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…