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 Schnitzler (Lawson 46, 129), the late-nineteenthcentury “Vienna-born Jewish doctor” who is known for “epitomizing” Viennese impressionism in his literary works (Johnson 171–72), and whose stories, novels, and plays revealed a “perceptiveness with which they laid bare the inner, mainly the sensual, world of their characters” (Gay 130) As well, both Freud and Wharton admired the works of Goethe and Schiller. Freud “could quote [them] by the hour” (128), while Wharton reaffirmed “her loyalty to the older German literature and the German language” by immersing herself in the correspondence between the two (Lewis 394) “‘Goethe always schillered when he wrote to Schiller, didn’t he?’ she observed” (394). Even more persuasive is the fact that Wharton often mentioned and discussed Freud among her friends during her excursion to Germany in 1913, as well as after her return to Paris that same year (352, 355). Freud’s influence on Wharton . . . then, though not unequivocally documented, is apparent in that they often expressed similar concerns about cultural expectations and restrictions . . . and in that they were both interested in critiquing the “attitudes to premarital and extramarital sexual experience, [and] the precarious relation between parents and children” that they perceived in the societies in which they lived (134).
Summer tells the story of the romance that develops between Charity Royall, a relatively inexperienced young girl of humble beginnings, and Lucius Harney, an ambitious young man from the city. Charity is living with her guardian, Mr. Royall, in North Dormer, Massachusetts, when Harney comes to stay with his cousin, Miss Hatchard, for the summer. After their coincidental meeting in the library where Charity works part-time, Harney and Charity begin to see more and more of each other until their friendship evolves into a torrid affair. The romance of this seemingly mismatched couple “breaks, or stretches, many conventions of romantic love stories and in the process creates a new picture of female sexuality” (French xlii).
First of all, the relationship has only progressed so far as Harney’s giving Charity her first real kiss when Charity is publicly degraded by Mr. Royall. The scene of the first kiss is in itself a foreshadowing of the sexual ecstasy that is soon to follow for the young couple. Having spent the day together in Nettleton, Charity and Harney are sitting in the bleachers at a Fourth of July fireworks display when the kiss takes place. As Charity leans back to view the display, she feels “Harney’s knees against her head.”
After a while the scattered fireworks ceased. A longer interval of darkness followed, and then the whole night broke into flower. From every point of the horizon, gold and silver arches sprang up and crossed each other, sky-orchards broke into blossom, shed their flaming petals and hung their branches with golden fruit; and all the while the air was filled with a soft supernatural hum, as though great birds were building nests in those invisible tree-tops.
The sexual imagery in this passage is important to note; Charity is about to “break into flower” or “break into blossom” herself. She is at once becoming aware of her own sexual instincts and needs in response to her growing intimacy with Harney. She will soon “shed [her] flaming petals,” so to speak, and enter into an awakening that will incur all the brilliance and excitement that the fireworks symbolize. In fact, she and Harney are soon to embark on building their own secret little nest where they may covertly experience this excitement.
This imagery becomes even more explicit in the succeeding paragraphs leading up to the actual kiss:
For a moment the night seemed to grow more impenetrably black; then a great picture stood out against it like a constellation. It was surmounted by a golden scroll bearing the inscription, “Washington crossing the Delaware,” and across a flood of motionless golden ripples the National Hero passed, erect, solemn and gigantic, standing with folded arms in the stern of a slowly moving golden boat.
A long “Oh-h-h” burst from the spectators: the stand creaked and shook with their blissful trepidations. “Oh-h-h,” Charity gasped: she had forgotten where she was, had at last forgotten even Harney’s nearness. She seemed to have been caught up in the stars. The obvious phallic imagery of the scroll and the replica of Washington, and especially the delight and “bliss” they evoke in the audience, again suggest the sexual delight and bliss that will occur for Charity as a result of a deeper physical intimacy with Harney.
