The story begins with Lydia and Gannett in a railway carriage. The two of them feel decidedly uncomfortable alone. Lydia watches Gannett smoke and thinks about how men often smoke to “get away from things” (90). She and Gannett have spent a great deal of time alone together and there has never been any reason for them to put off talking about something. This time is different, though, Lydia muses, because of the THING in their luggage, dangling above their heads. This THING is the cause of the awkwardness between Gannett and Lydia this day.
The THING is Lydia's divorce papers, which arrived that morning in an “innocent-looking” (91) envelope. She recalls that she knew it was going to happen but it still caught her unawares. Lydia's love for Gannett was the reason she was able to realize how “poor and incomplete a business” (91) her marriage to Tillotson had been. She and her ex-husband lived with Tillotson’s mother and were forced to adapt the rich woman's highly-regimented lifestyle. Everyone in the Tillotsons' circle adhered to the same beliefs and prejudices. Lydia found her life to be very dull until she met Gannett, who showed her a different way to experience the world.
Back in present-day, Lydia thinks about how her husband has now gotten rid of her, and how society will expect Gannett to do the right thing and marry her. She knows that the easiest course of action would be to throw herself on him as her savior and liberator, but in her heart, she has difficulty accepting this plan.
Lydia and Gannett finally begin to speak as the train passes an old, abandoned villa and Gannett asks her if she would like to live in a house like it. Lydia says that she would prefer to keep traveling. He replies that they must settle down eventually but she is loath to do so. They disagree on whether or not they want to live in quiet or amongst people, with Lydia advocating for the latter. The conversation then turns to marriage. Gannett believes that he and Lydia must marry but she cries out that she does not want to marry him. He is upset, accusing her of using him as a travel companion.
Lydia tries to explain her point. She believes that marriage will cheapen their relationship, and that the only reason for them to marry would be to acknowledge “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” (99). Gannett simply says that life is made of compromises, and that a new code of ethics is emerging. The conversation continues and Lydia finds Gannett's points to be obtuse, while Gannett sees Lydia's opinion as irrational. Ultimately, he grudgingly accepts her wishes.
Their train ride ends at a lovely European lake. Lydia muses that isolation used to be good for them. Being alone allowed them to deepen their love, but now it makes them acutely aware of the other’s thoughts. They are originally supposed to stay at the hotel for one night only, but Lydia convinces Gannett to stay longer, despite his concern about all of the old gossips. Lydia reflects on Gannett’s profession as a writer of short stories and a novel, and worries that she has held him back in his career.
At the Hotel Bellosguardo, Lydia finds that she easily fits in with the other society women and spends her days conversing with them. Miss Pinsent tells Lydia that Lady Susan Condit (the proprietress of the hotel) does not normally like new people, although, as Miss Pinsent confides, she has certainly taken to Lydia and Gannett. Nobody at the hotel knows that Lydia and Gannett are not married.
Lady Condit does not, however, care for the Lintons, a new couple that has just arrived at the hotel. As a result, the other women decide to refrain from to socializing with the Lintons as well. Miss Pinsent remarks, “it’s always a bad sign when loud people [the Lintons] come to a quiet place” (106). The social freeze does not seem to bother the fashionable Lintons, who equally ignore their critics.
One day, Lydia is sitting alone with a book in the garden and Mrs. Linton approaches her. She is acutely aware that Lydia is afraid of being seen with her, but Lydia, embarrassed, asks Mrs. Linton to sit down. Mrs. Linton gets right to the point. She says, “I want you to tell me what my husband said to your husband last night” (109). Lydia is startled, as she has no idea that Gannett and Mr. Linton are friends. Mrs. Linton says that the two men conversed and afterwards, Mr. Linton seemed upset and she wants to know if she can help. Mrs. Linton reveals her mysterious circumstances: her name is actually Mrs. Cope and she is married to Mr. Cope. Mr. Linton, meanwhile, is Lord Trevanna. Lydia recognizes the names - she has heard of their scandalous romance.
Mrs. Linton begs Lydia to give her information, but Lydia firmly refuses to get involved. This upsets and annoys Mrs. Linton, who hisses that the only reason she has approached Lydia is because she is "in the same boat." Mrs. Linton insinuates that if Lydia does not help her, she will tell everyone that Lydia and Gannett are not married. Lydia takes this in, sitting in shocked silence.
Later, after a long walk, Lydia returns to her quarters. Gannett is waiting for her, smoking. He asks what is wrong and she fills him in. Gannett tells her that in the interim he saw Mrs. Linton get an envelope just like Lydia's in the mail and the contents caused her to become "radiant" (116). It is clear that these were her divorce papers, leaving Mrs. Linton free of Mr. Cope and available to marry Lord Trevanna.
Lydia and Gannett discuss their own risk of being found out, and both of them agree that they have become complacent. Lydia bitterly assesses her own behavior for the first time. She explains, "Respectability! It was the one thing in life I was sure I didn't care about, and it's grown so precious to me that I've stolen it because I can't get it any other way" (119).
