The story opens on a house that is set back from the street, suggesting the occupant's need for privacy. The only person who lives there is Paulina Anson, the granddaughter of Orestes Anton. Now deceased, Dr. Anton was once a widely-renowned literary celebrity. He did not have any sons, only three daughters, none of whom were intellectual. Dr. Anson's fame rested on his ability to touch people's emotions and his ability to express his culture and era. His two daughters were not able to maintain his estate. The third daughter married and moved away. However, her daughter, Paulina, turned out to be exceptionally intelligent. Thus, Paulina came to live at the house after Dr. Anson's death.
Paulina grew up reading and loving her grandfather's work. As she never knew him personally, none of his off-putting traits or habits could stand in the way of her unequivocal veneration. Her aunts, Laura and Phoebe, remained unattached, and so Paulina took up the protection and promotion of the great man's legacy. She even decided to forgo marrying a young man because he wanted her to leave Dr. Anson's house and move to New York.
After the collapse of her engagement, "the House possessed" Paulina and she developed a "blind faith in the magnitude and the idea to which she had sacrificed her life" (137). She has rarely left home, but finally, after completing a massive biography about her grandfather, she travels to Boston to meet with a young publisher.
To her dismay, the publisher tells Paulina he wishes she had completed the book ten years earlier because Orestes Anson's work is no longer in vogue. Paulina is stunned and distressed as she returns home. Once she has had some time to think, she realizes that there have indeed been fewer visitors to the house over the last few years. She is unmoored and depressed for a time, but finally decides to marshal her energies into finding out why her grandfather's work has slipped from public consciousness.
Paulina re-examines Dr. Anson's work as well as the writings of his followers and finds nothing amiss. She decides that the change of opinion must have been gradual since Dr. Anson's death. She wonders why the work of his colleagues and contemporaries has lasted, and finally comes to the conclusion that these figures have survived because of their larger-than-life personas. Meanwhile, her grandfather was known more for his ideas, which now seem obsolete. She starts to see her life as a "wasted labor," suddenly feeling the "dreary parallel between her grandfather's fruitless toil and her own unprofitable sacrifice" (143).
One day, the doorbell rings and the maid announces that a gentleman has arrived to see the house. Paulina is struck by those words, as no one had has wanted to do that for a long time. The gentleman turns out to be a "fresh-eyed sanguine youth clearly independent of any artificial caloric" (144). He enthusiastically runs about the house, finding every detail remarkable. At one point he mentions that he is researching an article about Orestes Anson, and Paulina is struck. She inquires if he truly means to write about her grandfather and the young man, Mr. George Corby, is emphatically sincere and requests Paulina's help. He calls her grandfather the "greatest –the most stupendous –the most phenomenal figure we've got!" (146).
Corby explains that his article is to be about a pamphlet about the amphioxus that Dr. Anson supposedly wrote. It was not popular when he wrote it and he faced public derision as a result, but it is important now and Corby insists that a copy must exist somewhere. Paulina shakes off her stupor and considers the word "amphioxus," which sounds familiar. She rises to pull something out of a drawer.
Corby shouts with joy and drops into a chair – it is indeed the only remaining copy of the precious pamphlet. Dr. Anson had requested that it be destroyed after his death, but Paulina could not bear to destroy something of his and was planning to do it before she died. Corby, thrilled, once again proclaims how great, how grand, and how big Orestes Anson was.
When Paulina expresses some hesitation about Corby's intent, he asks her in astonishment if she does not believe in her grandfather. She says that she used to, but warns the young man not to throw his life away as she has. He excitedly corrects her, for she is the reason this document exists and assures her that her love has kept her grandfather's memory alive. Paulina is amazed at his emphatic words.
He asks if she will help him with his article, and she agrees. They plan to meet the following morning.
"The Angel at the Grave" was published in Scribner's Magazine on February 29th, 1901 and appeared in the collection Crucial Instances the same year. The fictional Orestes Anson is reminiscent of Orestes Augustus Brownson, an American clergyman and writer who became famous before the Civil War. Wharton also modeled the story on the life of Sara Norton, the daughter of Charles Eliot Norton who gave up her chance at marriage in order to stay home with her father.
Similarly, Paulina Anson has dedicated her life to preserving her grandfather's work and reputation. As a young woman, she found his writing and ideas thrilling and moved to his house to guide visitors, take care of Dr. Anson's affairs, and prepare a massive biography on his life. In the story, the character of Orestes Anson only appears in memory and recollection; the reader has no contact with the man in flesh and blood. Paulina chooses this ephemeral intellectual life over a domestic one, refusing to marry a man who wants her to leave the house. The house, which is like a living and breathing monument to Orestes Anson, soon becomes a prison or a mausoleum as Paulina disappears deeper into its recesses, rarely emerging.
The climax of the story occurs when Paulina travels to the city to bring her manuscript to a publisher, who claims that Dr. Anson's ideas are no longer popular. This realization brings Paulina to despair, for she sees the parallels between her grandfather's life and her own: "it was the sense of wasted labor that oppressed her; of two lives consumed in that ruthless process that uses generations of effort to build a single cell" (142-43). Wharton has created a character whose focus on her interior life at the expense of a social life has not been conducive to contentment or fulfillment. For most of the story, Paulina finds herself wishing she was outside, where "people toiled and loved, and living sympathies went hand in hand" (142).
Wharton evokes an evolutionary metaphor with the image of the "single cell." The image comes to fruition when George Corby announces Orestes Anson had written a critically important pamphlet about the "amphioxus," which links the invertebrate and the vertebrate. This missing evolutionary link holds promise for all of the past and present characters in "The Angel at the Grave." If Corby can find this pamphlet, Dr. Anson's reputation will be revived, as his ancient discovery will actually move contemporary science forward. Meanwhile, George will become famous, and Paulina find validation for her dedication to her grandfather and his work.
The story has an optimistic ending in that Paulina's lifelong faith to preserving her grandfather's memory finally pays off. There is a twinge of pitifulness, however, because she has lost out on many other opportunities that could have also brought her happiness, fulfillment, and even love. In this way, even though Paulina is more of an intellectual than many of Wharton's female characters, she also spends her life serving a man, and therefore sacrificing the opportunity to carve out an existence for herself. Even after Corby's discovery, Paulina will be defined by her grandfather (whom she has never even met).