Charity Case: The Gendered Economy of Gift-Giving in Summer
Samuel McIntyre, William and Mary
Edith Wharton’s fiction exhibits a distinct concern for things, their value, and their relationships with their possessors. Notable in her oeuvre, then, are those few texts that make considerable examination of characters who are possessed very few things, especially those impoverished characters found in her short rural novels (or novellas) Summer and Ethan Frome. Often understood to be companion pieces, both works represent a shift from Wharton’s familiar milieu of Old New York Society and wealthy Americans living in Europe to instead examine the lives of poor, rural folk in Western Massachusetts. Whereas Ethan Frome is marked by the unabating lack of possessorship and economic exchange that permeates all of Starkfield, Charity Royall encounters opportunities in Summer to accumulate consumer goods and experiences by way of gifts received from patriarchal relationships. Both Lawyer Royall and Lucius Harney furnish Charity with gifts that appear generous or uncomplicated on their surface; however, key scenes such as the Fourth of July celebration in Nettleton and Charity’s agreement in Creston to marry Mr. Royall reiterate a distinctly gendered dynamic in which male gifts are necessarily imbued with the assumption that they will purchase for their bestower some kind of access to or control over the female body. For Harney, this desire is to control Charity sexually, whereas, for Mr. Royall, the desire is chiefly to keep her as his wife. Throughout Summer, Charity depends upon gifts from these two men to provide her with the necessary accommodations and financial support for commercial consumption, experience, and even basic survival. In exchange, she is expected to yield control over her body sexually or otherwise to the supposed gift-giver, thus rendering herself an exchangeable good to be possessed by men.
Inherent to Charity Royall’s forename is an implication of giving, with charity being, of course, a crucially uncomplicated and unreciprocated form of exchange. Her relationship with Mr. Royall is predicated on what the town of North Dormer views as a charitable act: his having “brought her down the Mountain” to live among “the most refined civilization” of North Dormer (Summer 101). Their relationship is essentially paternal, if somewhat inauthentic due to Charity’s adopted status, and she depends on him completely for room and board. In a chapter titled “The Triumphant Plasticity of The House of Mirth” from the book Edith Wharton’s Dialogue with Realism and Sentimental Fiction, Hildegard Hoeller argues for a conception of gift-giving as “an alternative to the market economy” that expresses sentimentality “without asking for a return” (Hoeller 115). Furthermore, she suggests that gifts derive their sentimental power “from the caprice of defying the rigid rules of a market economy” (115). Unlike in Hoeller’s conception, however, there resides an air of unpaid debt in the relationship between Mr. Royall and his adopted daughter, and figures like Mrs. Hatchard remind Charity that she “must never cease to forget” how Royall saved her from the Mountain (Summer 101). Accordingly, Charity feels that she owes a part of herself to the “lonesome” man and is reluctant to abandon him (108). When an opportunity arises to attend boarding school in neighboring Nettleton, Charity refuses, declaring “‘I’d rather not’” upon perceiving Royall’s intense loneliness and longing for her continued presence in his home (109). Royall’s response to this gesture does not explicitly acknowledge its sacrifice, but he gifts Charity with a Crimson Rambler as if in repayment for her decision to stay. This gift is thus charged with the implication that Royall has paid for Charity’s body to remain by his side, thereby implying a sense of ownership. This paternal relationship becomes deeply problematized by Royall’s drunken sexual proposition toward Charity, which deepens the impression of his appearing entitled to her body and further suggests an expectation that Charity give something of herself in exchange for his gifts. These early encounter crystallizes the gender imbalance of gift-giving exchanges in the novel, and in their wake, Charity resolves to escape from North Dormer and from Mr. Royall.
