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I think this story is a little sexist. However Wharton is correct in that biologically women are more nurturing. Women will often go to extremes to make people love them. This is why so many women stay with abusive husbands. It's a theme used throughout literature.
I disagree that abused women stay with their abusers because they are attempting to make the men love them. Most of these women come from a long line of abuse where they grew up thinking this sort of existence was normal. Not to mention, the women often love the men, who promise that the hitting or the whatever "won't happen again". The women, who have strong sense of duty to making marriage work (because society for so long saw it the woman's failure to keep the family together--it's a shameful thing to be divorced) do all within their power to change the state of things.
In Wharton's novel, it's a bit of an awakening for Charity. She is on the cusp of discovery...about herself, her world, her future and dreams. It's not just mentally and emotionally, but also physical awakening...a coming of age and maturity. For women, moreso than men, sex and love make them vulnerable. A man can be very promiscuous and it's so cool in society. Other guys give them the high five, and the bad boy image makes other girls swoon. Women, on the other hand, are seen as cheap and loose. Their reputation is damaged and their phone numbers go up on the bathroom wall.
I am sure this also goes along with self esteem and how she is brought up. Those without a strong father figure and family foundation tend to be less self assured (and thus seem more fragile, more likely to be some kind of stalker type, someone who doesn't hear "no" because she might be a bit delusional).
On the other hand, all humans want to be loved. We want to fit in, be liked for who we are, and respected as people. Even the most self-assured have weak moments and times of shaken confidence. Women just seem to hone in on relationships, love, and feelings early. Most little girls have been planning their weddings for years...that should tell you something.
I agree with a number of comments made in #3. Let us remember that the title of the novel corresponds with a particular season of fulfillment and maturity in Charity's own life, which of course opens her to public censure and criticism, like so many of Wharton's heroines. I think both men and women have a need to be loved, but the problem is for Charity and women like her that it is much more acceptable for men to be promiscuous than it is for women.
The humanistic need to be loved corresponds to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It is the second level of need and follows after physiological needs and needs for safety. Maslow relates the need for love to the need for belonging; this is a need common to men and women. It so happens though that historically, men have focused on areas of belonging that are external to family belonging, while often women have focused only on belonging that is internal to family belonging. Therefore the mutual need for love and belonging may be manifest in different ways between men and women, though working women have the same division of focus that men have historically had.
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