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.
- 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 ↩
- 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. ↩