“Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay” (Metalious 3). This is the first sentence of Grace Metalious’ famous novel Peyton Place, which was published in 1956. This sentence promises a sexually loaded book, and the reader will not be deceived if he or she reads on. The, back then, outrageous contents of the novel, of which a lot are of a sexual kind, were the reason why the book became famous; the storyline itself is rather simple. The main characters, Allison MacKenzie, her mother, Constance MacKenzie, and Selena Cross are introduced one after another, as well as a couple of other characters, that live in the small town called “Peyton Place”. That these three are the most important characters is not apparent straight away, as other inhabitants from “Peyton Place” are also introduced at some length, but that they are becomes obvious in the course of the plot - also by their involvement in sexual action.
In the first of three parts that the book consists of, Selena and Allison are both 13 years old. Allison, who is interested in books and in a way ‘lives in her own world’, is not keen to have anything to do with sex, but is rather “bewildered by her peers’ interest in boys” (Wood 3). At her own birthday party, the teenagers play a kissing game, in which Allison does not want to participate. Instead she calls the numbers for her guests, who then have to kiss in the darkened foyer. Before the party is over, one of Allison’s classmates, Rodney Harrington, kisses her against her wish, which makes her cry and awakens an unknown and misunderstood sexual desire in her. Not knowing what sexual desire feels like, Allison thinks she is in love with Rodney, and is badly deceived when she goes to the school dance with him and he takes off with Betty Anderson, whom he likes because she is sexually explicit. This part is also the first explicit sex scene described in the novel. Betty arouses Rodney and then runs off as a revenge for him asking Allison to the dance. Ruth Pirsig Wood claims that the novel deals with “the effects of sexual self-indulgence and of sexual repression” (5). Allison belongs to the latter category, but by choice. After being deceived by Rodney on the night of the dance, she abandons her sexuality for another two years and then finds it awoken by Norman Page. As Norman is not able to fulfill her desires, Allison stays sexually repressed, until years later she sleeps with a married man she has fallen in love with - who does not love her in return but only wants sex. Norman himself is sexually repressed by his mother, who “believes that Norman, even in his mid-teens, should not think about the opposite sex” (Wood 5). This upbringing leaves him faint-hearted and when he has to go to war several years later he is given a medical discharge because of a mental inability to work as a soldier. Allison and Norman are two examples of the bad outcome of sexual repression. Allison becomes unhappy because of falling in love with a married man and Norman remains a shy boy who is being repressed by his mother, even after having grown up.
But, sexual self-indulgence is not pictured any better than sexual repression. Rodney Harrington, for example, uses girls to fulfill his sexual desires without thinking of the effects for them. In this he matches Betty Anderson, who also does not restrain her sexual needs. The result is that Betty falls pregnant by Rodney and wants to force him to marry her. To solve this problem Rodney talks to his father, who in turn bribes Betty to have an abortion done. Because Betty does not want that she has to leave town to give birth to her illegitimate child and is abandoned by her family. Rodney’s ‘punishment’ for his sexual self-indulgence is his death when he causes a car accident, being drunk and looking at his date’s bosom. Another character who self-indulges sexually is Lucas Cross, who rapes his step-daughter Selena for years and impregnates her. After the town doctor illegally procedes an abortion, he drives Lucas out of town with the warning never to come back, or else he will call the Sheriff. When two years later Lucas nevertheless returns in the middle of the night and tries to rape Selena again, she kills him while trying to defend herself. Here, ‘justice’ is done to the sexually self-indulging Lucas.
A more ambivalent character is Constance MacKenzie, who undergoes a development from being sexually repressed to having a ‘normal’ relationship with her own sexuality. When she is young she has an affair with a married man, Allison MacKenzie, and gets pregnant from him. Shortly after her daughter Allison is born, the father of the child dies, but leaves some money to Constance. With this money she is able to afford a life in Peyton Place, where she pretends to be a widow. Ever since then Constance is scared that someone might find out about her secret and does not let anyone near her. She does not even tell her daughter the truth. Constance is not sexually liberated until her to-be husband, Tomas Makris, makes her tell him the whole story. The result is overwhelming: “’I didn’t know it could be like this, so comforting, with nothing to fear.