Wharton's Ethan Frome and Summer

Last week when I wrote that I was reading Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, a thoughtful commenter mentioned that it might be interesting to read Ethan Frome and Summer together, since they are both “rural” novels, a bit different from the big city novels we often associate with Wharton.

Although I’ve read several Wharton novels, I did not realize that she wrote so many. There are 22 novels to be exact, and most of the titles are completely unfamiliar to me. I enjoy Wharton’s writing, although I know enough now to prepare myself for a melancholy, if not tragic, ending. Wharton has a particular skill at portraying the right blend of injustice and personal folly in her stories. Her characters suffer at the hand of fate, but have also contributed in some measure to their vulnerability. At least this is true for the five novels I’ve now read.

I would highly recommend reading Ethan Frome and Summer together, not just for their similarities but for their contrast. Both are quite dark, in terms of subject matter, but where the setting and ambience of Ethan Frome mirror the psychological darkness of the story, Summer takes place in a light-filled, nature-inspired and overtly sensual environment that lulls the reader into a false sense of security about the direction of the story. I had to remind myself around Chapter 12 that this was a Wharton novel and not to get my hopes up for a happy ending.  

Ethan Frome is absolutely tragic and it felt nearly like a gothic novel with all the gloom and cold and hints at madness in the female characters. And Ethan is a lurker, someone who keeps to the sidelines and watches and waits. But the novel’s central thread is about a possible infidelity, an infidelity Wharton makes the reader hope will be accomplished. I liked this trick of soliciting the reader’s complicity because then we are really saddened by the novel’s final dénouement.

I’m hard pressed to say whether Summer is more tragic than Ethan Frome. So much of the novel is lighthearted and cheerful. Although there are repeated warnings that this happy façade is crumbling. So in that sense, when the disastrous ending finally comes around, it isn’t so much a revelation as a confirmation.  While the ending of Ethan Frome contains an element of spooky surprise, the ending of Summer does not at all. It is exactly what the reader has been brought to expect.

Essentially Summer tells the story of an ill-fated love affair between a small town girl, Charity, and a city boy, Harley. (Reminded me in many ways of George Eliot’s Adam Bede). There are complications with Charity’s guardian, a situation that creates an interesting love triangle. The story, which was originally published in 1917, is actually quite scandalous and it gave me a real appreciation for Wharton’s daring. She certainly does not shy away from depicting the harsh realities of sexual relationships of the time period. And although Charity does have a hand in her undoing, I felt Wharton was pretty concerned with portraying the double-standard regarding sex as applied to men and women.

So now I am quite curious to delve into the rest of Wharton’s work. Does anyone have any recommendations about some of her lesser known novels? I’ve read The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, The Buccaneers and now these two…


16 Comments on “Wharton's Ethan Frome and Summer”

  1. Jeff says:

    I’m really glad you managed to read ‘Summer’ together with ‘Ethan Frome’. unfortunately, ‘Summer’ is not really given the recognition it deserves, because the reputation of ‘Ethan Frome’ overshadows it.

    but now you see why Wharton described it as her hot ‘Ethan’. your astute comment on their similarities versus their contrast: “Both are quite dark, in terms of subject matter, but where the setting and ambience of Ethan Frome mirror the psychological darkness of the story, Summer takes place in a light-filled, nature-inspired and overtly sensual environment that lulls the reader into a false sense of security about the direction of the story.”

    *exactly* what Edith Wharton intended to do — and I’m very much convinced that the one cannot be fully appreciated without the other. ‘Ethan Frome’ blew me away, but discovering ‘Summer’ just took that to another level — not just because ‘Summer’ was great, but everything I liked about ‘Ethan’ and how they resonated. . .

    it was only when I went on exchange at Trinity College Dublin, and wanting a reprieve from all that contemporary Irish literature and missing America(n authors) somewhat that I went in search of Wharton, and all I could find tucked away between all the big clunky British novelists was a Modern Library Classics binding of the two together. so I guess it is changing. people are binding the two together so they will be read that way.

    Edith Wharton herself considered the two stories inseparable, intending the two novellas to be read together, and the diverging literary fortunes of the two texts would probably give her a great deal of amusement if she were alive today.

    in this vein: the last line of this article in the Chicago Tribune, on feisty females in popular culture, gave me a big smile:

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/lifestyle/chi-0705-women-lit-life-coverjul05,0,7551916.column

    on the restoration of female agency in fiction:

    “somewhere, Edith Wharton is choking on her scone.”

  2. Jeff says:

    in terms of recommendations, the next one you might want to read could be ‘The Custom of the Country’.

    it may be a welcome reprieve from the tragedy of the two you’ve just read; but knowing Edith Wharton I make no guarantees :)

  3. Steph says:

    I’m of no help here as I didn’t realize until you said it that Wharton had so many books! I thought she only had maybe 7 or 8 (at most). And of all the books you mention, I’ve only read The House of Mirth, though I do plan to read The Age of Innocence one of these days!

