Comparing Seasonal Imagery in Wharton, Le Guin, and Johnson

Comparing Seasonal Imagery in Wharton, Le Guin, and Johnson

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Seasonal Imagery in Wharton, Le Guin, and Johnson

   Summer   Now in November The Left Hand of Darkness    The expression of Yeats's circularity of seasons goes back in literature at least as far as the poet Horace (Wirtjes 533). Traditionally, women's lives, centering on family maintenance, have mimicked the cycles of the seasons far more than men's. Theirs have been the lives that repeat the motifs of each preceding year, always reborn yet never wholly new. Women, then, have less experiential reason to view their lives as a part of an inexorable forward march rather than as several turns on the great wheel of birth and death. Women writers, likewise, may pay more attention than their male counterparts to the seasonal, circular nature of their protagonists' lives. This is the case with Edith Wharton's Summer, Josephine Johnson's Now in November, and Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. All three novelists set current protagonist movement against a backdrop of immobility. Both Wharton and Le Guin set their protagonists' change against the seeming constancy of summer and winter, while Johnson sets a critical spring-to-fall family transition against her protagonist's assertion of year-to-year sameness. Thus, each novelist, while depicting the movement necessary to build a story arc, sets this movement within a larger context of circularity and sameness, represented for each by the recurring seasons.

      Edith Wharton's Summer, written in 1916, charts the sexual awakening of young Charity Royall from her carefree abandon in June through her affair with visiting Lucius Harney in July and August, ending in autumn with her de facto abandonment and marriage of convenience to the man who raised her, Lawyer Royall. As Peter L. Hays notes, the seasonal imagery provides "an appropriate metaphor for Charity's development" (114). Hays links this development explicitly to the seasons, albeit simplistically, with Charity's "growth and maturation" during the summer leading to her "impending harvest, both of wisdom and child" in the fall (116). Yet, like Kate Chopin several years earlier in The Awakening, Wharton, I believe, avoids this simple ending. Indeed, another critic notes that "What Elizabeth Ammons says of The Reef applies with equal force to Summer: 'The fairy-tale fantasy of deliverance by a man appears to be but is not a dream of freedom for women. It is a glorification of the status quo'" (Crowley 87). Charity at novel's end neither achieves her dreams (love and freedom with Harney) nor endures her nightmares (destitution and prostitution as a single mother).

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Her life merely goes on, as Wharton, through her emphasis on the seasons, implies that most women's lives do, "never escap[ing] the 'lifeless circle' of the barrens environing [them]" (Morante 243).

      Wharton begins her novel on "a June afternoon," with a "springlike transparent sky" (Wharton 1), where her protagonist's budding affair is the only action in an otherwise largely immobile environment . The village of North Dormer appears empty and unmoving in the early summer light, "its few able-bodied men ... off in the fields or woods, and the women indoors, engaged in languid household drudgery" (2). For the young, however, life is still full of possibilities: Harney laughs "as the young and careless laugh," while Charity is "swinging her key on a finger" (2). They are the only two moving in the town, and their carefree movements are matched by the "little June wind, frisking down the street" (1, emphasis mine). As their friendship blossoms, the weather mirrors Charity's hopeful feelings: "There had never been such a June in Eagle County. Usually it was a month of moods ... this year, day followed day in a sequence of temperate beauty" (33). In the midst of this perfect weather, Charity is surrounded by nature's own sexual awakening, the "bubbling of sap and slipping of sheaths and bursting of calyxes" (33), while once again "it seemed as if Charity Royall and young Harney were the only living beings in the great hollow of earth and sky" (50). Over and over, Wharton sets her protagonist's action against an unmoving summer palette.

      As June passes into July, the rising heat of mid-summer mirrors the increasingly sexual nature of their friendship. The world becomes more visibly active around them, but still they are protected from it. When Charity secretly goes to meet Harney in Nettleton on the Fourth of July, nature has ripened from potential to real fullness, with an "opulent landscape" of "rich fields and languid treeclumps" (85). Wharton explicitly links the external world with Charity's inner desires, as "to Charity the heat was a stimulant: it enveloped the whole world in the same glow that burned at her heart" (85). It is no surprise, therefore, that by August they are lovers, as the passionate heat of July's unsatisfied desire changes to the languorous dreaminess of evenings of lovemaking. The is an emphasis on growing darkness-the "gold-powdered sunset" (120) during the "two golden rainless August weeks" (121) when Harney and Charity meet each evening in an abandoned house. This contrasts with Charity's stated beliefs about what is happening to her-that Harney has made love "as bright and open as the summer air" (120). Thus, Wharton signals her readers that an end is approaching even before Charity herself realizes it. Indeed, directly after this scene, the world intrudes on their up-to-now almost isolated existence. Charity realizes that Harney is engaged to another woman, she faints in what is the first sign of her pregnancy, and Lawyer Royall confronts the two in their love nest. The moment he leaves, summer is over. As they try to comfort each other, "an autumnal dampness crept up from the hollow below the orchard, laying its cold touch on their flushed faces" (139). Harney notes that they could not have continued coming much longer (140)-as indeed they could not, since he leaves soon after and Charity must deal with her pregnancy.