The novel’s counterpoint to North Dormer and life with Lawyer Royall is embodied by Charity’s idealized perceptions of the town of Nettleton and of the metropolitan Lucius Harney. From the earliest pages of the book, Charity imagines Nettleton as a bastion of civilization and experience far greater than North Dormer; it is the place where she “for the first and only time, experienced railway travel, looked into a shop with plate-glass fronts, tasted cocoanut pie, sat in a theatre” (100). Crucially, Harney in his “city clothes” becomes her connection to that town and its promise of consumer delight, and their Fourth of July excursion includes the novel’s most significant instance of gift-giving in the brooch scene (99). When the pair comes across an open jeweler, Harney asks Charity which brooch she likes best, and she “point[s] to a gold lily-of-the-valley with white flowers,” the symbolism of which recalls purity and marriage (165). Harney, however, redirects her interest to a “small round stone, blue as a mountain lake, with little sparks of light all around it” (165). The disconnect in their preferences speaks to the larger disconnect and imbalance in their relationship. Charity entertains illusions that Harney will marry her, as suggested by her fixation on a lily-of-the-valley. By refusing to purchase Charity’s brooch, Harney exerts his dominance as a consumer and a determiner of capitalistic value, and the brooch comes to reflect his own desires rather than those of its recipient. Rather than being a true gift, the brooch (which Charity will notably wear across her breast) becomes an outward marker of Harney’s possession, as if to imply that he has purchased her through a gift-giving exchange. This notion is reinforced later in the same chapter when the two become lovers by kissing at the lake, which makes Charity feel “dominated” by him (173). After Harney kisses her, she feels compelled to “give him back his kisses” as though they are yet another gift with an expectation of reciprocity (173). In exchange for this experience of consumerism in Nettleton— and for the brooch, specifically—Harney expects Charity to give herself over to him sexually, and Charity complies shortly after. Harney’s gift, then, appears as little more than a subtle reiteration of his heteronormative sexual expectations.
Immediately following the kiss, a drunken Mr. Royall appears in the company of prostitutes and shouts: “‘You whore—you damn—bare-headed whore, you!’” at his adopted daughter (174). In present company, Royall, who has been associated intimately with North Dormer and who “hated to go to Nettleton,” is revealed to be an active consumer in Nettleton’s lascivious underground market activity (109). This new knowledge of Royall’s participation in such illicit and immoral transactions colors a less-than-flattering reading of his character, of his relationship with Charity, and of his relationship to women in general. For example, his cash gift to Charity after receiving a payment from Harney for buggy rental becomes imbued with new significance:
[H]is satisfaction with the bargain had manifested itself, unexpectedly enough, at the end of the first week, by his tossing a ten-dollar bill into Charity’s lap as she sat one day retrimming her old hat.
“Here—go get yourself a Sunday bonnet that’ll make all the other girls mad,” he said, looking at her with a sheepish twinkle in his deep-set eyes; and she immediately guessed that the unwonted present—the only gift of money she had ever received from him— represented Harney’s first payment. (132)
The act of “tossing” money “into Charity’s lap” recalls the act of paying a prostitute for sex, further suggesting the distinctly male view that Charity is a good to be purchased and possessed. Royall’s implication that a new “Sunday bonnet” will make her superior to “all the other girls” implies that Charity, as a consumer good, has an inherent value that can be determined or augmented by male interference. The narrative insistence that this is “the only gift of money she had ever received from him” makes it all the more important when Royall gives her money again at the end of the novel to buy new clothes so she can “‘beat all the other girls’” (240). This second gift of forty dollars is significantly larger, suggesting that Charity’s value has increased to Royall in light of their marriage. The second payment is also given during a period in their new marriage that is implied to be celibate, and one might infer, especially considering his actions at Nettleton, that Royall might be trying to buy sex from Charity rather than giving her an innocent gift. This interpretation is reinforced by the suspicious and somewhat covert manner in which he hands the money to Charity: “he drew something from his pocket, and pushed it across the table to her” (240). In one possible reading, this action carries the symbolic weight of discreet payment to a prostitute for services rendered, further suggesting Royall’s belief that he can come to possess Charity through his gift-giving.