  4. Mel says:

    There is only one real answer to the question as to what Wharton to read next, just commit to reading them all. Most would say the logical way is to start with an author’s first work, others stay start with the acknowledged masterwork in this case “Age of Innocence” then work your way down on the quality level. This approaches sort of leaves you as a follower of critical opinion or the opinions of academics.

  5. Table Talk says:

    I’m very much aware of my inadequacies where Wharton is concerned. I ‘know’ ‘The Age of Innocence’ and ‘The Buccaneers’ but only from cinematic or televised versions. I had at least heard of ‘Ethan Frome’ but ‘Summer’ is not one I’ve come across. I would promise to go out and read something by asap, but the TBR pile is toppling as it is and too soon there will be the reading list for this Autumn’s study to attend to. Where does the time go?

  6. litlove says:

    Curiously enough, I’ve nearly finished ‘The Mother’s Recompense’ by Wharton, which is good and undoubtedly going to turn out tragic. It’s not as powerful as The House of Mirth or The Custom of the Country, but I am enjoying it. She describes suffering so very beautifully.

  7. Stefanie says:

    Glimpses of the Moon is pretty good and it isn’t such a tragic one, though I wouldn’t exactly put it in the uplifting category either.

  8. I think it’ll be a while before I can set aside the time–but I think reading those back to back will be very interesting.

  9. Dorothy W. says:

    I have a copy of The Buccaneers and will get to it one of these days … I’d love to read Ethan Frome and Summer together; I haven’t read the latter, and it’s been forever since I read the former. The only lesser-known Wharton I know is Glimpses of the Moon, which isn’t as good as her most famous books, but still has lots of good stuff in it. Here’s my post on it:

    http://ofbooksandbikes.wordpress.com/2008/06/30/the-glimpses-of-the-moon/

  10. Biblibio says:

    As usual, I find myself needing to admit that I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to this author. If I’m told that “Ethan Frome” and “Summer” go together, I have no choice but to agree. I’ve been meaning to read “Ethan Frome” for a while now but I’m so inconsistent with my reading that I haven’t actually gotten around to it… But this post has convinced me: I must read Edith Wharton, no more excuses.

  11. ds says:

    This is where she admits that while The House of Mirth is one of her favorite novels by anyone, she could not finish The Custom of the Country and has not (gasp!) read The Age of Innocence (it is on ‘the list’)…but for minor Wharton, The Children is interesting and perspicacious, set partially in the Dolomites…And that’s all she wrote.

  12. verbivore says:

    Jeff – thanks for your thoughtful comment, the article and the recommendation. Through these back to back reads, I’ve discovered how much I enjoy Wharton’s writing. One of these days I will sit down and read her from start to finish, I think that would be really interesting.

    Steph – Yes, it was a real surprise to see exactly how many novels she had written. I knew she had a solid career, but I wasn’t expecting quite that number. But it makes for a good project one of these days.

    Mel – That would be the obvious answer, wouldn’t it? And if I had all the time in the world, I’m sure I’d start just such a project. Hopefully some day!

    Ann – I know exactly what you mean. My TBR pile is getting dangerously out of control. Well, it is out of control, but I choose to ignore it. I’m looking forward to the first few weeks of September to make some real progress on all the urnead books on my shelves…here’s hoping.

    Litlove – I’d like to read The Custom of the Country next, just need to get my hands on a copy!

    Stefanie – Thank you, duly noted!

    Lilian – I would be very interested to see what you think when you do get the chance. And I’m so thankful for Jeff’s suggestion that I read them back to back, definitely enhanced the experience.

    Dorothy – I enjoyed your post on Glimpses of the Moon when it went up, and it was one of the reasons I picked up Ethan Frome (since I don’t have GotM). I really enjoyed Ethan Frome and will probably reread it at some point…

    Bibliobio – I’d love to know what you think when you get a chance to read some Wharton.

    ds – You make me laugh! Thank you for the suggestions, I’ll have a look for The Children.

  13. Mel says:

    One of the joys of the reading life is that there are so many books-the tragedy is there is so little time-is it better to read twenty books By Edith Wharton or twenty 21th century novels with great reviews or twenty acknowledged classics by different writers. Speaking of which I just got a copy of Kristy Gunn’s “Rain” and hope to read it in August or September.

  14. verbivore says:

    Mel – I look forward to your thoughts on Kirsty Gunn’s Rain. I remember I read it in a single sitting, i found it that compelling. For a first novel, it is extremely impressive.

  15. Thomas says:

    Hudson River Bracketed also has more of a rural feeling to it.

    Last summer I got to see Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts. Very cool.

  16. zhiv says:

    Okay! I skipped over the paragraphs here on Summer, because I haven’t read it. I saw it included in a volume called Edith Wharton’s New England Tales, and I didn’t know that Edith Wharton had written about New England at all. But I loved Ethan Frome. I was really surprised, and deeply impressed.


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