Summer Background

Summer Background

In 1917 Edith Wharton moved out of her fictional comfort zone of life among the New York City elite and took her profound imagination to New England in the novel Summer. Over the course of four months in North Dormer, Massachusetts, a teenage girl named Charity Royall sadly follows in the footsteps of Newland Archer.

Like Newland, Charity eats from the fruit of what which might have been before circumstances enforce upon her a tepid acceptance of which must be settled for. In the summer of her maturation, Charity falls in love with a stranger, becomes pregnant, is abandoned by her seducer and ultimately marries the figure of security against which she has been struggling to rebel for most of the novel. Although lacking the gun-wrenching emotional wallop that arrives at the moment in The Age of Innocence when it becomes apparent that Newland Archer has been defeated by the System that is the social class of New York, Summer still manages to combine feelings of both regret and hope for Charity’s future.

Summer was only a mild success for Wharton upon publication, with many critical reviews focusing on the disenchantment wrought by Charity’s ultimate decision to compromise. Interestingly, though the ending, as indicated, does bear more than a slight similarity in thematic terms to The Age of Innocence, the same criticism was not leveled against that book. Perhaps emotional compromise was to expected from men than women. If so, this may also contribute to explaining why critical appreciation of Summer had to wait until the feminist movement. By the 1960’s, feminist critiques were routinely re-evaluating the novel in terms which situated Charity’s summer romance as a tale of the female’s aching desire for sexual awakening pitted against the male’s need to domination through sexual degradation.

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