      From then on, autumn advances rapidly as Charity gives up her dreams of life with Harney. By the time she begins what seems her descent into nightmare - returning to the mountain fastness of outlaws she was rescued from as a child - winter makes an early appearance, striking her face with the first flakes of snow (159). After Lawyer Royall "rescues" her again, the transition to winter is complete, leaving no more room for attempted change. As she rides the train to her marriage, she notes that "forty-eight hours earlier, when she had last traversed [the country], many of the trees still held their leaves; but the high wind of the last two nights had stripped them, and the lines of the landscape were as finely pencilled as in December" (182). Earlier, Charity had told Harney, "Things don't change at North Dormer: people just get used to them" (79). Throughout the summer, this immutability had worked to Charity's advantage-as the only moving creature in the picture, she had the freedom to pursue sensuality with Harney. The quick disappearance of autumn, before Charity can make any complete change, and the arrival of winter bring a new immutability, but one much less benevolent: "[W]ith the fading of the [summer] landscape those fervid hours had faded, too. She could no longer believe that she was the being who had lived them" (183). So Charity marries her stepfather and they return to North Dormer in the "cold autumn moonlight" (194). Once again, Charity and a man are the only moving creatures in an otherwise still, unchanging landscape, but it is no longer a summer afternoon and Wharton suggests that Charity will fade into the immutability that surrounds her. Crossing the threshold into her old house, says critic Crowley, marks "the death of her summer daydreams in the autumn moonlight, and her final entrapment in the dependent childish identity from which North Dormer permits her no escape" (95).

      If Wharton has demonstrated the (albeit fleeting) freedom of summer, Ursula Le Guin aims to show that movement in winter is also possible. She sets her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, on the planet Winter, where the inhabitants are living through the height on an Ice Age. They are visited by an Envoy whose purpose it is to observe them and offer entrance into the Ekumen, a planetary federation linking all known worlds. Most of what has been written about The Left Hand of Darkness deals with the ambisexuality of the inhabitants of Winter, who have the potential to be either men or women during their estrus cycle. Yet much of what occurs in the novel happens because of the winter setting. Indeed, as one critic notes, setting is increasingly important in Le Guin's early novels, and she is "not merely using it as a backdrop or atmosphere ... she has intertwined it with the ... mythological nature of the [inhabitants of Winter]. In these instances, it is nearly impossible to separate setting from characterization" (Cogell 348). In The Left Hand of Darkness, the Envoy is attempting to bring change to a planet that is largely in stasis due to its almost-perpetual winter. "Winter hasn't achieved in thirty centuries what Terra once achieved in thirty decades," the Envoy notes after his failed attempt to convince one of the major governments to join the Ekumen:

Neither has Winter ever paid the price that Terra paid. Winter is an inimical world; its punishment for doing things wrong is sure and prompt: death from cold or death from hunger. No margin, no reprieve. A man can trust his luck, but a society can't; and cultural change, like random mutation, may make things chancier. So they have gone very slowly. At any one point in their history a hasty observer would say that all technological progress and diffusion had ceased. Yet it never has. Compare the torrent and the glacier. Both get where they are going. (Le Guin 99)

      The Envoy must fail again with the other major government, spend time in a labor camp, and then cross nearly one thousand miles of glacier with his rescuer in order to begin to incorporate the lessons of patience that the inhabitants of Winter center their lives around. He believes himself forbearing; he is seen by them as restless, as his companion on the glacier journey, Estraven, notes: "To match his frailty and strength, he has a spirit easy to despair and quick to defiance: a fierce impatient courage ... He is ready, eager, to stake life on the cruel quick test..." (228). But, as the Envoy grows to appreciate, the cruel quick test does not bring success. It is Estraven's slow, patient toiling, day after day across a frozen wasteland in the winter months of a frigid planet, which finally gets them off the glacier and back to civilization.