A different dynamic exists in Wharton’s more famous rural novel, Ethan Frome. If gift-giving is a method by which men can exert power in their relationships with women, then this novel sees an incessant failure on Ethan’s part to assert masculine control over either his wife, Zenobia Frome, or her cousin, Mattie Silver, owing to his own lack of economic power from which to give. A crucial characteristic of the novel’s rural setting in the aptly-named Starkfield, Massachusetts is the near absence of both gift-giving and market exchange. Economic debility thwarts nearly all of Ethan’s attempts at self-betterment: he cannot afford a university education (Ethan Frome 21), he is unable to sell his family’s farmhouse (42), and he is refused an advance payment by Andrew Hale (44). Accordingly, Frome finds himself unable to influence women through gift-giving, for he cannot afford to give gifts. His gender-role is reversed to the point where he instead becomes recipient of a gift from Mattie Silver during a picnic at Shadow Pond when she “had broken through the group to come to him with a cup [of coffee] in her hand” (84). For Ethan, this simple gesture is vested with the kind of sentimental significance that Hoeller ascribes to the gift-giving economy, and the love-stricken farmer craves to understand Mattie’s supposed gift as an expression of reciprocal desire: “‘Was that why you gave me my coffee before the others?” he beseeches in a moment of shared recollection before the fateful sledding incident. “‘I don’t know,’” Mattie replies, “‘Did I?’” (86). Although the sort of sentimental reaction that Frome desires from Mattie is obvious, her terse response challenges his understanding of the coffee as having ever been intended as a gift. Not only has he been degraded to the feminine position of gift-recipient, but he has also failed to perform effectively in this role. Throughout the text, Ethan Frome is further emasculated by his sickly wife’s “queer looks,” sharp vitriol, and constant demands on his limited time, energy, and capital (25). Therefore, Ethan Frome suggests that the politics of a gift-giving economy in Wharton’s fiction are related not only to gender but also to affluence.
In his essay “A Passionate Manhood,” cultural critic E. Anthony Rotundo delineates the emergence at the turn of the century of a new conception of masculinity that moved away from emphasis on “independence and reason” toward a more primitive animal instinct “which freed men to act boldly and decisively” (Rotundo 234, 225). Importantly, the piece argues for the importance of bourgeois institutions such as “Phillips Exeter Academy” (225), “elite men’s clubs” (228), and “competitive sports” in cultivating and refining these masculine tendencies (239). Such institutions are not available to Ethan as a result of his poor, rural existence in Starkfield, and as much as he might like to be bold and decisive in his relationship with Mattie, he invariably capitulates to Zeena’s desires and influence. When he and Mattie spend an evening together, Ethan is haunted by a feeling “as if Zeena were in the room between them” (Ethan Frome 48). Similarly, in the famous sledding scene, when Ethan tries to reclaim agency by asserting passion and masculinity—a notion reinforced by his insistence on riding in front of Mattie because “‘I want to feel you holding me’”—Zeena’s phantom presence condemns both him and Mattie to a mangled fate (91). Ultimately, Ethan allows Zeena to cast Mattie out from his own inherited family home, an act which leaves “his manhood…humbled” (76). The lack of formal societal structure in Frome’s surrounding combined with his submission to Zeena have an overall emasculating effect on him, suggesting that Rotundo’s conception of a “passionate manhood” cannot exist outside of a bourgeois context.
On the contrary, one might view Harney as natural candidate for Rotundo’s “bourgeois definition of manhood” due to his inculcation by bourgeois institutions of masculinity in youth, his personal affluence, and his pursuit of passionate relationships with both Charity Royall and with Annabel Balch (Rotundo 232). Importantly, then, Harney’s power over Charity is not only a result of his gender but also of his economic standing, for patriarchal power is rooted both in gender and economic leverage. During Old Home Week, he discards Charity in favor of Annabel, who (in a somewhat eugenic reading of the text) represents a more valuable good because of her “blue eyes” and ancestral links to the more prosperous and cultured town of Springfield (Summer 100). In light of her newly discovered pregnancy and of Harney’s sudden abandonment, Charity attempts to release herself from the patriarchal economy of gift-giving by venturing back up the Mountain to embrace maternal relationships, intending to raise her own child there and to reconnect with her birth mother. Her embrace of motherhood is in stark opposition to paternalistic relationships with Harney (the father of her child) and with Royall (her father figure), but her mother’s death ultimately precludes the maternal possibility. Charity, like many of Wharton’s women, must return to paternalistic dependency.
