“Summer” by Edith Wharton is often considered one of her finest works. Set in the isolated New England village of North Dormer, the novel delves into the life of Charity Royall, a young woman yearning for more than her stagnant surroundings can offer. The novel explores themes of desire, identity, and societal constraints, offering a poignant look at a young woman’s struggle for self-discovery and freedom.

Comprehensive Plot Summary

On a warm June afternoon, Charity Royall steps out of lawyer Royall’s house and onto the solitary street of North Dormer. The village, isolated and untouched by modernity, lies under a canopy of silvery sunshine. Charity, discontent with her monotonous life, catches sight of Lucius Harney, a young architect from the city whose presence stirs something new within her. Her mundane existence as the custodian of the village library is disrupted by Harney’s arrival, and she is drawn to his youthful energy and the promise of something beyond the confines of her small world.

Charity was brought down from the Mountain, a grim, impoverished area, by lawyer Royall when she was a child. Although she is grateful to have escaped the Mountain, she finds life in North Dormer equally suffocating. Harney’s interest in the architecture of the area, particularly in the historical houses, brings him frequently to the library, and soon, an unexpected bond forms between them. They explore the countryside together, and Charity begins to feel a deep, passionate love for him.

Their relationship grows, and Charity dreams of a life beyond North Dormer, a life where she and Harney can be together without the constraints of their current circumstances. However, their love affair is shadowed by the complexities of their social positions and Harney’s commitments back in the city. Charity’s relationship with lawyer Royall becomes increasingly strained. One night, in a drunken stupor, Royall tries to enter her room, but Charity fends him off, deepening her resolve to leave North Dormer and seek a better life.

As summer progresses, Charity’s love for Harney intensifies. They share stolen moments of bliss, hidden away from the prying eyes of the village. However, the reality of their situation becomes undeniable when Charity discovers she is pregnant. Desperate and scared, she realizes that Harney, bound by his social obligations, cannot provide her with the security she needs.

In a moment of despair, Charity contemplates returning to the Mountain, but the thought of the harsh life there deters her. Instead, she decides to confront Harney, hoping he will offer a solution. However, Harney’s response is evasive, filled with promises that fail to provide any real assurance. Feeling abandoned and betrayed, Charity turns to lawyer Royall for help. In an unexpected twist, Royall proposes marriage, offering her a semblance of stability and protection for her unborn child. Left with no other option, Charity agrees, resigning herself to a life with a man she neither loves nor respects.

As summer draws to a close, Charity and Harney’s relationship is exposed, leading to scandal and judgment from the villagers. Harney’s departure becomes inevitable, and Charity is left to face the consequences of their love alone. She marries Royall in a somber ceremony, gaining a measure of security but losing the vibrant, passionate life she had dreamed of.

After her marriage, Charity tries to find solace in her new role as Royall’s wife. She takes on the responsibilities of the household, but the shadow of her past and the memory of her love for Harney haunt her. She struggles to reconcile her dreams with the reality of her situation, feeling trapped and desolate.

Charity’s life becomes a routine of domestic duties and silent suffering. She watches the seasons change, feeling a profound sense of loss and longing. Her relationship with Royall remains distant and strained, marked by a mutual understanding of their shared loneliness.

One day, Charity encounters Harney again. His visit stirs up old emotions, and she realizes that her love for him has not faded. However, Harney’s life has moved on, and he is no longer the carefree young man she once knew. He is now engaged to Annabel Balch, a woman from his social circle, further highlighting the chasm between their worlds.

In the end, Charity’s dreams of escape and freedom are crushed by the harsh realities of her circumstances. She marries Royall, and although she gains a measure of security, the passionate, vibrant life she longed for remains an unfulfilled dream. The novel closes on a poignant note, reflecting Charity’s resignation and the enduring constraints of her environment.

The story ends with Charity standing at the edge of the village, looking out at the distant Mountain. She reflects on the choices she made and the life she might have had. Her heart is heavy with regret, but she resolves to find some semblance of peace in her new life. The enduring themes of desire, societal constraints, and the quest for identity resonate through her final thoughts, leaving a lasting impression of her struggle and resilience.

Main Characters

  • Charity Royall: The protagonist, a spirited young woman struggling to find her place in the world. Raised by lawyer Royall after being brought down from the Mountain, she dreams of escaping her confined life in North Dormer.
  • Lucius Harney: A young architect from the city who becomes Charity’s love interest. His presence in North Dormer awakens Charity’s desires and aspirations.
  • Lawyer Royall: Charity’s guardian, a complex character who oscillates between caring for and controlling Charity. His proposal of marriage represents Charity’s last resort for stability.
  • Miss Hatchard: Harney’s cousin, with whom he stays while in North Dormer. She represents the societal expectations and propriety that Harney is bound by.

Themes and Motifs

  • Desire and Aspiration: Charity’s longing for a life beyond North Dormer and her passionate affair with Harney highlight the theme of desire and the human need for fulfillment.
  • Social Constraints: The novel explores the limitations imposed by society, particularly on women, and how these constraints shape the characters’ lives and choices.
  • Identity and Self-Discovery: Charity’s journey is one of self-discovery, as she grapples with her origins from the Mountain and her place in the world.
  • Nature and Isolation: The setting of North Dormer, with its isolation and natural beauty, underscores the themes of solitude and the longing for connection.

Writing Style and Tone

Edith Wharton’s writing in “Summer” is marked by its lyrical prose and rich descriptions. She employs a tone that is both intimate and introspective, drawing readers into Charity’s inner world. Wharton’s use of imagery vividly captures the New England landscape, creating a powerful contrast between the beauty of the surroundings and the bleakness of Charity’s situation.

Wharton’s narrative technique is deeply character-driven, focusing on the emotional and psychological aspects of her characters. Her nuanced portrayal of Charity’s inner conflicts and desires lends a profound depth to the story. The tone of the novel oscillates between moments of romantic idealism and harsh realism, reflecting the duality of Charity’s experiences and the inevitable constraints of her environment.

Opinions are my own and not the views of my employer (if any)

When I am not working/watching movies/reading books/traveling, you can reach me via my Twitter/LinkedIn or you can contact me here

Categories: Book Summary