Manonita Chowdhary Roy Ghatak
Department of English Studies Veer Bahadur Singh Purvanchal University
In the novella Summer Edith Wharton projected the protagonist Charity Royall as a sensuous, restless and uncultured adolescent who constantly moved into two different worlds of freedom and subjugation. As the doors of the world of freedom shut on her face she was forced to accept the bond of social entrapment through her marriage with her foster father. The author in this novella, through tshe character of Charity Royall, depicted it very clearly that in the face of all adverse circumstances this scarcely educated small- town female protagonist dared voice her denial to the patriarchal laws prevalent in the society of her period. Critic Rhonda Skillern discussed it very clearly in her article “Law, Language and Ritual in Summer”. She wrote, “The novella can be seen as an expression of the problem of feminine representation and subject hood; that is, the story addresses the question of whether a woman can act, think, create, or even exist in ways that are not defined and interpreted by the patriarchal symbolic order” (120-21).
Charity Royall was informally adopted by Lawyer Royall and his wife. After his wife’s death Lawyer Royall brought up the child alone. She had some faint and dim notions about her origin. She had been told by Lawyer Royall that she was born of a murderer whom Lawyer Royall helped and a bitch like woman, who felt obliged to offer her to lawyer Royall. She was taught constantly by Mr. Royall and by the neighborhood that she should be grateful to him because he saved her life and brought her down from the Mountains.
Charity’s gradual maturation posed a threat to her chastity as she was living alone with the lonely and lusty father. But the option of sending her to school was rejected by both Charity and her father because in her absence he would be totally alone there. The trap of Mr. Royall’s growing possessive love for her tormented her life in the valley of North Dormer and it became impossible for her to live over there. Mr. Royall first proposed marriage to her when she was seventeen. Her resentment and contempt failed to destroy his incestuous desires for her. In order to escape from him and from North Dormer and to have a full life she needed money. After a lot of maneuvers this scarcely literate Charity succeeded in arranging the job of a librarian for herself.
As witnessed in the library she had met a handsome and young stranger Lucius Harney who was an architect by profession. This educated, cultured and mannered architect from New York who came to North Dormer in search of old houses, brought dreams of the outer world to this valley – bred Charity who had some faint ideas about the world beyond North Dormer. Soon their frequent meeting with each other grew into love. The gradual blossoming of their love into lusty passion was rendered very beautifully and sensually by Edith Wharton. But before she realized that there was a big social, cultural and intellectual gap between them and it was beyond her capacity to bridge that gap she became pregnant.
Circumstances threw her in a dangerous place where she was subjected to cold and hunger. As her mother had already died and Harney was engaged to someone else Charity was without any option but to accept prostitution. Lawyer Royall appeared there as her rescuer, protected her from cold and offered security to her. Soon his actual intention became clear to Charity when he again proposed marriage to Charity. Lacking any other alternative for her life and adamant not to have an abortion she succumbed silently to his will. Her
wedding, in the next morning, brought to her the realization of the fatality of this marriage. “The sight” beyond the window “had roused her for the first time to a realization of what she had done. Even the feeling of the ring on her hand has not brought her this sharp sense of the irretrievable. For an instant the old impulse of flight swept through her; but it was only the lift of a broken wing” (Wharton 198).
