Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

How shall I read Ethan Frome? It's my first Edith Wharton novel. My studies in early 20th Century American literature are grossly lacking, so I fear I lack the proper reader's tools to appreciate all that I should. I'm left mystified, and wishing for enlightenment. I can only unravel my questions by spoiling the plot thoroughly, so be warned.

Ethan Frome tries to be a distinctively New England story, albeit with a decidedly particular slant on what it meant to be a New Englander. Wharton's own preface states: "…I had an uneasy sense that the New England of fiction bore little—except a vague botanical and dialectical—resemblance to the harsh and beautiful land as I had seen it. Even the abundant enumeration of sweet-fern, asters and mountain-laurel, and the conscientious reproduction of the vernacular, left me with the feeling that the outcropping granite had in both cases been overlooked." As an upstate New Yorker who now makes Massachusetts her home, I always know I've left my old home state for my new one when granite cliffs greet me just over the state line on I-90. New England has a stony spine underneath. I wonder what Wharton would think of our suburbs and strip plazas and central air today. Her "Starkfield" is a cold, stoic, frozen New England town. The landscape and the weather are a powerful presence, almost a character in their own right. The story's central problems directly relate to winter – snowstorms, blocked roads, even sledding. Starkfield seems always to be under the iron grip of snow. The entire novel, though it spans decades, all takes place in winter, as though winter was all that New England ever knew. Even the recollections voiced by townspeople almost never seem to acknowledge the existence of summer, or spring.

Ethan Frome is the subject of the story, and the unnamed narrator proclaims him to be "the most striking figure in Starkfield" on page one. I spent the remainder of my read waiting impatiently for that claim to be justified – for Ethan Frome to prove himself a worthy object of sustained interest. I believe we're meant to see him as a strong, silent type – lean and rugged, with deep inner passions – granite made human, as it were. But I couldn't quite sustain that view of him. I read him as someone with a social disorder and a crippling fear of loneliness, something we would now diagnose and treat with social skill therapy. It fits perfectly with his year spent "at the technical college in Worcester." As a graduate of WPI's rival technical college, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I've known plenty of people whose moody reticence is not caused by a fascinating inner greatness, but by paralyzing shyness, plain and simple. Not so glamorous, but there it is.

Wharton's writing is as spare and economical as her hero is, punctuated with shafts of great beauty. Her sensibilities may resemble Frome's: "He had always been more sensitive than the people around to the appeal of natural beauty. His unfinished studies had given form to this sensibility and even in his unhappiest moments field and sky spoke to him with a deep and powerful persuasion. But hitherto the emotion had remained in him as a silent ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He did not even know whether any one else in the world felt as he did, or whether he was the sole victim of this mournful privilege." Indeed it is this aesthetic sense that does much to make Ethan Frome sympathetic and interesting.

Frome is a tragic hero, a restless mind trapped into a stultifying marriage he entered into in a rash and vulnerable moment in very young adulthood. By the end of the story the outward details of what happened are plain enough. But even after re-reading the ending twice, I still wonder, what happened? What did Miss Mattie say to Ruth Varnum? Why could Ethan have lived, if Mattie had died? What's the real state of Zenobia's soul, then and now? The author acknowledges, as does the narrator, that this is a story where you wonder right throughout whom one should believe. Every perspective on the narrative can be ignorant, or biased. Even the principal chunk of the narrative, written in third person, and supposedly pieced together and deduced by the narrator (which makes little sense, really), can perhaps be doubted. Except I'm not sure what Mrs. Wharton had in mind there, and while I understand there's a whole school of critical thought that says, in effect, "Phooey on what the author meant, the text is all we have," I still can't help feeling that Mrs. Wharton took confusion too far, or else I missed something. If it's meant to be a "YOU figure out what really happened" kind of story, then I want to chuck it out a window.

The back jacket flap of my 1986 paperback (first publication, 1911) calls it a "story of great love shadowed by tragedy." I don't call it a great love. It's infantile, and a bit embarrassing. Ethan seems wholly susceptible throughout. Not a man of heroic passions, but pitiably weak and indecisive, suggestible. He has my sympathy most in how he shoulders up under his poverty. Am I applying a moralistic judgment to his choices? I hope not. I can empathize with his plight, but it's of his own weak-willed creation. The final outcome would seem to support that sense of embarrassment. He's not even allowed a tragic hero's glorious death. Even that gets botched. Does that not perhaps make him all the more tragic?

And yet, and yet, the very fact that I'm scowling and fussing over this story means that Wharton has done something interesting. She's challenged me, she's vexed me, and every argument that I mount against the story can itself be a reason to take another look at it. I'm reminded of the aggravation I felt at reading and critiquing The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I didn't love the book when I read it in college, but I couldn't dismiss the superb control that created it.

