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Edith Wharton’s Summer is a timeless piece of literature that critiques the double standards in society, which haven’t changed all that much from 1917.
Edith Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1920, and one of the first female novelists to explore, depict and portray women’s sexual awakening in her novel Summer. However, why was Summer termed a controversial text after its publication in 1917? Why is Summer one of Wharton’s less popular novels?
Wharton hailed from an affluent aristocratic family, but the social restrictions for women existed irrespective of one’s social class. Her family, despite realising her brilliant writing skills, did not encourage her, as writing was considered an ‘unsuitable’ profession for women.
From rejecting the prevalent social standards to writing and publishing anonymously during the early years of her career, Wharton did not let society tame her. During the times when women were restricted to the home and hearth, Wharton penned a glass-shattering novel on women’s sexual desires for the world to read and learn.
The novel’s protagonist, a 21 year old Charity Royall, is attracted to a young, handsome and ambitious architect Lucius Harney, and when he reciprocates, their love blooms. Lawyer Royall is a titled man who is also Charity’s guardian. He is a parental figure in the novel till his wife dies and he wishes to marry Charity to satisfy his sexual needs.
Charity fantasises about Harney, and soon, these fantasies transform into reality. But, Summer is not a story of love, roses, and all things pretty. Harney leaves soon after satisfying his sexual longing, leaving Charity pregnant out of wedlock.
Drawing parallels between 1917 and 2020, what happens when a woman fails to follow society’s diktats on marriage and pregnancy? While the scenario has altered in many European and American societies, we Indians are still clutching hard to our stereotypical and orthodox outlook towards women.
Making her way through the ruthless society with a wailing baby in her arms is a reality for many women in our country. What will be the baby’s last name? How will s/he make her/his way through childhood? A single mother out of wedlock acts as an alarm bell for us to protect our ‘decent’ people from her. For others, a single mother is a vulnerable and inviting lady, who is “asking for it.”
Charity becomes the talk of the town after being spotted late at night outside Harney’s place. A young woman of 21 spotted outside a young man’s house becomes an instant hit for condemnation and gossip.
‘Shameless, dishonourable, disgraceful’ woman but what about the man? Why can Lucius Harney or any other man get away so easily once his sexual longing is met and fulfilled? Lawyer Royall, despite being a parental figure in Charity’s life, breaks down the wall and views her in a sexual light but easily gets away with it. But why does a woman’s sexual desire need to haunt her for the rest of her life?
Wharton observed the society closely and moulded her work around it. In our society, women do not exercise any sexual autonomy and even if they do, they face the distaste of society. Many people argue that marrying early “keeps the girls in check” and those who don’t – eventually face Charity’s fate.
Picture Credits: Pexels
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Anamika is an English literature student with a strong inclination towards feminist literature, feminist literary
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