The novel was structured to present three different worlds for Charity Royall each represented by three key figures in the life of the protagonist. The dominant movement of the novel first took Charity away from the mean, petty town of North Dormer so isolated and narrow that connections exerted an inhibiting influence on the inhabitant of the place, represented by Lawyer Royall. As critic Gloria C. Erlich explained it:
The action of Summer takes place within a symbolic moralized landscape. Charity is poised between the Mountain, a primitive realm of unbounded impulse (though scarcely a gratifying place), and the Town, the rigidly proper and fully encircled village of North Dormer. Charity’s only knowledge of the normal world is through brief visits to the nearby town of Nettleton, a place where there are shops, circuses, even an abortionist. Had Charity been capable of escaping to Nettleton she could have moved outside the realm of extreme choices and found alternatives to both her claustrophobic world of inexorable laws and the primitive, promiscuous world of unrule. Lying outside the symbolic landscape, Nettleton represents a more flexible sort of human life, in which compromise and accommodations are possible. Like other Wharton protagonists such as Lily Bart and Newland Archer, Charity Royall seems caught between lawlessness and rigid superego demands, unable to move into the middle world of accommodation. (129)
Edith Wharton, herself, in the novel described North Dormer as a place “with all its mean curiosities, its furtive malice, its sham unconsciousness of evil”. It was a place where “things don’t change” and “people just get used to them”. Edith Wharton used terms and phrases like “a small place”, “grave”, and “Old houses”, to heighten the effect of prison, suffocation and deadness in the novel (111, 84, 3, 5, 8). Every time Charity was overpowered by this deadening effect she tried to get away and stretched her hands towards a brighter, mysterious and glamorous yet undefined destiny for her. She was mature enough to experience the full bloom of ripened sexuality. The only thing she did not know was the harsh consequences of importunate sexuality. In the words of Rhonda Skillern, “Such an approach allows us not only to trace the process by which Charity Royall, who represents the resisting feminine, is drawn into the symbolic order of North Dormer and pressed into becoming a good girl, but also to find that Charity Royall does manage to express her resistance to the symbolic order throughout the novella” (119).
From the beginning Edith Wharton presented Charity as a totally subservient being to Royall who considered her as his property. Although she was never clear about his real feelings for her, her dependence forced her to bear his weaknesses and his alcoholism and made her sacrifice her inner needs to his sexual demands. “She knew that she had been christened Charity … to commemorate Mr. Royall’s disinterestedness” in bringing her down, and to “keep alive in her a becoming sense of her dependence; she knew that Mr.Royall was her guardian, but that he had not legally adopted her, though everybody spoke of her as Charity Royall” (Wharton 14). Moody and whimsical as he was his drunkenness ruined her chance of attending a boarding school at Starkfield. Charity was disappointed, but she understood that it was not the temptation of Starkfield that had been Mr. Royall’s undoing; it was the thought of losing her.
North Dormer, like the New York of Edith Wharton’s childhood always maintained a double standard towards sexuality. Sex was “the thing that did happen between young men and girls, and that North Dormer ignored in public and snickered over on the sly. It was what Miss Hatchard was still ignorant of, but every girl of Charity’s class knew about before she
left school” (Wharton 72). Young girls of Charity’s age were supposed to pretend an air of innocence about sex. Charity who “had only a dim understanding of her guardian’s needs” mistook Royall’s sexual advances as a pretext for his loneliness. No wonder when Miss. Hatchard whose “long unmaturity” had turned her into a “querulous baby” hinted at Royall’s sexual attachment towards Charity she was unable to grasp the whole meaning of her statement (Wharton 49, 18, 34). When Royall saw that these indirect sexual hints were not being taken by Charity seriously and she was proceeding ahead towards her dream world with Harney, his male pride demanded that his property rights might be implied clearly. He directly reacted against Harney’s intimacy with Charity and took necessary steps.
As Lawyer Royall represented the world of North Dormer for Charity, a world of sexual prison and entrapment, Lucius Harney represented Charity’s second world, a world beyond North Dormer and its surrounding towns, a world of mysterious sexual enchantment. In the novel Edith Wharton had so beautifully portrayed Charity’s gradual sexual awakening that the reader temporarily became oblivious of the inevitable disaster of her behaviour. As critic David Holbrook stated, “The progress of Charity Royall’s sexual awakening is delicately traced, and Edith Wharton embodies in it her own discovery of passion – that sense of a secret between two people that can defy all their social obligation”(99). In the novella pages after pages there were detailed descriptions of their blooming love. Her first experience of physical proximity with Harney was described by the novelist as something experienced by an ignorant and innocent teenager very much thrilled by the first sensations of love. Gradually, their love matured and she felt as if the whole nature was celebrating their joys with them. Though all these descriptions suggested the gradual breaking down of sexual bars for Charity that would have had her life towards a dream world, the author from the beginning had given clear hints of the ultimate failure of her dreams:
