Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summer by Edith Wharton

Since the day before, she had known exactly what she would feel if Harney should take her in his arms: the melting of palm into palm and mouth on mouth, and the long flame burning her from head to foot.  But mixed with this feeling was another: the wondering pride in his liking her, the startled softness that his sympathy had put into her heart.  Sometimes, when her youth flushed up in her, she had imagined yielding like other girls to furtive caresses in the twilight; but she could not so cheapen herself to Harney.  She did not know why he was going; but since he was going she felt she must do nothing to deface the image of her he carried away.

When Charity Royall was an infant, she was brought down from "the Mountain," a desolate outpost of outlaws living in extreme poverty--hence the "Charity"--and adopted by the powerful lawyer Royall--hence the "Royall."  Charity, now a teenage girl, rankles under the narrow life of her small New England town, but also knows that she might have had a meaner, more isolated life still.

On that pretty fascinating premise, Wharton composes a pretty formulaic story: Charity falls in love with a traveling architect, Lucius Harney, who has come to North Dormer to make sketches of the local buildings.  Harney represents the world beyond North Dormer, but Charity realizes too late that he has commitments in that world, and she must face pregnancy alone.  On top of these troubles, Charity struggles against the presence of her father-figure, lawyer Royall, who isn't so fatherly at times:

On the way up she had extracted from his overcoat pocket the key of the cupboard where the bottle of whiskey was kept.

She was awakened by a rattling at her door and jumped out of bed.  She heard Mr. Royall's voice, low and peremptory, and opened the door, fearing an accident.  No other thought had occurred to her; but when she saw him in the doorway, a ray from the autumn moon falling on his discomposed face, she understood...

"You go right back from here," she said in a shrill voice that startled her; "you ain't going to have that key tonight."

"Charity, let me in.  I don't want the key.  I'm a lonesome man," he began, in the deep voice that sometimes moved her.

Her heart gave a startled plunge, but she continued to hold him back contemptuously.  "Well, you made a mistake, then.  This ain't your wife's room any longer."

Charity is a brat; Harney little more than a warm body.  Royall, by contrast, is the most fascinating character of the novel, beset by an anguish and misery that Wharton wisely leaves largely unexplained.  He pivots from fatherly concern to pathetic lust, and it isn't always clear which is his guiding motivation.  When, miserably drunk, he discovers Charity and Harney arm-in-arm at the Fourth of July celebration and publicly denounces her as a "whore," does he lash out from his canny intuition that Harney cannot be trusted, or sexual jealousy?  In the end, he is redeemed by an act of incredible generosity that I do not want to reveal.

Summer is peculiar among Wharton's novels in that it takes place not in New York City, but in the small towns nestled in the Berkshire mountains of New England.  Only Ethan Frome is similarly set, and indeed Wharton called Summer her "hot Ethan."  It's hard not to read a fascination on the part of Wharton, the daughter of a wealthy New York family, for this "other world" that lies only hours from the city.  Zhiv wonders if Harney could also be the narrator of Ethan Frome; I don't know about that, but I do think that both characters serve the role of Wharton herself, as outsider-observers in a foreign place.  In Ethan Frome the narrator provides a barrier between us and the town of Starkfield, but the relationship in Summer is more interesting and complex.  It's almost as if, through Harney, Wharton was trying to turn her line of sight back on herself, as an interloper commenting on a world to which she does not belong.  Harney's role, like Wharton's, is to observe and record, but his presence, like an illustration of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, fundamentally alters the place he has come to document.

At the same time, Charity herself is drawn toward a more isolated, insular, and lowly place: The Mountain.  Pregnant and abandoned, she decides to trek to the mountain and find the family that gave her up, and to live among those she has come to regard as "her people."  This section, where Charity is faced with the degradation of Mountain life, is remarkable.  Charity comes just as her mother, whom she has never known, has died and is about to be buried:

Charity lay on the floor on a mattress, as her dead mother's body had lain.   The room in which she lay was cold and dark and low-ceilinged, and even poorer and barer than the scene of Mary Hyatt's [Charity's mother's] earthly pilgrimage.  On the other side of the fireless stove Liff Hyatt's mother slept on a blanket, with two children--her grandchidlren, she said--rolled up against her like sleeping puppies.  They had their thin clothes spread over them, having given the only other blanket to their guest.

Through the small square of glass in the opposite wall Charity saw a deep funnel of sky, so black, so remote, so palpitating with frosty stars that her very soul seemed to be sucked into it.  Up there somewhere, she supposed, the God whom Mr. Miles had invoked was waiting for Mary Hyatt to appear.  What a long flight it was!  And what would she have to say when she reached Him?

Charity has no illusions about the Mountain, she knows that it is a descent into a degraded lifestyle, but she is foiled in her hopes that it will be a kind of spiritual ascent, that she will be ennobled by returning to "her people."  Even on top of the mountain, she is as far from God as she ever was.

Wharton's ability to write across the spectrum of class continues to amaze me.  Is there any other writer as adept at capturing the shallow superficiality of a gilded ballroom, but also the humiliation and meanness of profound poverty?  Without revealing too much, I do want to note that Summer is the only Wharton novel I've read that has a "happy ending"--though an unconventional and somewhat illicit one--and I think that much of that comes from Charity's luck in finding a middle way among those two extremes.

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