The first kissing seems to arise out of Harney’s genuine affection for and attraction toward Charity. It seems spontaneous enough on his part: “With sudden vehemence he wound his arms about her, holding her head against his breast while she gave him back his kisses” However, it later becomes apparent that Harney’s mental assessment of Charity and her position in society at this point in the story perhaps gives him leeway, at least in his own mind, to be so aggressive. Charity feels “herself possessed of a new mysterious power” over him at this point. What she does not realize is that this “power” is about to be lost when she encounters Mr. Royal as they are leaving.
In the next scene Chasity is irrevocably degraded in Harvey’s eyes. As they are leaving, they come in contact with the drunken Mr. Royall, who, annoyed at finding them together, berates and shames Charity in front of the crowd:
He was just behind Julia Hawes, and had one hand on her arm; but as he left the gang-plank he freed himself, and moved a step or two away from his companions. He had seen Charity at once, and his glance passed slowly from her to Harney, whose arm was still about her. He stood staring at them, and trying to master the senile quiver of his lips; then he drew himself up with the tremulous majesty of drunkenness, and stretched out his arm.
“You whore—you damn—bare-headed whore, you!” he enunciated slowly.
This particular scene of degradation prompts Harney to intensify his physical relationship with Charity soon afterward. In fact, the next time he sees her is the first time they retreat to the little house that becomes their hideaway.
At this point the correlation between the scene at the wharf with Mr. Royall and Harney’s subsequent seduction of Charity may be unclear. Here Freud’s essay comes in handy in helping us better to understand the nature of this correlation in psychoanalytic terms. To begin with, according to
Freud, the male’s need to degrade the love object stems from a “psychical impotence” that has occurred due to an unacknowledged incestuous desire for his mother and/or sister. This desire is fundamentally unacknowledged because the male holds these two family members in very high esteem; thus, this type of desire seems entirely unacceptable to him. He then finds it necessary to separate feelings of desire from feelings of true affection and esteem. As Freud points out, “The erotic life of such people remains disassociated, divided between two channels, the same two that are personified in art as heavenly and earthly (or animal) love. Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love” (207).
Freud claims that the most prevalent way in which the male then copes with his divided feelings is to create two love objects—one to love, the other to desire. He then degrades the desired love object in some way in order that his desire for her become acceptable to himself:
The principal means of protection used by men against this complaint consists in lowering the sexual object in their own estimation, while reserving for the incestuous object and for those who represent it the overestimation normally felt for the sexual object. As soon as the sexual object fulfills the condition of being degraded, sensual feeling can have free play, considerable sexual capacity and a high degree of pleasure can be developed. (208)
Although Harney does not himself degrade Charity, she suffers degradation in his eyes due to Mr. Royall’s outburst. Harney also does not understand why this outburst makes her suddenly seem more sexually accessible to him in comparison to Annabel Balch, his well-brought-up fiancée. Freud also addresses this problem:
The man almost always feels his sexual activity hampered by his respect for the woman and only develops full sexual potency when he finds himself in the presence of a lower type of sexual object; and this again is partly conditioned by the circumstance that his sexual aims include those of perverse sexual components which with his well-brought-up wife, for instance, he does not venture to do. (210)
In light of this assertion, we need to examine the backgrounds of both Charity and Annabel as they are described in the novel, in order more fully to comprehend Harney’s view of each. The contrast between the backgrounds of the two young women is brought to our attention very early in the novel, even before we learn anything of significance about Harney. Charity, we discover, is from “the Mountain.” She has no real family to speak of, aside from her guardian Mr. Royall, and she is keenly aware that her origins are ambiguous, her place in society mean, especially in comparison to the position of someone like the formidable Miss Balch. Charity knows that the Mountain is “a bad place, and a shame to have come from” and she feels “ashamed of her old sun-hat, and sick of North Dormer, and jealously aware of Annabel Balch of Springfield, opening her blue eyes somewhere far off on glories greater than the glories of Nettleton.” Annabel, then, has undoubtedly been more privileged during her lifetime than Charity can even imagine.