Her heart was ravaged by life’s cruelest discovery: the first creature who had come toward her out of the wilderness had brought her anguish instead of joy. She did not cry; tears came hard to her, and the storms of her heart spent themselves inwardly. But as she sat there in her dumb woe she felt her life to be too desolate, too ugly and intolerable. (Wharton 29)
As the novella opened, we found her standing on the threshold of a new realization about herself. “A girl came out of lawyer Royall’s house, at the end of the one street of North Dormer, and stood on the doorstep”. She noticed a Lucius Harney chasing his “straw hat” caught by the “little June wind”. The sight of the stranger made her conscious of her own miserableness and isolation due to her forced dependence on her foster father, Lawyer Royall. “How I hate everything!” were the first words she uttered in the novel (Wharton 1). From this point onwards we always found her in strong opposition to the accepted social conventions operating in North Dormer. Like her name Charity Royall, this syntactic imagery was very suggestive in the novel. We always found her standing on the threshold of categories, on a mid-point between socially accepted norms and her own individual morality. At this juncture her position became ambiguous as on one hand we found her rebellious and contemptuous about North Dormer and on other hand she returned back again and again to the same socially inscribed laws and ultimately entered into a legal marriage with her foster father. Though the instincts of revolt and opposition were very strong in Charity she never ceased to think in the way she was taught by North Dormer. In the words of Susan Brownmiller:
Charity cannot see how demeaned she is by the ‘civilized’ modes of female behavior that she has assimilated subconsciously since childhood. She has learned to act reflexively upon the assumption that, men do not catch women; to win them, and a women’s ultimate appeal lies in her ability to be a prize that is won. Her value is a captured trophy. (qtd. in Crowley 90)
Sometimes her deep rooted conventional instincts scolded her for not having used her womanly tricks to keep Harney. Whenever she found Harney attracted by her physical charm
she felt satisfied and victorious because the weapon of beauty had worked on the right place. Unconsciously Charity defined her own sexuality in terms of Harney’s reaction to it. While letting her own sexuality to be measured by the standards of male-made conventions she deteriorated herself to the level of a sex object, a reward to be won by men to fulfill their needs which denied her the status of a human being. Very conventionally she had learnt it and very carefully too that a “decent” woman was to repress her sexuality in society and preserve her virginity and her body for a husband sanctioned by the genteel village code in exchange for the social and financial security received from him. She knew the ultimate consequences of not adhering strictly to the social codes and indictments in North Dormer because she saw that Julia Hawes was ostracized from society and had to adopt prostitution for expressing her sexuality openly and for becoming pregnant. She always pitied “that girls like Julia did not know how to choose and to keep bad fellows at a distance …” (Wharton 88).
The image of society as a market place loomed everywhere in the novel. In the beginning of the novel Miss Hatchard clearly suggested to Charity that in exchange for Royall’s rescue of her from the Mountains and his financial support she should pay some compensation, some price, i.e. her chastity and virginity. In order to imprison Charity in North Dormer forever for the implementation of his property rights on her he provided all material facilities and comforts to her. In order to gratify her inner urge to earn money “He had obtained” the job of a librarian “for her at the cost of considerable maneuvering, as she guessed from the number of rival candidates”. To relieve her from the works of cooking, “he had engaged Verena Marsh to come up from Creston and do the cooking” (Wharton 24).
In the conversation between Charity and Royall in “the deserted house on the road to Hamblin” Edith Wharton made it clear that Royall not only owned Charity physically but also emotionally (Wharton 145). His extreme intrusion in the emotional life of Charity and Harney brought their love to the levels of conventional grounds where Harney had no claims on Charity for not providing her that financial and social security which came to a girl through marriage and which was offered to her by Royall. This was the last game he played to take Harney out of Charity’s life.
