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.


  1. Julie, it may be a bit strange getting a comment in August about a post you wrote in February, but it really made me think. I hate Ethan Frome, but I re-read it just to make sure. I felt cold even in August in GA, and not just from the descriptions of the weather. I agree that Ethan is not a hero of any kind. A trapped animal, a tragic pathetic man, controlled by his mean, bitter, shrew of a wife. The Hellish threesome they find themselves in at the end strongly reminded me of Sartre's "No Exit." "Hell is other people." For Ethan, Mattie and Zeena this is certainly true, trapped in that kitchen with almost no visitors for years. And they all live wretchedly ever after.

    There's a lot of untreated mental illness in great literature I've noticed lately, and without it maybe there wouldn't be any. To Wharton's credit she deftly describes the New England winter, and her characters do come to life the most awful ways: the mean bitter spirit of Zeena, and Ethan's helplessness and painful shyness. The relationship between Mattie and Ethan is drawn beautifully and painfully sweet, which is remarkable since it is so ephemeral. She has a gift for capturing the world she saw around her and the weaknesses and flaws people. You can't argue her gift with the written word. I just don't have to like this particular piece. It leaves me cold inside and out. I don't particularly like or respect any of the main characters, Zeena for her meanness, and Mattie and Ethan for their weakness. For Wharton I prefer "Age of Innocence," Newland is still pathetic and ineffectual, but he nothing truly horrible happens to him, and he is at least reasonably happy with May.
    I've really enjoyed reading some Chekhov short stories. He had a similar hand at capturing the weaknesses and pettiness of the men and society around him, but somehow I find him a little less hellish, and there is often a good bit of humor, and a lot of melancholy, but then again, I was a Russian major, so I am undoubtedly biased. Kerrie

  2. I don't know how it is that I'm only just now discovering your very thoughtful reply, almost a year and a half after the fact, but thank you for it! I appreciate the recommendations, and will read AGE OF INNOCENCE and hunt for some Chekhov. Comments like yours, from a reader very willing to engage in real critical depth, are a wonderful reward for blogging. Happy 2013 to you. -- Julie