Mind Reading and Mind Blindness in The Age of Innocence. A Cognitive Perspective


  • Pilar Martinez Benedi




This essay explores Edith Wharton’s narrative strategies in The Age of Innocence from a cognitive perspective. My purpose is less to describe the cognitive mechanism underlying the act of reading than to reflect on how writers may capitalize on our cognitive proclivities to achieve a certain effect—in this case, surprise. Starting from the notion of “theory of mind” or “mind-reading”—the ability to understand others’ outward behavior in terms of underlying mental or emotional states, which, according to some cognitive critics, “makes literature as we know it possible”—I explore the ways in which this cognitive proclivity to read fictional minds can be turned on its head, and into a kind of “mind-misreading.” With all its silences and “undertelling,” The Age of Innocence, it seems, summons the reader’s theory of mind proclivities. However, in Wharton’s novel the reader’s apparently free “mind-readings” are compromised and manipulated by a fluid focalization and, on the other hand, by an artful use of “mind-blinding” mechanisms that tease our cognitive endowments (together with the protagonist’s), turning an apparently everyday task of mind-reading into an unacknowledged case of (literary) mind-blindness.