      The fact that Le Guin sets nearly one-third of her novel on a glacier, where the only two living beings are her protagonist and his companion, clearly paints a palette of movement against immobility similar to that of Wharton's Summer: "All those miles and days had been across a houseless, speechless desolation: rock, ice, sky, and silence: nothing else, for eighty-one days, except each other" (Le Guin 272). Le Guin's characters, like Charity and Harney, spend the season of immobility "together alone," kept apart from the rest of society. And despite the harshness of Winter's ecosystem-a far cry from the "rich fields" of Summer-the Envoy and Estraven, like Wharton's two lovers, are only truly threatened when they return to that society. "I had forgotten there was anyone alive who did not look like Estraven. I was terrified" (272), says the Envoy, but too quickly he forgets this fear in the warmth-physical and emotional-of other people. Yet it is society which takes Estraven's life, betraying him to his enemies and shooting him as he races for the border of his country (283-4). As John Huntington points out of Le Guin's early novels, including The Left Hand of Darkness, "The intimate bonds ... exist apart from any social organization and often in spite of society and ...represent an absolute source of value" (269). Even in the harshness of winter, the immutability of others provides the freedom for Le Guin's protagonists to act, a freedom which is lost when others begin themselves to act.

      In the end, though, Estraven's death provides the Envoy with the impetus to continue to act, to bring about change in this world. Like Charity, he is at first immobilized and confused after the loss of his friend, but his position as alien Envoy means that his very existence affects those around him in a way that Charity's actions never could: "Because of the alien who lay ill, not acting, not caring, in a room in Sassinoth, two governments fell within ten days" (287). Charity can only get married for the sake of her baby; the Envoy can usher in a new era on Winter for the sake of his friend: "[I]t came to me plainly that, my friend being dead, I must accomplish the thing he died for" (289). And so he acts, ushing Winter into the Ekumen. Even in the acting, though, Le Guin shows that he has absorbed Winter's lesson of patience. His mission achieved, the Envoy's attitude toward what he had previously envisioned as a momentous event is clearly native:

After all, a ship setting out at once from the closest of Winter's new allies could not arrive before seventeen years, planetary time, had passed ... And it is a long way back from Winter to the prime worlds of the Ekumen ... fifty years to Hain-Davenant, a man's lifetime to Earth. No hurry. (297)

The great changes he had been expecting he now realizes will affect the immutability of Winter only as their technology has-slowly, like a glacier.

      Josephine Johnson, in her 1934 novel Now in November, while keeping her subject matter homely and modest as she describes a farm family's fall into ruin during a drought year in the Depression, paints a much broader palette in terms of temporal commentary than either Wharton or Le Guin (not to mention Johnson's much better-remembered male contemporary, John Steinbeck. Indeed, there are virtually no references to Johnson's Pulitzer prize-winning novel in The Saturday Review of Literature's massive 1944 report on "[American] Writing Between the Wars"). Yet Johnson uses the cycle of seasons in much the way Wharton and Le Guin use summer and winter-to provide a stable, unchanging backdrop to a story filled with change. "Now in November I can see our years as a whole" begins her protagonist Marget (Johnson 3). What Marget sees looking back is that "[t]he years [are] all alike and blurred into one another" (3), and that in their lives there is no "great ebb and flow or rhythm of earth" (226). Yet in spite of this professed stasis, Marget also sees that "[t]his autumn is both an end and a beginning to our lives" (3), and her final thought in the novel is that "[she] cannot believe that this is the end" (231). Throughout her novel, Johnson juxtaposes the inexorable forward march of the years with the circularity of the seasons. Events that seem new in this spring or summer or fall are shown to have roots going back to springs and falls of past years. Thus the apparent rush of events, she implies, are almost illusions within the immutability of the seasons.

      As Johnson's plot builds from month to month, she includes numerous flashbacks to earlier years on the farm, each time using the device of the month to anchor her readers. For example, she opens her novel in the story's present-a woman in November thinking back to that spring. Immediately, however, she shifts to a spring not of the present year but of ten years earlier, when the family arrived on their mortgaged farm, as her protagonist thinks, "The roots of our life, stuck in back there that March, have a queer resemblance to their branches" (3). That is, in Johnson's omnipresent nature metaphors, the roots of their first year have much influence on the branches of their present one.

