Degradation and Forbidden Love in Edith Wharton's Summer
In Edith Wharton’s 1917 novel Summer the relationship between the heroine, Charity Royall, and her lover, Lucius Harney, depicts a kind of feminine sexual awakening that is profoundly original in literature. As Cynthia Griffin Wolff notes in her introduction to the book, “Summer is not the first Bildungsroman to focus on this awakening to maturity as it occurs in a woman’s life; however, it is the first to deal explicitly with sexual passion as an essential component of that process” (x). The precise way in which this sexual relationship is entered into by these young people has significant psychoanalytical ramifications. Specifically, Harney’s need for a certain degradation of Charity to occur before he can find her sexually accessible, his subconscious need to separate feelings of sexual desire and attraction from feelings of genuine tenderness and high esteem, and Charity’s own need to experience her sexuality as a forbidden pleasure, constitute driving forces in the revelation of their relationship within the novel. Freud’s 1912 essay “The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life” proves insightful in a close analysis of the relationship between Charity and Harney—particularly with regard to the factors that contribute to Harney’s perspective and involvement.
The assumption that Wharton knew Feud’s work is almost inevitable. Like Freud, Wharton exhibited great appreciation for the works of Arthur...
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Charity Royall in Summer
At the turn of the twentieth century there were strict social prohibitions against a gentleman giving a lady clothing or jewelry. An unmarried woman who received clothing from a man was considered to be “no better than she should be,” a woman of loose morals. Married men could display their worth by the way they adorned their wives; a woman with expensive clothing and jewelry and the time to study the latest fashions was evidence that her husband had enough disposable wealth to support such conspicuous consumption. These social conventions were a small part of a rigid system that worked against women having autonomy within or without the bonds of marriage. Young women like Charity Royall in Edith Wharton’s Summer had few means outside marriage for leading satisfying lives: denied higher education, professional careers, even the right to participate in government, they relied on husbands to advance them socially and economically.
Charity would like to believe that she can do as she pleases without the approval of society, and it is in this spirit that she enters into an affair with Lucius Harney. But throughout the novel, Wharton shows Charity as struggling against societal expectations. Every time Charity looks in a mirror or decides she cannot bear looking in a mirror, she accepts the ideology that says her worth is in how she appears to men. If she is to find any happiness in her unhappy situation, Charity will have to learn to stop caring...
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Settings and Landscape
According to Marilyn French in her introduction to Wharton’s novel, Summer, “Wharton’s main theme, her deepest concern, was the emotional/moral life, especially in the area of sexuality.” Wharton created a story of a young woman’s coming of age through sexual experience and love. In many ways, this novel was ahead of its time. Long before essays on female identity were being written, Wharton created a female character exploring just these things. Much of Wharton’s approach to the taboo subject of sexuality was brought to the reader through the imagery and environment in which she placed her characters.
When the novel’s main character, Charity Royall, first visits Nettleton it is with the church youth group. At this time, the sights and sounds of such a place are overwhelming to her. They make her aware of the plain life she lives in North Dormer. What she remembers from this first visit are the “plate-glass fronts, . . . cocoanut pie, . . . and a theater [where she listened to a lecture on] pictures that she would have enjoyed looking at if . . . explanations had not prevented her from understanding them.” With this experience, Nettleton becomes a place of newness and excitement. Wharton describes the town in an abundance of sensory images: what Charity can see, taste, and hear. It becomes a town Charity can fantasize about.
Charity needs something to fantasize about. Already an outsider because of her history with...
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The Role of Nature and Culture in Summer
Edith Wharton’s novel, Summer, is a classic coming-of-age story about a young woman. This type of story, called a bildungsroman (which translates from the German as “novel of formation”), generally contains a hero or heroine who is set in opposition to society and his/her upbringing in order to find his/her place in that society. Themes of coming-of-age novels often deal with love, with the conflict between adolescence and adulthood, and with the process of maturation and all the introspection and experimentation inherent in that process. In Summer, the female protagonist, Charity Royall, embodies many of the themes of the coming-of-age novel. In particular, Charity’s character reveals a young adult’s emerging individuality, or nature, in conflict with the society that has nurtured her.
At the beginning of Wharton’s novel, the external world of nature plays a significant role. The story begins on a June afternoon, and the splendor of summer is all around. Wharton uses the imagery of nature both abundantly and carefully. In scene after scene, there is lavish description of the blooming summer world that serves as the backdrop for her characters’ interactions. These scenes of nature may symbolize elements of the human story. For instance, in the beginning of the story, when Charity begins to fall in love, nature reflects the passion and abundance of her feelings, overflowing with life as it does in early summer. Later in...
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The Divided Conflict of Edith Wharton’s Summer
When Bernard Berenson complimented Edith Wharton on her latest novel, Summer, and expressed admiration for its predominant male character, Lawyer Royall, Wharton replied, “of course he’s the book.”
Wharton’s statement has been largely ignored by critics who view the book as Charity Royall’s story, and who classify Lawyer Royall as an old windbag, a pompous drunkard, or worse. The popular interpretation ignores not only Royall’s central position in the plot, but Royall’s central role in the novel’s subtle and unfolding themes. For Summer is not just Wharton’s variation on the old seducedand- abandoned theme; it is a story of two protagonists, both of whom must come to terms with their destructive illusions in order to lead adult lives.
The ability to “look life in the face,” to confront reality without flinching or evasion, was, for Wharton, an essential quality in mature conduct. She repeatedly traced the conflicts of characters faced with the choice of escape through evasion or a more painful but adult recognition of things as they are. In the majority of her novels, Wharton chronicles this conflict through the use of an outsider heroine, one who exposes the reality of situation and self in confrontation with a weak male. This male figure, unable to face the truths the heroine reveals, rejects her. Such is the pattern of Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, of Lily Bart and...
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