For Harney, who comes from the same world of privilege as Annabel, the difference between the backgrounds and present social positions of the two women is more prevalent in his consciousness and more directive of his actions than he realizes. In applying Freud’s ideas to this love triangle, we can see the way in which Harney’s subconscious reasoning affects his decision to pursue a sexual relationship with Charity rather than with Annabel. For instance, I would posit that in choosing Charity, Harney, like Freud’s exemplary male, exhibits his “need for a less exalted sexual object, a woman ethically inferior, to whom he need ascribe no aesthetic misgivings, and who does not know the rest of his life and cannot criticize him” (Freud 210). Indeed, Freud goes on to claim, “It is to such a woman that he prefers to devote his sexual potency, even when all the tenderness in him belongs to one of a higher type” (210). Though Harney is quite tender to Charity and finds her aesthetically pleasing and valuable, he does, in fact, unquestionably consider Annabel to be of a “higher type” than Charity.
The next time in the story that we hear of Annabel is when Mr. Miles mentions her to Harney in Charity’s hearing at the library. Speaking of a garden party he has attended, he says, “I saw Miss Balch several times by the way . . . looking extremely handsome.” The unprecedented mention of Annabel’s name unnerves Charity, and we begin to understand the separate kinds of response that Harney reserves for his two love interests. Charity’s intimidation and her sense of helplessness are revealed as her “restless imagination fasten[s] on the name of Annabel Balch.” She notices a change in Harney’s expression at the mention of this name, and though she does not fully comprehend the exact nature of a garden party she envisions “the flower-edged lawns of Nettleton” and enviously recalls “the ‘old things’ which Miss Balch avowedly ‘wore out’ when she came to North Dormer.” Indeed, “Charity understood what associations the name must have called up, and felt the uselessness of struggling against the unseen influences in Harney’s life.” Charity then automatically “fits the bill” for Harney as a woman “to whom he need ascribe no aesthetic misgivings, and who does not know the rest of his life and cannot criticize him” (Freud 210, italics mine). In other words, Harney does not feel as if Charity could possibly encumber the beautiful future he envisions for himself because, in the back of his mind, he knows that he will end up with a more “appropriate” mate. Even Charity perceives that her relation to Harney at this point is characterized by her inferiority.
However, perhaps the most telling of descriptions is Wharton’s depiction of Annabel’s appearance and behavior at the North Dormer “Old Home Week” celebration: “Miss Balch, in an unbecoming dress, looked sallow and pinched, and Charity fancied there was a worried expression in her palelashed eyes. She took a set near Miss Hatchard and it was presently apparent that she did not mean to dance.” Annabel is here delineated as an “object” completely void of any sexual inclination, indeed rather inclined against sex, in that she looks “sallow and pinched.” Her asexuality is accentuated even more by the fact that she does “not mean to dance.” Wharton effectively stresses here that the kind of creature held in high esteem by Harney is one of respectable origin and social position, yet one who seems to lack any kind of sensual vitality. Harney’s previous decision that Charity is a more acceptable and accessible choice for a sexual affair thus becomes more clear, and the degradation of Charity that he witnesses at the wharf then only confirms the ideas that have already been collecting in his mind.
However, the scene at the wharf is only the first major occurrence of Charity’s degradation. As she reveals more and more about herself to him in later stages of their relationship, she becomes increasingly degraded in his eyes. In fact, each time a new threshold is crossed in this respect, Harney’s estimation of Charity drops to a lower level. For example, when Harney overtakes Charity in her flight to the Mountain, she reveals the truth about her origins to him. When he questions her about why she is going “home” in this particular direction (away from North Dormer), she replies that she is going to her home “up yonder: to the Mountain.” With this utterance “she became aware of a change in his face. He was no longer listening to her, he was only looking at her, with the passionate absorbed expression she had seen in his eyes after they had kissed on the stand at Nettleton.” Though Charity interprets his response to her admission as one of love, his response comes from a newly awakened sexual urge resulting from this new degradation. In fact, he immediately clasps her hands, embraces and kisses her, and leads her up to the little house that becomes their hideaway. Here the most important stage of her degradation takes place.
After they enter the little house and Charity seems to have calmed down, Harney tries to persuade her to go back to Mr. Royall’s. Yet Charity vows that she will not go back, and in giving Harney her reasons she discloses an even more demeaning aspect of her circumstances. At Harney’s insistence that Mr. Royall’s drinking accounted for his rude behavior...
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