Posted by: zhiv | April 3, 2011

Edith Wharton, Summer. Is Lucius Harney the narrator of Ethan Frome?

Yes, we’ve established that everybody has read Ethan Frome. If you have recently done so, or don’t care to revisit it, it might be worthwhile to take a look at its companion piece, Summer. It’s another short, stunning, quick read. Here’s one question: is it another Hawthorne-style “romance,”, with a naturalist twist? But a better question is the one in the title of this post.

Edith Wharton studies went on a steady rise in the last quarter of the 20th century. After her death in 1937, a bad version of her biography by Percy Lubbock had relegated her to society hostess-author and a poor man’s Henry James. And Wharton spent the mid-century, which marked the high tide of the male-dominated canon and criticism, stuck in the drawing room. As Elaine Showalter writes in A Jury of Her Peers:

Wharton and Cather would not have wanted to see themselves as part of women’s literary history, but in the 1920s, American women writers were demoted and denigrated by a nation taking pride in its military victory. In the years following the armistice, women writers were gradually but systematically eliminated from the canon of American literature as it was anthologized, studied, and taught. The four-volume Cambridge History of American Literature (1917-21), the first national literary history of the twentieth century, made its viewpoint explicit in its statement of purpose: “Acquaintance with the record of these two centuries should enlarge the spirit of American literary criticism and render it more energetic and masculine.” With the founding in 1921 of t the American literature section of the Modern Language Association, and the establishment of American literature as an academic field, most women scholars were excluded from leadership, as many women writers were edged out of history. Women writers in the 1920s were reading Wharton and Cather, but they were still far from harvesting the seeds the two writers had planted. (pp. 294-95)

Edmund Wilson, seemingly always right, countered Lubbock in 1947 with “Justice to Edith Wharton,” which must be worth reading. Another factor was an embargo on publication of Wharton’s surviving letters. As it turned out, a 25-year span was just right, and RWB Lewis’ watershed 1976 biography coincided neatly with the rise of “the first wave of feminist academic criticism,” as Hermione Lee puts it (pg. 757). The Wharton boom was on.

Part of the rise in Wharton studies was the discovery that her novella Summer was conceived and executed as a companion piece to Ethan Frome, a “hot Ethan,” as she called it. Perhaps this was already well known earlier, but as I said, Wharton went through a general eclipse, although Ethan Frome was manageable and widely read during that time. There are many similarities between the two stories, not the least of which is that they are both short, and thus quite readable. So it might be worth remembering at this point that stylized concision, in contrast to Scott, Dickens, Stowe and serialized novelizing, is a signature of the Hawthorne romance. Wharton didn’t write or say much about her books, apparently, but she made an exception with Ethan Frome, as she felt that she was “at the height of her powers,” and she knew that she had tapped into something primitive and profound. Summer may have been an attempt to recapture some of the creative inspiration she had experieinced in the composition of Ethan Frome.

The novellas both contain love triangles set against the hill country of Western Massachusetts, where Wharton built her estate, The Mount, in Lenox. Wharton jettisoned the narration she had used so interestingly in EF, where she had highlighted its importance. The narration had confused the contemporary critics, and it wasn’t until latter day Wharton studies that the role of the narration was explored, led by Cumthia Wolff. Wharton might have been convinced that it was unnecessary, or that it didn’t need to be duplicated.

The EF triangle is flipped, and instead of Ethan caught between Zeeny and Mattie (or Hollingsworth caught between Zenobia and Priscilla, and Hawthorne caught between Elizabeth and Sophia), Summer is the story of Charity Royall’s relationship with young Lucius Harney and her adopted father, Lawyer Royall. It takes the woman’s point of view.

It’s easy to look at the differences between Ethan From and Summer, but in some ways it’s more fun to think about the connections. There may be no narrator in Summer, but Lucius Harney bears a strong resemblance to the character of the narrator in EF, and it’s nearly possible that they could be the same person–I’m starting off saying it’s close, but not quite. It would be so great if they were! And perhaps some one reading the stories together more closely (and they have been published before, side by side–need to check that introduction) might be able to show that they are. Harney and the Narrator are seemingly from the same class, but the key connection is the engineering job of EF’s narrator, and the leisurely architectural interests of Lucius Harney, including his work remodeling the tomblike Hatchard library where Charity works. Close study of EF’s narrator by Wolff has shown that he’s not an average engineer, and that his creative and literary bent is strong as he crafts and sytlizes Ethan’s story. This is very much in Harney’s line. The connection is fairly strong, and it would be worthwhile to study carefully whether the invested, unreliable narrator in Ethan Frome is in fact the unreliable, invested and compromised character Lucius Harney. Go read Cynthia Wolff (and Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, while you’re at it) and write that paper, will you?

