“Souls Belated” by Edith Wharton explores the social conventions surrounding marriage. Even today, marriage is considered a social expectation, a requirement to living a fulfilling life. At the time the story was written, there was even more pressure to comply with social standards and fall into the role of a spouse. This social expectation is especially strong for women, today and in the past. Lydia of “Souls Belated” is initially resistant to the social norms that require a woman to “settle down” and get married. She is unhappy in her marriage to her first husband – their life together is monotonous and their marriage empty. She gets a divorce from her husband, a very rare occurrence back then, and enters a relationship with another man.
Lydia’s resistance to social norms changes as her circumstances change. After leaving her first husband, she tells Gannett that she does not want to marry him because “We neither of us believe in the abstract ‘sacredness’ of marriage; we both know that no ceremony is needed to consecrate our love for each other; what object can we have in marrying, except the secret fear of each that the other may escape, or the secret longing to work our way back gradually -oh, very gradually – into the esteem of the people whose conventional morality we have always ridiculed and hated?” (1463) Here, she mocks the idea of marriage, but she does acknowledge that she might be susceptible to changing her mind in order to be accepted in society. Although Lydia wants to not care what other people think of her, she has a difficult time putting that notion into practice. When she and Gannett are living at the hotel, Lydia admits that “These people – the very prototypes of the bores you took me away from, with the same fenced-in view of life, the same keep-off-the-grass morality, the same little cautious virtues and the same little frightened vices – well, I’ve clung to them, I’ve delighted in them, I’ve done my best to please them” (1473). In the end, her concern over what other people think about her almost drives her to leave Gannett for good. She does not want people to know that she and Gannett lived together before they were married, and she thinks leaving Gannett is the only way to ensure that no one will find out.
At this point, she is still resistant to marriage because she believes that the purpose of it is to “keep people away from each other” (1474). She doesn’t want to marry Gannett because of the social duties required of married couples, but she also doesn’t want to continue living with him unmarried because of the social taboo of that arrangement. Although she tries to resist social norms, she is still ultimately letting them control her life.
My Antonia is overflowing with Romanticism. Jim is a very nostalgic character, and the entire narrative consists of him looking back on old times.The language is very symbolic, especially regarding nature and the landscape of the Nebraska countryside. For example, Jim and the girls are talking and enjoying the scenery when they notice a plough: “The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disc…There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun” (186). This plough is a very obvious, romanticized symbol of life on the countryside. In accordance with Romanticism, nature is shown to be both beautiful and horrifying. Jim describes the landscape as “the complete dome of heaven” but also reflects that “between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out.” Jim even finds beauty in Mr. Shimerda’s death: “I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence – the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper” (94).
The novel also contains aspects of Realism. It portrays the lifestyles of different cultures and realistically shows what life was like for immigrants at the time. The difference in social class between Antonia and Jim is emphasized. For example, when Jim asks Antonia why she tries to be like Ambrosch, she replies “If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us” (111). Antonia has come to terms with the unfortunate reality that, because of her social class and her status as an immigrant, her life will be more difficult than Jim’s.
“I tried to shut Antonia out of my mind. I was bitterly disappointed in her. I could not forgive her for becoming an object of pity, while Lena Lingard, for whom people had always foretold trouble, was now the leading dressmaker of Lincoln, much respected in Black Hawk” (223).
This preoccupation with Antonia and her personal life choices is very characteristic of Jim. His disappointment in her becoming “an object of pity” implies that he thinks he is entitled to a say in how she lives her life. This desire to control Antonia’s decisions also manifests earlier in Jim’s life, when he expresses disappointment that she is too masculine.
His tendency toward anger at Antonia is also shown after Jim is beaten by Mr. Cutter. Jim blames Antonia for the whole thing: “I felt that I never wanted to see her again. I hated her almost as much as I hated Cutter. She had let me in for this whole disgustingness” (189). He seems to believe either that Antonia set the whole thing up, or that Antonia is somehow at fault for Cutter wanting to assault her.
Jim often brings up Lena Lingard when thinking about Antonia. Here, he is emphasizing Antonia’s deficiencies by pointing out Lena’s successes. Later, he credits Lena with his finally reuniting with Antonia. His preoccupation with the women also manifests in his dreams. He would have innocent dreams about Antonia, in which he and Antonia would play together in the countryside. In contrast, Jim would have sexual dreams about Lena.