Between the Town and the Mountain: Abortion and the Politics of Life in Edith Wharton's "Summer"
Canadian review of American studies 2010; 40(3): 351-72
In the early twentieth century, American laws focused on women's reproductive capacities and were coalescing into the ethical and moral frameworks that subtend American reproductive politics today. Edith Wharton published her 1917 novel, Summer, at a time when anti-abortion sentiment was widespread in American culture. Through a reading of Summer, the article provides a theoretical and historical framework for understanding this new American obsession with the judicial regulation of women's reproductive options. In particular, I situate the novel's presentation of abortion within the tension between the carefully defined laws of North Dormer, the town in which the majority of the story takes place, and the lawlessness of the Mountain, a place that looms throughout the story as the protagonist's birthplace and a location of utmost abjection. The novel's profound insight is that power does not function unilaterally and individually but through and on the population. Furthermore, Wharton leaps ahead by recognizing that life is not simply that which lives but that which is recognized and embraced by the law. This realization, one that Wharton must have come to terms with through her painful work with World War I refugees, shapes Charity's character and her understanding not only of how reproduction is regulated but also of how living within this regulation and control generates the norm and offers the only possibility for a liveable and legible life.
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