Analysis Of Edith Wharton’s Novels Summer And Ethan Frome

“Things don’t change at North Dormer, people just get used to them.”

In Ethan Frome and Summer, Edith Wharton’s New England nouvelles, in spite of the criticism she attracted by choosing to analyse a social class that was rather far from her wealthy upbringing, the author realistically explores the characters’ attempt -and eventual inability- to break free from moral prejudices and class expectations.

The role of women in society takes up an important part within these stories, however, in a time where women are either denied possibilities or condemned for their choices, men too -despite the privilege of greater freedom- are required to keep their standards up and honor the position society has designated for them.

In Ethan Frome, cold, dark New England winters provide the first example of how external forces, both natural and social, come into play to determine the characters’ fate and actively manipulating their mentality, hence the passiveness that permeates Ethan’s entire life and the hopelessness and inevitability that derives from it. He’s presented as a young man whose educational ambitions have been thwarted by events outside his control and with a strong inclination to blame them, poverty above all, as the cause for his failures.

Here even human progress, symbolised by railroads, is subdued to nature, causing additional isolation especially for women who, unlike their husbands, were relegated to household duties all day long. It’s the case of Zeena, Ethan’s wife, who, because of the total absence of prospects that society dooms women to, does everything in order to protect her only source of income and respectability: her marriage. Though “life on an isolated farm was not what she had expected when she married”, “in greater cities which attracted Ethan she would have suffered a complete loss of identity”. 

As a matter of fact, in late 19th century America, uneducated single women had few, if any, employment opportunities, especially if they were without inheritance, relying entirely on their relatives, as Mattie does. It was in young women best interest, then, to marry someone wealthy. An intolerable thought for Ethan, who cannot fathom to loose Mattie to a more successful rival, despite being her only chance to gain security. He’s attracted to her because of her naïf admiration for his knowledge and respect for his authority, who unlike Zeena, doesn’t question, making him feel powerful for the first time in his life, hence displaying his own traditional considerations concerning how women are supposed to act and behave. However, his inability to admit his feelings and act according to them prevent him from ever experiencing a real change in his life, thus starting a new chapter with Mattie elsewhere. Instead, he justifies and reassures himself that, at least, he hasn’t changed anything for the worse. “He remembered that the night before, when he had put his arm around Mattie, she had not resisted. But that had been out-of-doors, under the open irresponsible night. Now, in the warm lamp lit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable.”

In this sense, the eerie family graveyard is highly symbolic, letting Ethan realise that he won’t likely have any chance to escape his dull, gloomy, rural existence. The lulling everyday routine he’s so used to comes back to haunt him even in moments of tragedy or bliss, as a consequence of his delusional belief that things will just stay as they are. 

His concerns about money further emphasise his complete helplessness when taking chances[footnoteRef:5]; unlike him, Mattie’s father escaped rural Massachusetts although “he had died too soon to prove that the end justifies the means”, yet Ethan’s typical New England rigid code of ethics restrains him from looking after his own interests. After all, he agreed to marry Zeena only because of the fear of loneliness and silence he took after his mother. “After his father’s death it had taken time to get his head above water, and he did not want anyone in Starkfield to think he was going under again.” “The mere fact of obeying her orders, of feeling free to go about his business again and talk with other men, restored his shaken balance and magnified his sense of what he owed to her. She seemed to posses by instinct all the household wisdom. (...) then she too feel silent. Perhaps it was the inevitable effect of life on the farm. He wondered if Zeena were also turning “queer”. Women did, he knew.”

The tranquility of the landscape contrasts with his emotional struggles, as if nature were indifferent to human suffering: when Zeena insinuates that the villagers are talking about his affair, he can’t bear the thought of being considered immoral by his community, even if morality costs him his happiness. “He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished.”

