Summer, published in 1917, is one of only two novels the prolific writer Edith Wharton set in rural New England. Wharton, who was both critically acclaimed and a bestselling author, was perhaps better known in her lifetime for her many novels set in New York City among the wealthy elite. In this novel, however, the author’s keen attention to detail is turned away from fashion and manners and city life and instead directed at the wonders of the natural world as they echo the changes felt by the central character, Charity Royall. Summer was only a moderate success when it first appeared, but when Wharton’s work was rediscovered in the 1960s the novel found a new, larger, and more appreciative critical audience.
Like the protagonist in Ethan Frome, Wharton’s most widely read novel today, Charity yearns for a fuller life than the one she lives in her small town, but social restrictions and a certain weakness of character prevent her from realizing her dreams. One of the first American literary novels to deal frankly with a young woman’s sexual awakening, Summer begins with a chance encounter, has a passionate affair at its center, and ends with a wedding. In this bare outline, Summer appears similar to hundreds of “sentimental” novels of the period, but critics agree that Wharton’s depth of feeling and rich prose have turned a conventional plot into art. The novel’s contemporary reviewers argued heatedly over the meaning of the wedding, and the question continued to interest critics in the twentyfirst century.