“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.