The sled ride, which goes wherever the snowy course takes it, is the perfect ultimate metaphor for Ethan’s life: nothing more than his failure to take control over his own existence, agreeing that real death is eventually preferable to the living one he shares with Zeena. By the end he cannot mantain the focus and gets distracted by outside forces: the horse that reminds him of the neglected duties in life and at the farm. Here the naturalist theme is further highlighted by the symbolical presence of the stars: by moving in prescribed arcs across the sky, they represent the idea that fate and life are predetermined, and stand against the belief according to which human beings are responsible for the course of their life and can influence their fate by choosing to act. Ethan was caught between these views and just as he failed to achieve anything in life, he fails to commit suicide. By never making a choice, either to break free from the rules of society and go off with her lover, or to give up his dreams and submit to social expectations, he succeeded in destroying everything. “The way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; except that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”

Mattie too accepts her destiny passively; in spite of his romanticism, Ethan’s claims for powerlessness sound hollow, even Mattie realises it: though she believes Ethan has been good to her, he more than anyone has been the source of her troubles. Her refusal to consider asking her father’s acquaintances for help proves the shame and her resignation to the terrible (and possible degrading) fate she believes awaits her. Being pretty, as Charity Royall in Summer will demonstrate, is not enough to guarantee a young woman a reputable social position. “In the only place where she was known she was sorrounded by indifference or animosity, and what chance had she, inexperienced and untrained, among the million bread-seekers if the cities? There came back to him miserable takes he had heard...”.

Similarly to Ethan Frome, Summer doesn’t challenge the assumption that social class determines personality and place in the world, it simply shows what happens in a world where this is assumed to be true.

Regarded by Wharton herself as “Hot Ethan”, the seasonal imagery is emblematic of what happens in Charity’s first taste of the life she had so desperately dreamt of, going from a glittering and sultry summer promise to a fading and withering fall reality. During summer, the metaphor for youth, Charity is initially confident she can do whatever she pleases without the approval of society and accepts the ideology according to which her worth depends on how she appears to men, holding the internalised belief that the world can be read in its appearance, therefore limiting her judgments of people on what they look like and not their very essence, exemplified by her willingness to change her aspect only for men she deems worthy of that.

Charity feels entitled to the love from smart and educated gentlemen while, ironically, not being picky enough about them: being ashamed of her origins throughout all her life, Charity wishes most ardently to escape while missing out those who do care about her, and she does so by pursuing the attention of the first stranger who percevies different from those who wronged her, -therefore necessarily well-intentioned. “She had never known how to adapt herself; she could only break and tear and destroy.” “The longing to escape, to get away from familiar faces, from places where she was known, had always been strong in her in moments of distress. She had the childish belief in the miraculous power of strange scenes and new faces to transform her life and wipe out bitter memories.”

In this case, the image of doors represents one of the most important metaphors, seen as the way to escape from a world of rules and obligations to that of nature, where Charity feels the happiest and most comfortable. The relief and awakening that she experiences once she’s laying on the fields contrasts sharply with the dusty and musty atmosphere of the library she works in.

Besides, every time Charity feels rebellious, the urge to go back to the Mountain overwhelms her, although we can never fully say if it’s a genuine desire to run away from the narrowness (both geographical and mental) of North Dormer[footnoteRef:13] or her own unconscious punishment for whenever she feels undeserving of what has been charitably given to her. It’s curious to notice how descriptions of her sometimes involve the use of expressions recalling the animal kingdom: “she felt like a night-bird suddenly caught and caged”, “a feeling of complete passiveness had once more come over her, and she was conscious only of the pleasant animal sensations of warmth and rest”, as a naturalistic reminder of her humiliating origins. In fact, the Mountain doesn’t stand for an utopic place to look up to, rather “a gang of thieves and outlaws living over there” that “seemed to be herded together in a sort of passive promiscuity in which their common misery was the strongest link”. At the same time, by wishing for greatest places, Charity moves from one extreme to the other, as long as she can get out from the place she finds herself stuck in. Ironically enough, she eventually gets back exactly where she started, closing a circle instead of moving along a linear path (whether back to her origins or forward to a fresh start in a cosmopolitan city). 

In her yearning, Harney, the architect she falls in love with, represents everything she desires for herself, since “he had the air of power that the experience of cities probably gave”. Charity quickly understands how “his manner was so different from anything North Dormer had ever shown her” yet “ (...) education and opportunity had divided them by a width that no effort of hers could bridge.” Unlike her fellow villagers, he doesn’t consider her as inferior because of her birthplace; instead he’s rather fascinated by it, as if it were an exotic trait to be proud of. However, this alone won’t be enough satisfying to deem Charity worthy of his own social standards thus marrying her. Actually, he more than often thinks of her as part of the sorroundings he’s so interest on and once he’s enjoyed them both, he feels free to leave without any obligation. What’s most ironical about Harney, who was supposed to save Charity from her dull, predictable small town’s ordinary existence, is that he will mindlessly relegate her to it by taking advantage of her whilst having his own future already figured out in the city, not caring if in a place like North Dormer an affair with an outsider is enough to taint the reputation of a respectable young woman. “But anyway we all live in the same place, and when it’s a place like North Dormer it’s enough to make people hate each other just to have to walk down the same street every day.”