Finally, Gannett suggests they go to Paris the next day and get married. Lydia is tortured, wondering if the others will ostracize them. Gannett is sick of pretending and encourages her to comply, but Lydia says firmly that the only way to fix this awful situation is for her to leave him. She departs Gannett's room and goes to her own.
The next morning Gannett awakens and hears Lydia moving around in her room. She is moving softly, indicating that she does not want to be heard. He peers out the window to watch her leave. He pities her and ruminates on how their love is weaker than before, but he still feels bound Lydia by duty and self-reproach.
Gannett observes Lydia steal away, dressed in traveling clothes and carrying a bag. She gets on a passenger boat. He watches as she equivocates many times, and wonders what might become of her when she's gone. Finally, he sees her leap off the boat and return to land, scurrying back towards the hotel. Gannett stops watching and begins looking up the trains to Paris.
Wharton wrote "Souls Belated" in 1899 and included it in her first book of short stories, The Greater Inclination. Bookman critic Harry Thurston Peck once referred to "Souls Belated" as "the longest, the strongest, and the most striking study in the book." It is a compelling examination of the specific pressure on men and women who seek to operate outside of prescribed social norms, particularly as they pertain to marriage.
Lydia has left her husband, Tillotson, for Gannett, a dashing writer. Lydia receives her divorce papers while the lovers are traveling and refers to the documents as the "thing" that hangs over their heads and necessitates a difficult conversation. On one hand, Gannett is ready to get married now that Lydia is single. However, Lydia is coming out of a strict society family where she had to ascribe to every social grace. Her perspective is more defiant than her partner's. She feels that marriage would not be sacred for them, as they would only be doing it to make others accept them.
While it is easier for Lydia to make this distinction while on a train where she is anonymous to everyone, she starts to revert to her old mindset once she and Gannett find themselves in a microcosm of the society they have tried to run away from. By the end of the story, Wharton indicates that Gannett and Lydia will get married, but raises questions in the reader's mind of whether or not they still love one another.
The cynical underlying message of "Souls Belated" is that men and women cannot be truly free once they are married. As Lydia explains, marriage represents adherence to society's conventions. More than an expression of love, marriage serves to or to quell the fear of abandonment in both partners. While Lydia tries to believe that the love that she and Gannett share does not need legal recognition to be real, Wharton reveals over the course of the story that society does not approve of an undefinable relationship. At the beginning of the story, Gannett observes that he and Lydia cannot travel forever. Throughout the story, travel becomes a symbol of their attempts to abandon the responsibility of marriage and therefore, society.
Critic Abby Werlock points out that the issue of marriage is inextricable from Lydia's identity crisis. Werlock draws from Stuart Hall's research. Hall describes two main ways of conceptualizing identity –the enlightenment subject, and the sociological subject. The former is a centered, unified individual with an "inner core" and a consciousness that reasons and thinks. The latter forms in relation to other members of society who mediate the values, meanings, and symbols of the subject's world. Werlock describes Lydia as an enlightenment subject at the beginning of the story: she left her first husband by her own volition, she has her own strong opinions and beliefs about society, and she forms her thoughts in her mind and speaks them out loud. However, Werlock writes, "such idealized existence fails to materialize in action."
Once Lydia and Gannett settle at the hotel, both of them slowly begin to conform to society's ideals. Lydia's transformation is much more striking than her lover's. She enters a coterie of gossipy women and pretends to be Mrs. Gannett. She even carries her charade so far as to shun another divorcee when she asks for help. Lydia cannot bear to enter into confidence with Mrs. Cope because it reinforces her own identity crisis. Meanwhile, Mrs. Cope is technically in the same situation as Lydia, but she does not hide her longing to conform to society's expectations. This makes her more conventional than Lydia, even though Mrs. Cope is the outcast for most of the story.
Lydia, despite her vociferous pronouncements of autonomy and love outside of marriage, is (according to Werlock) "a social creature" and "her inconsistent practices of her principles...is predictable." When Mrs. Cope indicates her knowledge of Lydia's secret, Lydia's torrent of self-condemnatory statements reveals that her defiance is more of an act or a projection. She would like to believe she is "unconventional" (119), but since her arrival at the hotel, she has basked in the approval of the other women.
At the end of the story, Lydia makes one more attempt to embody the constructed identity of an independent, devil-may-care divorcee, but she cannot bear to actually leave Gannett and strike out on her own. By the end of the short story, Wharton implies that Lydia and Gannett will marry, although it is equally clear that some of the fire has gone out of their relationship. While their escape from society feels romantic and passionate, the decision to marry seems more like a consolation. The society has not yet caught up with Lydia's ideas, forcing her to comply or become a total outcast (like Mrs. Cope is upon her arrival at the hotel).