      By one-third of the way through the novel, Johnson begins deepening this theme of the influence of past roots. Marget thinks: "This is not all behind us now, outgrown and cut away. It is of us and changed only in form. I like to pretend that the years alter and revalue, but begin to see that time does nothing but enlarge without mutation" (69). Not only do the past experiences inform the present, as a root its branches, but the essential sameness of the years makes present events expected and indeed inevitable: "[t]he awful order of cause and effect" (69), as Marget calls it.

      The final chapters remind us once more that the entire novel has been an extended flashback-a narrator standing "now in November" looking back over the year: "...It is almost two months now since [Mother's] death, and we have gone on living. It is November, and the year dying fast in the storms" (225). In fact, Johnson makes it clear that while we readers have covered ten years in the life of the Haldmarne family, Marget has covered one afternoon telling the story.

     When Marget looks back over the past year, she, and the reader, see major changes: "Love and the old faith are gone. Faith gone with Mother. Grant gone" (231). It seems that any clear chance for happiness itself is gone for Marget and her remaining sister. Just as it has for Charity Royall, change, which earlier in the year had seemed so promising, appears to have brought only tragedy and the need to give in to it. Yet when Marget looks back at the "years as a whole," she, like Le Guin's Envoy, can view events with greater equanimity. If the years are largely the same, then life will go on. Just as the farm that has been seared and burned will return to life with spring rains, so, too, will Marget. "I cannot believe this is the end," she says. "...And if this is only the consolation of a heart in its necessity, or that easy faith born of despair, it does not matter, since it gives us courage somehow to face the morning. Which is as much as the heart can ask at times" (231). It is not the end because the November she looks back from will come again next year, altered but predictable. Just as on Winter, where "at any one point in their history a hasty observer would say that all ...progress ...had ceased. Yet it never has" (Le Guin 99), so, implies Johnson through her seasonal cycle, glacial movement, not that of the torrent, is what will lead to real change for her women protagonists' lives.

      Hanneke Wirtjes, discussing Yeats's "The Wheel," notes that "like Horace, Yeats sees nature as subject to cyclical time and man as subject to linear time" (540). Wirtjes, of course, means "man" in the generic sense of the word, but her statement as written is oddly suitable for this paper. Man may indeed be subject to linear time, to the perceived need to act and accomplish, to "change the world."       What Wharton, Le Guin, and Johnson seem to be saying is that women (and, for Le Guin, humanity) may be subject to a different cycle. Impulsive change may not always be helpful, they all say, while Le Guin and Johnson go on to define an ethic of patience. Not the patience of compliant acceptance-Wharton shows that this is the acceptance of one's "longing for the tomb" of absolute immobility outside cyclical time-but the patience of slow, steady action, as Le Guin's Envoy learned on Winter. When this is combined with Johnson's hope-filled acceptance that, like the seasons, life does go on, we have, as one critic said of Le Guin's work, a "'survival of the fittest' [that] is not a matter of guts or guile, but rather of adaptation" (Slusser 346). Women's situation throughout history has often forced them to adapt; these women writers envision worlds where this adaptation is the best response possible to life on the wheel.

Works Cited

Cogell, Elizabeth Cummins. "Setting As Analogue to Characterization in Ursula Le Guin." Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism 13 (1980): 348-49.

Crowley, John W. "The Unmastered Streak: Feminist Themes in Wharton's Summer." American Literary Realism 15.1 (1982): 86-96.

Hays, Peter L. "Signs in Summer: Words and Metaphors." Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature 25.1 (1989): 114-19.

Huntington, John. "Public and Private Imperatives in Le Guin's Novels." Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism 22 (1982): 268-269.

Johnson, Josephine. Now in November. 1934. New York: The Feminist Press of City U of New York, 1991.

LeGuin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. 1969. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1987.

Morante, Linda. "The Desolation of Charity Royall: Imagery in Edith Wharton's Summer." Colby Library Quarterly 18.4 (1982): 241-48.

"Twentieth Anniversary Issue: Writing Between the Wars." The Saturday Review of Literature. 5 Aug. 1944.

Slusser, George Edgar. "The Farthest Shores of Ursula Le Guin." Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism 13 (1980): 345-348.

Wharton, Edith. Summer. 1916. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1993.

Wirtjes, Hanneke. "Yeats's 'The Wheel' and the Cycle of the Seasons: A Rhetorical Tropos." Review of English Studies: A Quarterly Journal of English Literature and the English Language 42.168 (1991): 532-40

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