Women’s Rights and Women’s Literature
The first part of the twentieth century was a heady time for many women in the United States. For some thirty-five years, since the end of the Civil War, debate throughout the nation about what the new political role for African Americans would be had spilled over into debate about new roles for women. Active women’s rights groups began to emerge in the late 1860s, demanding new rights for women: the right to vote, the right to attend colleges and universities alongside men, the right to work in the professions, the right to respectful and appropriate medical care, including information about birth control and abortion, the right to control property. Along with these political and economic demands, women also developed a heightened interest in literature that dealt with their lives and concerns. The bestselling novelists of the late nineteenth century in the United States were women, writing stories about women. Although most of these writers were not recognized by the literary establishment as serious or important, they served an important need in giving voice to women’s experience.
In 1899, novelist Kate Chopin published her novel The Awakening, about a young woman who comes to understand that the life of a wife and mother is not satisfying to her. For Chopin’s heroine Edna, there are almost no acceptable alternatives to domesticity. She would like to express herself through painting,...
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Bildungsroman Summer is a bildungsroman (from the German for “novel about education”), the story of a young person’s development into adulthood. The tradition of the bildungsroman in English literature is strong and includes such important novels as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849–1850). Typical of the form, Summer begins with Charity, a relatively sheltered young person on the verge of adulthood. Charity has no real responsibilities, and her basic needs are provided for. She is independent-minded but still rather childish, as when she murmurs, “How I hate everything!” She is not curious about books or about other people, she keeps telling herself that she does not care what anyone thinks of her but cannot stop comparing herself to Annabel Balch and the Nettleton ladies, she falls head over heels in love with the first city-born man she sees— in short, she is a typical adolescent. As she moves through the novel, Charity is forced to consider other lives than her own. As a jilted lover and finally as a wife and an expectant mother, Charity is finally forced to grow up.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, several novels had explored the maturation of a female protagonist. However, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff explains in an Introduction to Summer, Charity’s story “is the first to deal explicitly with sexual passion as an essential component...
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Compare and Contrast
Early Twentieth Century: In 1914, Margaret Sanger, a nurse, is prosecuted for publishing The Woman Rebel, a newsletter promoting birth control. The newsletter is banned as obscene literature. Two years later, she opens a birth control clinic in New York City, one of the nation’s first. It is illegal in most parts of the United States even for physicians to prescribe or discuss birth control.
Today: Although some religious groups oppose the use of birth control, it is widely available, and generally considered safe and reasonably (but not entirely) effective. Information about sex, conception, and contraception is easily obtained.
Early Twentieth Century: In Pittsburgh, the first American movie theater opens in 1905. Within ten years, all major cities in the United States have cinemas, showing silent spectacles, comedies, and newsreels. By 1912, five million people in the United States go to the movies each day.
Today: Most American cities have multi-screen cinemas showing full-length movies with color, sound, and big-budget special effects. Movies can also be seen on broadcast television or in various in-home video formats.
Early Twentieth Century: Travel is difficult and expensive for rural people. Bicycles and horse-drawn vehicles are common but naturally limit the distances one can travel. Automobiles are still largely a novelty. Women are discouraged by social convention from...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the tradition of Old Home Week in New England villages near the turn of the twentieth century. What purposes does this tradition seem to have served? In what ways is Old Home Week like and unlike homecoming as it is celebrated at high schools and colleges today?
Research the availability of contraceptives and abortion in the early part of the twentieth century. What might Charity and Harney have done to avoid pregnancy? If Charity had decided to have Dr. Merkle perform an abortion, how safe might it have been?
The pin Harney buys for Charity costs $10—the same as the fare to ride around the lake in an “electric run-about.” Using 1910 as the year Harney bought the pin, calculate the approximate cost in dollars used in the early 2000s. How nice a gift did he buy her?
Edith Wharton’s original readers would have understood from the beginning that Charity and Lucius Harney would not last as a couple, because they come from different social classes. In the community you live in, what are the chances that two people from different social, ethnic or religious groups can form lasting bonds, supported by the larger community? Is the idea of sticking with your own kind outdated or still important?
Are any old buildings in your town named after early citizens? Research the lives and contributions of one or more of these namesakes. What kinds of people are honored in this way?
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Books in Motion offers an unabridged audio recording of Summer read by Shaela Connor. It was published in 1992 on audiocassettes.
Another unabridged audio presentation is available on audiocassette and CD from Blackstone Audio Books. Recorded in 1994, the novel is read by Grace Conlin. A 1999 edition includes the novel and excerpts from A Backward Glance.
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What Do I Read Next?
Ethan Frome (1911) is Wharton’s other short novel of rural New England. Its title character is an unhappily married man who comes to believe he has a chance at real love when his wife’s cousin Mattie comes to stay.
The Age of Innocence (1920) is Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel of social life in New York City during the 1870s. The novel’s upperclass characters are just as bound by convention and just as fearful of gossip as the middle-class characters in Summer.
The Awakening (1899), by Kate Chopin, tells the story of a young woman’s gradual realization that being a dutiful wife and mother is not enough for her. The novel was greeted with anger and scorn because it did not condemn its central character for committing adultery.
Among the most frequently borrowed material from the Hatchard Memorial Library is the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an immensely popular poet of nineteenth-century New England. His Ballads and Other Poems (1841) included “The Village Blacksmith,” “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” and other favorites which were still widely anthologized in the early 2000s.
North of Boston (1914) is a collection of poetry by Robert Frost. Published shortly before Summer, it includes several poems, including “Mending Wall” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” that depict life in rural New England.
The Ladies’ Home...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Boynton, H. W., “Some Stories of the Month,” Review of Summer, in the Bookman, Vol. 46, September 1917, p. 94.
Gilman, Lawrence, “The Book of the Month: Mrs. Wharton Reverts to Shaw,” in the North American Review, Vol. 206, August 1917, p. 307.
Grafton, Kathy, “Degradation and Forbidden Love in Edith Wharton’s Summer,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter 1995, p. 360.
Hummel, William E., “My ‘Dull-Witted Enemy’: Symbolic Violence and Abject Maleness in Edith Wharton’s Summer,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 2, Autumn 1996, pp. 215–36.
Jessup, Josephine Lurie, The Faith of Our Feminists: A Study in the Novels of Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow, Willa Cather, Richard R. Smith, 1950, p. 23.
Nevius, Blake, Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction, University of California Press, 1953, p. 170.
“Plots and People,” Review of Summer, in the Nation, Vol. 105, No. 2718, August 2, 1917, p. 125.
Skillern, Rhonda, “Becoming a ‘Good Girl’: Law, Language, and Ritual in Edith Wharton’s Summer,” in The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton, edited by Millicent Bell, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 119.
Wharton, Edith, A Backward Glance, D. Appleton-Century, 1934.
—, Summer, 1917,...
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