deep-seated conventionality embodied in Mrs. Tillotson senior, who “dreaded ideas as much as a draught in her back” (97). Thus, Lydia must have been a potential reformer even before the reader has a full view of her theory of marriage. Given such an inference, it might not be difficult to comprehend why Lydia takes her initiative to leave the Tillotson mansion for a drifting tour of Europe with Gannett. “It was her love for Gannett that had made life with Tillotson so poor and incomplete a business” (97). Lydia takes actions so as to win her freedom even before her husband’s divorce is granted. She decides upon her future without referring to anyone’s opinions, the fact of which further evidences her identity as an Enlightenment subject. As the central intelligence, Lydia provides the access for the reader to her consciousness. For example, in the first section she moves away from Gannett wondering what he has in mind now that she has received the notice of divorce. In the meantime, Lydia is shown assuming that Gannett shares her theory about marriage. Unfortunately, such assumption proves to be wrong. She says to Gannett, “Why should we make plans? I thought you agreed with me that it’s pleasanter to drift” (101). When Gannett explains that he thought Lydia would prefer to be quiet after they are married, Lydia “felt in every fibre of her averted person that he had made the inconceivable, the unpardonable mistake of anticipating her acquiescence” (101). Apparently, the gaps of difference between Lydia and Gannett are already illustrated in their conceptions of marriage. Lydia revolts from marriage for its imprisonment of one’s body and soul, while Gannett discerns the impracticable nature of absolute freedom. So far, Lydia reasons with Gannett as a sociologist about the necessity to be honest with one’s identity. That is, she wants to remain a divorced woman and thus enjoys no right to take advantage of the protection that marriage gives. Lydia, the Enlightenment subject, theorizes life and marriage with seemingly good reason and sound logic, yet such idealized existence fails to materialize in society.

As Hall’s definition of the sociological subject goes, Lydia’s Enlightenment subject has to be exposed to “significant others.” Ironically, it is no sooner than her eloquent argument fades in the air that she acquiesces, registering as Mrs. Gannett at the hotel. The group led by Lady Susan and Miss Pinsent acts as significant others who establish moral values and punish those deviant ones. On two occasions, Lydia conforms to the established values about married couples. She raises no objection when Lady Susan accepts her as Mrs. Gannett and when Miss Pinsent and Mrs. Cope respectively address her as Mrs. Gannett. The ironic contradiction between Lydia, the Enlightenment subject’s firmly believed theory, and Lydia, the sociological subject’s unnatural compliance in practice, serves to highlight the prevailing conventions. It is important to note that while Lydia states her theory to Gannett, the location is the empty train carriage. Lydia, a member of society, is aware that she is also a social creature. Her inconsistent practice of her principles, therefore, is predictable. Interestingly, while the narrator addresses Lydia as her first name and Gannett as his family name, the reader might be led to identify the two as Mr. and Mrs. Gannett, which is also what the dominant voice of the hotel wishes to accept. If it were not Mrs. Cope’s threat, Lydia would not have been able to awaken herself to her glaringly contradictory act.

Mrs. Cope, in a similar situation, as Lydia does, adopts different strategies to cope with social ostracizing. She assumes the fraudulent identity of Mrs. Linton in order to mask her scandalous affair with Lord Trevenna while awaiting the legal notice of divorce from her husband. The severity of social ostracism can be inferred from both Mrs. Cope’s and Lord Trevenna’s experiences. When Mrs. Cope fails to fight against the majority led by Lady Susan Condit, she threatens to reveal Lydia’s identity unless the latter helps her to win back Lord Trevenna. Obviously, as Mrs. Cope and Lydia are both victims of conventional morality, neither of them sympathizes with the other. Instead, Lydia attempts to protect herself by snubbing Mrs. Cope, whereas the latter endeavors to seek help from the former. Both women fall victim to the social conventions that consider marriage as the best “modus vivendi” (103) regardless of whether it offers happiness or not. Where Mrs. Cope differs from Lydia most is that to the former, the notice of divorce means freedom to marry and legally become Lady Trevenna, whereas to the latter it is interpreted as something that “spoils” her drifting life with Gannett. Therefore, Mrs. Cope’s Enlightenment subject and sociological subject are in harmony with each other. In contrast, Lydia’s two aspects of identity are incompatible. Consequently, Lydia’s identity becomes that of the postmodern, decentered, and multiple. The uncertainty of her future points to her inability to reconcile the theory with the reality.

Lydia may appear to be a woman who liberates herself, yet the dominant social conventions might prevail against the reformist spirit unless the utopian illusion is trimmed to fit with reality, unless the other half contributes to the uprooting of social conventions, and unless women are united to fight against the same enemy, the outdated values.

Hall, Stuart. “The Question of Cultural Identity.” In Modernity and Its Futures, edited by S. Hall, D. Held, and T. McGrew. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.
McDowell, B. Margaret. Edith Wharton. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Wharton, Edith. “Souls Belated.” In Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1891–1910. New York: Library Classics of the United States, 2001.

Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story

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