As a result of Charity’s failure to survive in the anti-capitalist framework of the Mountain, Lawyer Royall becomes her only option once again. His earlier charitable act of “[bringing] her down the Mountain” is repeated when Royall rescues Charity again from that wild region, as if to reinforce his status as her paternal protector (101). He picks her up along the freezing roadside in a gesture that elicits “softness in her heart which no act of his had ever produced since he bought her that Crimson Rambler” (232). This reference to the Crimson Rambler evokes Royall’s gift-giving tendencies in exchange for Charity’s continued presence, and the following interaction takes place as they sit to breakfast—just before Charity assents to Royall’s proposal of marriage:
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.
Mrs. Hobart put bread and milk on the table, and then went out of the house: Charity saw her leading the horse away to the barn across the yard. She did not come back, and Mr. Royall and Charity sat alone at the table with the smoking coffee between them. He poured out a cup for her, and she began to eat. (233)
Charity’s “feeling of complete passiveness” is mirrored by the passive verbs that describe her: the feeling “had…come over her,” and “she was conscious” of pleasant sensations. Under Royall’s roof, feelings of starvation and cold are converted to comfort and domesticity, reemphasizing the paternalistic nature of a relationship in which Royall provides for Charity as his charge; she need not take any action for herself. The presence of a warm meal and of hot coffee function as Royall’s offering to renew their previous relationship—this time, however, as man and wife rather than as father and daughter. His ritualized act of “pour[ing] out a cup for her” before Charity “beg[ins] to eat” connotes the gendered dynamic of consumption inherent in their relationship and reintroduces expectations of possession and control that accompany all of Royall’s gifts (emphasis added). The narrator’s insistence that they sit “alone at the table” harkens back to the loneliness Charity perceives within Royall and suggests the reemergence of her obligation to remain with him in repayment for his gifts. By accepting Royall’s proposal, Charity submits permanently to the unequal balance of the gift-giving economy, and she must relinquish significant agency to her patriarchal benefactor. That their marriage will be devoid of love is clear, but it is equally clear that it will not be without basic comforts. Given Charity’s gender and low economic status, perhaps this is the best deal she can hope to negotiate in the context of the novel. After all, it is a decidedly more pleasant outcome than most of Wharton’s characters manage to secure.
Charity’s awareness of reciprocity in market activity comes to light on the Mountain when she facilitates an economic exchange by leaving her chemise “to pay for” a hunk of bread taken from Mrs. Hyatt’s “half of a stale loaf” (230). In an economic sense, this exchange is an obvious failure because of its inequality and inutility. Monetarily, the chemise is far more valuable than the purloined bread, and it certainly bears more sentimental weight as one of a few “dainty things on which [Charity] had squandered her savings” (230). Additionally, the delicate chemise would be of little use to rugged Mountain folk, who are unlikely to appreciate its value as an item of fashion nor to find any utility in it. Although the narrative does not depict how the exchange is received by Hyatt, the chemise perhaps represents the novel’s most authentic example gift-giving when intention is considered. Whereas clear reciprocal expectations of heteronormative sexuality are inherent to all of Royall’s and Harney’s gifts, a sense of closure accompanies Charity’s exchange, and a certain generosity or emotional significance is implied by the fact that “as she looked at [the chemise] the blood rushed to her forehead” (230). Assuming that Charity is not wholly ignorant of the imbalance inherent to this exchange, her lack of reciprocal expectation is unique in Summer, suggesting the possibility that a true gift-giving exchange might possibly exist when its participants are not made unequal by ulterior motives driven by gender and wealth.
Hoeller, Hildegard. “The Triumphant Plasticity of The House of Mirth.” Edith Wharton’s
Dialogue with Realism and Sentimental Fiction, University of Florida Press, 2000, pp. 96–125 .
Rotundo, E. Anthony, “Passionate Manhood.” American Manhood, BasicBooks, pp. 222-246.
Wharton, Edith. “Ethan Frome.” Ethan Frome & Summer, Modern Library, 2001.
—. “Summer.” Ethan Frome & Summer, Modern