For all that it bothered me, I couldn't put it down until I was done. It's a short book and a swift read. I may not race out to buy another Wharton novel (tell me if I should, please) but I often find that I learn as much, or more, from books that I don't love as I learn from books I gobble like candy. I'd love to hear thoughts from others who've read and studied the novel. Enlighten me.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens: Tracing Roots in Wodehouse & Tolkien

As a child, I reread my sister’s copy of Little Women until my mother bought me my own, which I then lovingly destroyed. But I never made much sense of Chapter 10, “The P.C. and P.O.,” where the four March sisters conduct a meeting of their own Pickwick Club and induct Laurie as a member. Each sister goes by the name of a Pickwickian.

I could only scratch my head.

I recently read Jane Smiley’s biography of Dickens, in which she describes how The Pickwick Papers, first appearing in serialized form in March of 1836, made the young Charles Dickens an almost overnight literary sensation. I had never read the novel, so I set out to do so, despite Smiley’s warning that modern readers find the novel largely inaccessible. I can’t fully dispute that charge, but it ought not to be the case. Though long, rambling, episodic, and at times seemingly unfocused, The Pickwick Papers is still hilarious, snarky, rich, ridiculous, and enormously worth reading.

But more on that to come.

The Pickwick Papers is an early farce, and the first flexings of the literary muscle that would dominate (and partially create) the 19th Century novel, and indeed, all English prose fiction since. Even if modern readers may overlook Pickwick, it’s clear to me that generations of authors have known and loved the Pickwick Club, and it has sent tendrils of influence into modern works. Below are just two I noticed.

The first is a clear line connecting Pickwick to the huge catalog of farces by the comic master, P.G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s genius is undiminished in my eyes by the discovery that his formula for success had a precedent in Pickwick. His most successful Bertie and Jeeves novels provide the best illustration.

Both Pickwick and Wodehouse follow a band of bungling gentleman bachelors around the English countryside. The characters are useless but endearing, bickering but loyal when tested. They roam from house to country house, falling in love and spreading havoc. The main character, always aloof from matters of love, is nevertheless far from immune to getting into embarrassing and compromising scrapes with women, including prompting a breach of marriage contract suit (something perennially threatened in Wodehouse’s comedies). The main character is wholly dependent on his loyal, streetwise, practical commoner servant. Sam Weller and Jeeves are quite different personalities, but both are memorable originals, and both, in fact, make their series. Both Jeeves and Sam Weller provide needed cohesion for their respective episodic adventures. The Pickwick Papers’s serial sales began to soar when Sam Weller entered the narrative.

Both Dickens and Wodehouse employ a superabundant cast of memorable characters and recognizable types. Both authors display an affectionate regard for their (anti-) heroes’ follies. The Pickwick Club is a roaming pack of innocents, led by Mr. Pickwick, whose genteel manners may be more polished and mature than his companions’, but whose wisdom isn’t much greater than that of his younger charges. They’d all be lost in the woods still were it not for Sam Weller. The same could be said for Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.

Let’s look at another pair that I can’t help thinking traces its roots to Mr. Pickwick and Sam – Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. I still have Tolkien on my mind from my January rereading of Lord of the Rings, but in Frodo and Sam I couldn’t help noticing the replayed dynamic of a master who is painted as noble of character yet greatly in need of the practical, worldly-wise, common sense service of his loyal Sam in order to survive, that I saw in The Pickwick Papers. The bond between Frodo and Sam caught my attention more on this recent read, and puzzled me. I had nothing more than Tolkien’s word and Bilbo’s money to persuade me why Frodo deserved to be “Master,” and Sam his loyal subservient, yet that loyalty and that gulf of rank and superiority between them was acknowledged, understood, and even revered (by Sam) throughout. By contrast, the deep affection between Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller rang much more believably to me, and yet I wonder to what extent all such master-servant relationships in British fiction are idealized, perhaps, as a means of attempting to reconcile a fundamentally unequal social structure?

Be that as it may, Sam Weller is endlessly endearing, his spontaneous similes are delicious, and I wish I had Mr. Pickwick for a friend. This is one way Dickens shines for me, especially in his comic novels. His affection for his characters is ever-apparent, no less so for his allowing them to make convivial nincompoops of themselves. And the wit that pervades his narrative voice is a fountain that never stops bubbling and spilling over the sides. No wonder the book made 24-year old Dickens a star.

All this said, The Pickwick Papers isn’t a perfect read for time-pressed readers in 2011. It’s LONG. It’s episodic. It meanders at first, and ramps up slowly. It takes a bit of time to hit its full comic stride and confidence (cue Sam Weller). Before long the affectionate irony of the colorful narrative voice is in full bloom, a source for constant laugh-out-loud delight, but for me at least, it took some chapters to get my bearings. Again, thank heaven for talented audiobook actors. Mine was narrated by Patrick Tull, and published by Recorded Books, and I cannot imagine a greater talent to bring all the characters to life and to add so much humor and nuance to the production.

So if you’ve got 36 hours of drive time to spare, find The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens and narrated by Patrick Tull. Give yourself time. It’s okay if your mind wanders now and then. Sam Weller will get you where you need to be, on time, well dressed and fed, with a pint in your fist and a guinea in your pocket. I grieved when it ended, and smiled for a long time after.