Date of Award
Master of Arts
When I began preparing for my thesis, I was not sure exactly what I wanted to focus on. I knew that I enjoyed the writing of Edith Wharton and I recognized that it was rich with social commentary. There was so much material to choose from that I found myself confounded as to which text to approach for such a lengthy and important project. Initially I chose The House of Mirth because I was familiar with it and because I had such an aching sympathy for the plight of Lily Bart. What I discovered, much to my dismay, is that so much had already been written on that particular masterpiece that there was little I could add to the discussion.
After months of examining and pondering over various short stories and novels, I became more and more aware of how troubled Wharton's relationship had been with her mother, and how extensively maternal characters were examined and developed throughout her fiction. As I read further still, I recognized that Wharton was distressed not only by the actions of her own mother, or mothers in general, but by how society restricted and manipulated women through demanding that they fill constricting and often unnatural roles. Though several texts seemed appropriate to expand this realization, I eventually settled upon the fairly well-known, but not overly addressed novel Summer. The more I read about it, the more depth I saw in the character of Charity Royal, and her plight and how Wharton was speaking through her in an outraged voice. There was no doubt that a serious injustice had been done to Wharton, and many of the women of her time, and she was determined to tell that story.
As I prepared to write this text, I had the unpleasant task of weeding out any information that was not relevant to my project, no matter how interesting it may have been. I had to leave out a great deal of biographical information that spoke so eloquently of Wharton's life as well as the comments of those critics who obviously respect Wharton's writing but had little to say related to my topic. The resulting text, however, contains a broad exploration of Wharton's experiences and thoughts about her own mother followed by brief discussions of various mother-figures in some of Wharton's more significant works. All of this is a precursor to the focus of my argument: Charity Royal illustrates how the harmful effects of an overly restrictive society can crush even the most fearless of spirits. I have aspired to represent Summer as a striking social commentary, and show how the strength of Charity's spirit should be admired, while the injustices performed against her should inspire outrage.
After such extensive exploration of Wharton's life and work, I cannot help but finish this project with a great sense of satisfaction in having found so much value in just one of her many novels. Though the United States of the 1990s may be vastly different than turn-of-the-century New England, there is still much to be learned from Charity Royall and even more to be wary of with regard to societal regulation of behavior.
Digital Repository @ Iowa State University, http://lib.dr.iastate.edu
Eric John Kerkove
Kerkove, Eric J., "The limits of charity: motherhood, feminine roles, and autobiography in Edith Wharton's Summer" (1998). Retrospective Theses and Dissertations. 268.