Summer by Edith Wharton

Summer by Edith Wharton (published 1917) is a short novella about a young woman searching for her place. In some places, it’s been cited as Wharton’s most “erotic” work1. Charity Royall does come to her own sexual awakening over the course of a summer, but Wharton writes about Charity’s choices without too much sexual reference. To me, the book seemed to focus even more on a young woman’s realization that she can make her own choices for her life, that she is an individual. The end, then, was somewhat problematic for me, although probably quite accurate in terms of a young woman making choices.

Although I thought as I began the book that Summer would focus on her sexual awakening, as the story progressed, I began to see it more as a self-awakening. Charity, a foster daughter of Judge Royall, searches for her place. In the years since Mrs. Royall had died, Charity found herself questioning her place in the small community of North Dormer. Her name was assigned by the Royalls to remind her that she was a charity case; her last name was accepted by default since she has been raised by the Royalls. But her roots go to the people of the mountain, those that live without “civilization” in the sense generally accepted in turn-of-the-century New England. Ms Wharton always seems to appraise the limited definitions of “proper” behavior in her fiction, and this book was no exception in addressing the issues.

As Charity searches for her place in “civilization,” she questions where she belongs. Her sexual awakening, which began when the handsome Lucius Harney arrived in town, begins this self-awakening. I found myself liking Charity very much in her innocence. I hoped that things would not go wrong for her as she searched for her place and learned to make her own decisions.

It has been a long time since I read The House of Mirth, but Charity was to me somewhat like Lily Bart by the end, albeit a much more naïve version of Lily Bart. Charity was of course much younger than Lily Bart, and she was raised in a rather closed society. Her new view of the world, found through the exotic life of Lucius2, revealed her own limited life and prompted her to make her own choices.

Likewise, Summer reminded me of Ethan Frome (which I disliked) because of the small New England community. That book focused on winter and had lots of hopelessness; the colors provided the small bits of joy and hope in the story.  Summer on the other hand, obviously focused on the heat of summer, and by symbolic extension, the heat of love and a first passion.

*possible spoiler* As Charity Royall’s summer drew to a close, however, her story lost the passion and heat metaphor; as the weather changed and leaves left the trees and snow covered the ground, Charity’s situation became as hopeless as those in the winters of Ethan Frome’s life. In the end, Charity, like Lily, was stuck in difficult situations from which she could not extricate herself; she was alone and scared. Because she was raised in a far more sheltered environment with possibly more strict social conventions than those Lily Bart faced in the large city of New York, it was all the more tragic to me, the reader. I really disliked the disturbing end (I hated Mr. Royall from start to end), although Charity’s ignorance of the world limited her choices. To me, it ended in tragedy, which should not have surprised me, given that this is an Edith Wharton novel. *end spoiler*

Summer was beautifully written. I loved how Ms Wharton brought me in to a highly realistic small town community at the turn of the century, and I loved the descriptions and metaphors that carried the story from a sensual summer to a hopeless fall. I listened to the Librivox audio edition, read by Robin Cotter, which was so good it seemed professionally done.

  1.  In a 1917 sense, that may be so. There is little “erotic” from a modern stand point beyond some symbolism, like the firecrackers during the first kiss. It would be interesting to find all the potentially “erotic” things in the book, but really, it’s very tame book
  2. To her, he seemed exotic. In reality, there is nothing exotic about Mr Harney. Charity’s perception of the world is skewed by her limited experience in North Dormer.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. One of these days I am going to read Edith Wharton… I have started books by her before, but the timing never seemed to be there.

    1. Kailana » Although I’m a huge fan of the classics and I personally enjoy Edith Wharton, I don’t hesitate to add that if she’s not working for you, don’t force yourself. Plenty of classics that may work better for you. No writer is a perfect match for everyone.

  2. Oh, great review! The story, on a very general level, brings to mind the book I’m reading now, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I think is also about self- and sexual awakening. It’s definitely a great concept to write about in literature, especially when you have authors with such a beautiful way with words.

    1. Aarti » Interesting to consider this novel in context to Dorian Gray. This one is much more realistic and I just loved the setting creation and characters. I dislike Dorian Gray so I have a hard time finding similarities… I do enjoy this one though.

        1. Jillian » I’ve really enjoyed most of the novels I’ve read by Wharton (four) but haven’t read many of her short stories, maybe four or five of them.

    1. Trisha » it’s less intimidating than the longer ones but it’s not quite as polished, I don’t think. If you liked Ethan Frome, though, this might work for you –someone mentioned Wharton herself called it the “hot Wharton” (can’t remember who?).

  3. I had an e-copy of this – but I deleted it accidentally (oops…). I must download it again some day and read it, as I’ve loved all the other Wharton stuff I’ve tried (I’m sure you can have a stab at the four I’ve read!).

  4. I read my first Wharton novel (House of Mirth) a few years ago and I really struggled with it. I found it very hard to connect with her writing style and it was one of those books that I constantly felt like I should be liking it more than I actually was. Sometimes I think that I might not have been a strong enough reader at the time to fully appreciate Wharton, and so I do think that I might benefit from trying her again, but I never feel like it’s all that pressing that I do!

    1. Steph » As I said in a previous comment, although I love classics and Wharton in particular, not every author is for every reader. If she doesn’t work for you, don’t worry about it. There are some classic authors I really don’t like all that much myself. This one and Ethan Frome are both short, though, so maybe that would help 🙂

  5. I can’t remember who at the moment, but a book blogger told me this should be my next Wharton. The themes certainly do appeal to me! It sounds like something I’d love.

  6. Great review! I really loved Summer (all Wharton, really) and read that Wharton referred to this novel as ‘Hot Ethan’. Charity certainly does appear to be a younger, more naive Lily Bart character.

    1. JoAnn » oh ok, so I just used that “hot Ethan” definition in a different comment response…lol I forgot it was a comment lower down on the page that said that! I really need to revisit House of Mirth, I kept thinking of Lily as I read this one.

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