Harney is a cad, as we might have guessed, and he’s not the main character in Summer, nor is the structural stand-in for Ethan Frome, Lawyer Royall. The main character is Charity, a foundling from “the Mountain,” where an outlaw community resides, living in degraded squalor. Lawyer Royall went up to the Mountain and brought Charity back as a baby, although we don’t know why. She was raised by Royall and his wife, who died some years before the story begins. This marks the critical switch, seeing Charity from inside versus Mattie from outside, and Lawyer Royall from outside rather than Ethan from inside. Charity’s unknown, feral roots have flowered in this summer setting into a highy sexual and seemingly powerful teenage creature, a sharp contrast to Mattie’s demure and wintry, hothouse appeal. Both Charity and Mattie are trapped in enclosed spaces, Mattie with Ethan and Zeeny shut in by the winter, and Charity stuck in the dark library. Ethan Frome’s problematic, inaapropriate and yet inevitable attraction to Mattie is cast in a horrible light as it is translated here, and yet the bond between Charity and Mr. Royall somehow serves as the semi-satisfying conclusion of the book. Early on, however, Charity’s initial sexual awakening consists of repelling Mr. Royall’s single, intemperate advance, and he seems to be a monster, a constant hovering threat, though Charity very much feels the strength to repel him and keep him at bay. Her disgust, however, is powerful, and it’s a strong contrast to Mattie’s attraction to Ethan.

What’s unwritten and creepy here is that Lawyer Royall had raised Charity from infancy as his daughter. Another important element is his marriage and wife, and we readily project into it and him the intense frustration of Ethan Frome with his wife Zenobia. Mr. Royall’s sexual advance is incestuous and haunting, and yet it is not completely unnatural (though it’s close); and the way in which Lawyer Royall is characterized through Charity’s eyes is a far cry from the sympathy that we feel for Ethan Frome’s thwarted desire for Mattie. From Charity’s point of view, Lawyer Royall is the too-smart attorney in the sleepy town of North Dormer, an aged, dissolute figure. She knows that he drinks, and the climax to the 4th of July set piece is when Charity and Lucius see him, at the lakeside celebration in the neighboring town, drunk and in the company of Julia Hawes, the cautionary town-whore figure. Mr. Royall, aware that Charity is having an affair with Lucius, spits out that she’s no better than Julia, angry about his rejection and trying to wound her. The intense limitations of female existence and roles are explored, just as they are in Ethan Frome: Charity’s life in North Dormer consists of being stuck in the silent library with no interest in learning or literature, she has nowhere to go, and her situation is quite similar to Mattie’s desperate one.

These twinned novellas are partly about sex and class and women’s roles in a rural American setting. Charity and Mattie are trapped and desperate, and at the same time their inescapable sexuality puts them at risk. Wharton puts forth two contrasting, unsatisfying solutions. In Ethan Frome the sled run stands in for both sexual ecstasy and death, the second run an attempt to climax in suicide, but it ends instead in pain and lifetime suffering and stasis. Summer, more ambitiously, allows its heroine an idyllic, dreamy, sustained sexual interlude and identity. At the end of the season, however, Charity is abandoned by Lucius, compromised and pregnant. She makes a run to the Mountain, hoping to connect with her genetic forebears and find a world where her pregnancy has the same social inconsequence as her own birth. She arrives only in time to hear of her alcoholic mother’s death,which coincidentally occurred just moments before, enabling her to see the wasted corpse. Lost, pregnant, and at risk, Lawyer Royall arrives to rescue her once again, as he did at the scene of her birth. His reasons for taking her from the Mountain in the first place, as an infant, are mysterious. And this time he marries her, saving her reputation and giving her a viable role in society. A brief epilogue tracks Charity’s anxiety about her marriage to Royall, but his respect for her is made clear, and it will be a sexless union. This final note is a brief chapter, and we don’t get a sustained view of Charity and her future, the effect of the birth of her child and her later social identity in North Dormer.

