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  • "Other People's Clothes":Homosociality, Consumer Culture, and Affective Reading in Edith Wharton's Summer
  • Meredith Goldsmith

For a novel typically viewed as the narrative of heroine Charity Royall's illicit affair, pregnancy, and subsequent marriage, Edith Wharton's Summer presents a wide range of homosocial encounters—between Charity and her North Dormer peers (some of whom appear in the novel and some of whom are only named), between Charity and women glimpsed in mirrors and on streets, and between Charity and women viewed as others to the norms of late-nineteenth-century "heteromaternal" femininity—spinsters, prostitutes, female professionals, and differently abled women (Kent 16).1 Feminist scholarship on the novel has rotated around the question of Charity's illicit affair with visiting architect Lucius Harney, her pregnancy, and her subsequent marriage to her guardian, Lawyer Royall, seen on the one hand as quasi-incestuous and "sick" (Ammons 133) and, on the other hand, as an act of generosity that restores Charity's virtue.2 More recently, critics have turned their attention to Wharton's engagement with the racial thinking of the period, as witnessed through the novel's representations of the ostensibly dysgenic Mountain community, its depiction of the possibilities of women's reproductive choice, and Charity's ultimate decision to keep Harney's child, which Jennie A. Kassanoff reads as Wharton's effort to perpetuate Harney's patrician blood through the vessel of Charity's working-class body (145-49).3 Despite the richness of these readings, however, both traditional feminist and contemporary racialized readings have tended to sidestep Charity's relations with women, as well as the burgeoning rural middle class of which she is a part, viewing her quest for place in primarily heterosocial and non-class-specific terms.

On first glance, Charity's identity seems almost completely determined by her relations with men: Separated from her birth mother as a child and [End Page 109] brought down from the Mountain by Lawyer Royall to the bleak New England town of North Dormer, she becomes pregnant with Harney's child during their summer affair but knows that marriage to him is impossible. After a brief return to the Mountain, where she learns that her mother is dead, she accepts a marriage proposal from Royall and returns to North Dormer to embark on an apparently bleak future.

This essay recasts Charity's narrative of limited mobility in light of her conflicts with women, showing how her efforts to appropriate a middle-class identity through consumer culture implicate her in a series of antagonistic homosocial relationships. Charity's interactions with these female others are dominated by emotions of envy, irritation, and frustration, feelings that recent scholarship on affect in nineteenth-century literature has identified as characteristic of middle-class identity formation. As Stephanie Foote has argued, class and gender are "affective positions," "deeply structural" while also "deeply personal" (66).4 Because Summer typically communicates women's anxieties over class and status through bodily reactions rather than open verbal expression, critics have yet to pay sufficient attention to the novel's depiction of tensions among women of different class positions.5 Reading for affect demonstrates how the struggles of class identity formation—especially for Charity, a lower-middle-class subject surrounded by characters at almost every level on the class spectrum—register in bodily and emotional terms, forming a part of the novel's depiction of everyday life of which characters, and even their creator, may be unconscious.6 Examining both inter- and intraclass homo-social tensions illuminates the effects of the unequal distribution of cultural and economic capital on working-class and middle-class subjects, who are typically held responsible for the hostile feelings they generate.7 Summer witnesses Charity's envious negotiation for place on a ladder of feminine status through her consumer practices; similarly, it demonstrates the implication of other women—particularly marginalized women of the working and lower-middle classes—in the new economies of desire that early-twentieth-century consumer culture made palpable.8

In the opening pages of Summer, Wharton makes clear that Charity's competition with more affluent women has long preceded her encounter with Harney. While her first sight of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0643
Print ISSN
0748-4321
Pages
pp. 109-127
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-04
Open Access
No
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