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...
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