Summer is about society and class, more so that Ethan Frome. Mattie and Charity, as unattached and notably “unchaperoned” young women, seem to be both magnets and targets for desire, but Summer tries to get at and comprehend Charity’s desire and sexuality. Ethan Frome can’t resist Mattie’s proximity and insistent appeal, just as he was unable to resist Zenobia when she came to care for his sickly mother, whose place and role she annexes. Similar to Zeena, Lawyer Royall goes from caretaker and replacement father figure to sexless marriage partner. But the difference in Summer is the insertion of Lucius Harney into the narrative, in the midst of the open, outdoor summer landscape, as opposed to the cold and closed world of Ethan Frome’s winter. Harney is a free agent, and an idle gentleman. That makes him a dillettante, pursuing this blog’s favorite challenge: doing nothing. Once he has entered Charity’s world, the laws of simple literary magnetism and desire make it inevitable that they will collide, presumably to ill effect, just as Ethan and Mattie do. But it’s summertime and sunny, and Harney’s meaningless occupation is making drawings of local architecture, and the couple locates a highly romantic, abandoned and crumbling cottage where they can find and pursue their passion.

A couple of notes here. Harney’s “drawings of local architecture” sounds a whole lot like regional, “local color” fiction writing, doesn’t it? This ties him even more strongly to Ethan Frome’s literary engineer-narrator, and we should remember the care with which the Frome house, an organic local dwelling, is described. Architecture (and engineering) in these books would be a good topic for close study. I’m trying to remain mindful here of the notion that Harney might actually be the mysterious, idle, overly literary (for a working engineer) narrator of Ethan Frome, still trying to talk myself into its possibility. He fits the part, and Ethan Frome is just the type of story Harney might have chosen to construct to reflect, romanticize, and justify to himself his ongoing summer dalliance with Charity, including portraying himself vaguely as an engineer with an actual job to do, when in fact he has none. Or not–it’s up to you. With its ruined cottage and “charitable” rural maiden, the narrative in which Harney is participating is romantic enough on its own. Harney is ulitimately a creature of his class, becoming engaged to his social equal Annabel Balch during his stay in the region, but not bothering to mention this to Charity during their extended pastoral idyll.

Summer not only contains architecture and, by its close association with Ethan Frome, engineering, it also has a number of signposts of contemporary, modern technology. These serve as another direct contrast between the twin narratives. Where Ethan Frome is distinctly imagined in the past, in winter, its narrator and complementary text are part of the glaring, intrusive sunshiny present. Where EF enters the narrator’s story through providing rather quaint horse transportation, showing the power of winter, Lucius Harney gets around (and to the ruined cottage) on a bicycle (yes Dorothy, Summer is a good relatively early bicycle text). We’re conscious of railroad timetables and over-crowded coaches, as the unruly and chaotic 4th of july set piece contains elaborate, state of the art fireworks ironically celebratiing American exceptionalism, something about which the upper class, Europeanized Wharton was deeply ambivalent.

That ambivalence shows itself in another element of the carefully rendered regional seting of North Dormer and other neighboring villages and towns, in the curious and seemingly dangerous outlaw society up on “the Mountain.” Charity is a product of this world, which is held out as an intriguing mystery through the course of the story. I was thinking that Summer, unlike Ethan Frome, didn’t have much in the way of Hawthorne echoes, although I saw a mention of the similarity in Charity’s situation to the Scarlet Letter, which makes sense and could be followed up more carefully. Summer, then, is probably another Hawthornean “romance,” with its modern, Darwinian Hardy/Dreiser naturalist twists. And it occurs to me then that the independent society of the Mountain just might be a comment on Blithedale and its extended meditation on Brook Farm-style social experiments. Throughout Summer there is a fear of the Mountain, but we don’t know what’s up there, and perhaps it’s a liberated and freer sociaety. But no, it isn’t and Wharton makes it clear that the anti-social and lawless, rogue element in Ameritca is squalid, savage, and depressed, even in rural New England, let alone the great unwashed West. The Mountain is no utopia, and Charity’s mysterious parentage, a staple of novel writing and structure, provides no veiled ideal benfactor or solution. This is in keeping with Wharton’s realism/naturalism. Anyone keen for Hawthorne-inspired naturalist romance? Wharton has a good complementary pair here, and it’s not even a big stretch to see them as a single unified text that contains one narrative embedded within another.



  1. Caught up with your last half-dozen posts.
    It’s such a fascinating world you write about–and analyze. And know so well. When do I start reading??
    For me the good news is that my 8 year old grandson is a reader!
    He’s read every Harry Potter book cover to cover–thousands of pages–and loves every minute of it. Sees the movies only after finishing each book…
    As usual, thanks for the inspiration.

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