According to the rule of market place any negotiation or dealing was possible only between groups of equal level. Since Charity is inferior to Harney, socially, financially and intellectually, she had no grounds to claim her emotional authority over Harney. She always knew that “Education and opportunity had divided them by a width that no effort of hers could bridge, and even when his youth and his admiration brought him nearest, some chance word, some unconscious allusion, seemed to thrust her back across the gulf”. Now the only means to reach the inaccessible Harney was through her beauty but it was also insufficient without copying Annabel Balch, a girl of Harney’s own class. After Harney’s departure from North Dormer she felt the gap between them widening on her day by day. Though Harney wrote to her but she “read the letter with a strange sense of its coming from immeasurable distances and having lost most of its meaning on the way”. Her own “inability to express herself” and her consciousness of the class – difference between them always checked her from writing to him. The only way left for her was to “passively” wait for “a fate she could not avert”. “Fate” declared her own pregnancy and Harney’s marriage with Annabel Balch. Although she “could not forget that he had never spoken to her of marriage till Mr. Royall had forced the word from his lips” yet inside the deepest core of her heart she still had a faint ray of hope (Wharton 52-53, 152, 153). The novelist stated it very clearly in the text:
she was still sure that Harney would come back, and she was equally sure that, for the moment at least, it was she whom he loved and not Miss Balch. Yet the girl, no less, remained a rival, since she represented all the things that Charity felt herself most incapable of understanding or achieving. Annabell Balch was, if not the girl Harney ought to marry, at
least the kind of girl it would be natural for him to marry. Charity had never been able to picture herself as his wife; had never been able to arrest the vision and follow it out in its daily consequences; but she could perfectly imagine Balch in that relation to him. The more she thought of these things the more the sense of fatality weighed on her: she felt the uselessness of struggling against the circumstances. (Wharton 157)
It was too late for Charity to realize that society as a market place operated in two different ways for its candidates. Terms like revolt, freedom, sex beyond the boundaries of the institution of marriage were applicable to its male candidates because of their superior class and gender and women were only left with the choice to be weighed according to their usefulness for men. Lawyer Royall wanted his full possession on her as a price he paid in bringing her up and Harney could not marry her because she was incapable to pay him back completely the full price of his obligation that he would do on her by marrying her. As she “would never again know what it was to feel herself alone” because of her pregnancy she considered the choices of life she was left with. If she got the child aborted the venue of marriage was open for her if not, she would have to opt for prostitution like Julia Hawes. Apart from these two alternatives a third option was always open for her that was her birthplace, the Mountains. The Mountains was described by the novelist as “a queer colony up there”, “a little independent kingdom” with a “sort of outlaws”. It was “outside the jurisdiction of the valleys. No school, no church – no sheriff ever goes up to see what they’re about …” (Wharton 162, 45-46). Critic Rhonda Skillern stated:
On the most literal level, Charity is simply looking for comfort among her own kind; in addition, like so many of Wharton’s most memorable characters, Charity also seeks a space beyond the confines of the exchange market, away from a system of representation that not only fails to represent her but that renders her own desires virtually unrepresentable. In the established order of things as she knows them, there is no place for her individual adventures. Perhaps there is another way of knowing and another order of things: she will try to find out. (132)
Most ironically she began her journey towards the Mountains in a state of extreme physical weariness and mental exhaustion. Tortured by extreme cold and deepest sorrow when Lawyer Royall offered her a helping hand she had no option left but to accept it. Rules of marketplace ultimately forced her to pay the price of her decision to save her child at any cost. The cost paid by her was her marriage with Lawyer Royall.
From the beginning she knew that “she was the stronger” and she touched the climax of her moral strength and dignity when we found her sympathetically considering Harney’s honest struggle “between opposing duties”. She realized Harney’s moral dilemma in choosing between the socially suited Annabel Balch and socially unsuited Charity. She would have told the truth of her pregnancy to Harney. Her revelation of truth might not have brought Harney back to her but could create confusion in his life and that was the best revenge of Charity on Harney. But on the contrary she wrote to him, “I’m married to Mr. Royall. I’ll always remember you” (Wharton 125, 163, 204).
“How I hate everything!” the first sentence Charity Royall uttered, aligned her with other Wharton heroines memorable for their high spirit in the face of frustration (Wharton 1). Usually it was a social stigma that thwarted these women. Ellen Olenska’s tarnished past, Lily Bart’s lack of dowry, Undine Spragg’s position in Society, for Charity Royall, it was her lack of education and dubious birthright. In the novels of Edith Wharton we often found the female protagonist struggling to live life at her own terms and conditions but she was held back by a scrupulous and practical world view which acted as an obstacle in her self- realisation. And this truth downed on her in a very slow and successive manner.
Wharton’s heroines are not hapless victims; however, they understand their helplessness. Charity Royall was bland and insensible to many things and dimly knew it, but to all that was
light and air, perfume and colour, every drop in her responded. It is this heightened sensibility that animates Wharton’s characters – they are aware. While their awareness may deepen their tragedy, it also allows them to retain their dignity – though sometimes at the cost of their lives. (Minot xiv)
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