Even Mr. Royall, although compassionate and understanding, can’t be wholly celebrated: his previous attempt at raping Charity places him too within a patriarchal tradition of men seeking domination through unrequited sexual advances and the consequential degradation of women subdued to their mental and physical power. In any case, Mr. Royall cannot but sympathise with her, having found himself victim of the narrow mentality of the backward town of North Dormer as well. “He had been to her merely the person who is always there, the unquestioned central fact of life, as inevitable but as uninteresting as North Dormer itself, or any of the other conditions fate had laid on her.” 

Two female characters with whom Charity confronts herself thorought the story are Annabelle and Julia, whose roles are purposefully the opposite of one another: in fact, if Charity doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks of her, she cannot help but comparing herself to them. Annabelle embodies everything of the upper class Charity fantasises about, and everything Charity isn’t, both physically and socially, she’s either seen or remembered at a distance, thus representing an unattainable ideal and the everlasting reminder of what Charity cannot eventually reach: Harney’s love and promise of marriage. On the contrary, Julia serves as a cautionary tale about the eventual risks Charity should be prepared to face once having taken up the dreamy, sophisticated life she imagines herself ready for. On the surface, Nettleton might stand for the glimpse of the gleaming future Charity spends a lot of time daydreaming about, but is also inextricably linked to the haunting threats of prostitution and abortion, the price to be paid for a girl like Charity, without any social connection and chance to climb the social ladder on her own: if North Dormer is the place for duties and commitments, Nettleton represents the wide sea of uncertainty and the impression to be at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. “Distinctly and pitilessly there rose before her the fate of the girl who was married “to make things right.” She had seen too many village love-stories end in that way. (...) Only, was there no alternative but Julia’s?”

Yet Charity, overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy and loneliness, and so desperate for things to change, is not ready to come home to reality, hence abandoning her treacherous illusions and accepting herself. However, it’s only after she comes to terms with the inevitable choice she’s left, marrying Mr. Royall to guarantee herself and her baby a respectable future, that she experiences the first taste of the equality she had never allowed herself to have when depending on Harney. By giving up her impossible dream and the implicit affirmation of her submissiveness to the role of ornament to be displayed among fellow socialites, Charity grows fond of a new type of mutual appreciation, subtler yet deeper, for good. “(...) The uselessness of struggling against the unseen influences in Harney’s life.“

According to Victorian standards and ideals, Charity could be regarded as lucky thanks to her marriage with a man who can secure her a reputable social position, the same man who saved her from the heathens. She ultimately compromises the so much agonised excitement and independence with the perspective of stability and contentment, eventually realising that to a girl like her, society gives nothing and forbids everything, and her only choices and chances of upward mobility or self fulfilment depend entirely on the man she decides to marry, - the reason why she never deemed books worthy enough of attention, relying solely on her beauty (symbolised by mirrors) to attract men out of her standard, only to end up settled with the same person she had put so much effort into distancing herself from.

Hadn’t societal moral expectations been so strict, Charity, in all her naïveté, wouldn’t likely have longed so passionately for a different, hardly achievable future, but here comes the inescapable reality naturalism compels us to face: to what extent can we blame others and forgive ourselves?


  • Wharton, Edith. “Summer”. New York, Penguin Group, 1993.
  • Wharton, Edith. “Ethan Frome”. New York, Penguin Group, 2005.
  • Morante, Linda. 'The Desolation of Charity Royall: Imagery in Edith Wharton's Summer.' Colby Quarterly, 18.4, 1982.
  • Wershoven, Carol. 'The Divided Conflict of Edith Wharton's Summer.' Colby Quarterly, 21.1, 1985.
  • Makowsky, Veronica, and Lynn Z. Bloom. “Edith Wharton’s Tentative Embrace of Charity: Class and Character in “Summer””. American Literary Realism, vol. 32, no.3, 2000.
16 December 2021
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