Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Since I read it, I’m sorry to say but helpless to change, it has become one of those books I use when unintentionally guaging how well I’ll get along with someone: Did you like The Age of Innocence? If the answer is “no” or, worse, “eh, it was okay,” I cease to foresee any future literary discussions between me and that person. In fact, our relations may end right there. I’m the same way with The Great Gatsby. And look out those of you who hate Henry James: I’m becoming just as unattractively judgemental against those who dislike the Master too. (Don’t worry you haters of Moby-Dick; some books we can disagree on, yet I completely understand where you’re coming from). The hard truth for me, though, is that as much as I loved The Age of Innocence and presumptuously use it as a foundation to my literary pride, I still fail to live up to my passion. I’ve neglected my relationship with Wharton. It took a slim novel, Ethan From (1911), to remind me of the treasure that Wharton’s work is.
If it is possible, I might have loved Ethan Frome even more than The Age of Innocence. Thankfully there is no need to make any decision of that kind. They are quite different and can be loved equally if basing that love on Wharton’s top-quality prose and perfect observations.
Ethan Frome begins with a framing device. The narrator has recently moved to Starkfield, Massachusetts, and has noticed a broken figure of a man sometimes going about his business in the streets. This is Ethan Frome, fifty-two years old. Bit by bit the narrator learns of his history — some disfiguring event happened to Ethan Frome one February twenty-four years earlier. How much credence to give the bits of knowledge surrounding this event is anyone’s guess:
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.
One of my favorite bits of knowledge comes from Harmon Gow. Wharton makes it clear very early that, yes, this is a human drama, but the setting — this poor village in Massachusetts that suffers brutal winters — is very important to her text.
Though Harmon Gow developed the tale as far as his mental and moral reach permitted there were perceptible gaps between his facts, and I had the sense that the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps. But one phrase stuck in my memory and served as the nucleus about which I grouped my subsequent inferences: “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters.”
Winter plays a large, sinister role in this novel, but the underlying truth is that Starkfield itself is the center of this frozen world where men and women get stuck in life, stumbling into relationships for warmth, failing to ever realize spring.
After the brief framing introduction, the narrative slips back those twenty-four years to a time when Ethan Frome was desperately in love with the young Mattie. He doesn’t know how she feels about him.
Watching Mattie whirl down the floor from hand to hand he wondered how he could ever have thought that his dull talk interested her. To him, who was never gay but in her presence, her gaiety seemed plain proof of indifference. The face she lifted to her dancers was the same which, when she saw him, always looked like a window that has caught the sunset.
The central problem is that Ethan has already wed Zeena, and Mattie is Zeena’s cousin, come to stay with them to assist Zeena in the housework. So we witness as Ethan suffers silently, unable to embrace his passion but also unwilling to cut it off. He is truly conflicted, and his internal struggle affects his observations of everything. Here is paragraph where Ethan attempts to discern whether Mattie has any esteem for him:
These alterations of mood were the despair and joy of Ethan Frome. The motions of her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird in the branches. The fact that he had no right to show his feelings, and thus provoke the expression of hers, made him attach a fantastic importance to every change in her look and tone. Now he thought she understood him, and feared; now he was sure she did not, and despaired.
Zeena, for her part, is always sickly — at least, that is her claim. More likely she is a depressed hypochondriac, seeking any way to gain her husband’s attentions, which he no longer wishes to give.
Then she too fell silent. Perhaps it was the inevitable effect of life on the farm, or perhaps, as she sometimes said, it was because Ethan “never listened.” The charge was not wholly unfounded. When she spoke it was only to complain, and to complain of things not in his power to remedy; and to check a tendency to impatient retort he had first formed the habit of not answering her, and finally of thinking of other things while she talked. Of late, however, since he had had reasons of observing her more closely, her silence had begun to trouble him.
We can relate Harmon Gow’s comment — “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters” — to Ethan and Zeena’s marriage. Ethan first met Zeena because she came to assist him in caring for his dying mother. His mother ended up dying in winter, and Ethan simply couldn’t stand the thought of being alone. He admits that had his mother died in the spring, he would not have wed Zeena. But that wedding is now a curse, keeping him from the young Mattie. Now Ethan is forced to enjoy Mattie’s company only on the sly. Toward the middle of the book, the prospect arises that he might have an entire evening alone with Mattie; Zeena has told him that she must travel to visit a doctor:
She continued to gaze at him through the twilight with a mien of wan authority, as of one consciously singled out for a great fate. “I’ve got complications,” she said.
Ethan knew the word for one of exceptional import. Almost everybody in the neighborhood had “troubles,” frankly localized and specified; but only the chosen had “complications.” To have them was in itself a distinction, though it was also, in most cases, a death-warrant. People struggled for years with “troubles,” but they almost always succumbed to “complications.”
Ethan’s heart was jerking to and fro between two extremities of feeling, but for the moment compassion prevailed. His wife looked so hard and lonely, sitting there in the darkness with such thoughts.
I see I’m drifting into plot summary. Wharton’s plotting is fascinating, though, and the story advances quickly. The reader is almost helpless to fight against it, drifting along on the wonderful prose as it takes us into the complicated consciences of the characters. Incidentally, there is more joy in any one of Wharton’s sentences than in most books in their entirety.
I would like to point out again, though, that despite the human drama that pushes the plot forward, this story is not simply about these poor people. This is Wharton’s edict on these small New England villages. Just as Ethan is locked in his marriage, he cannot escape this region, he cannot become something different somewhere else. It is almost impossible to realize his dreams.
Which brings me to my final point. Ethan Frome skirts a Romantic ending and punches the reader in the gut. In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Elizabeth Ammons talks about the book’s initial critical reception and quotes some of the critics. The New York Timeswrote, “Mrs. Wharton has, in fact, chosen to build of small, crude things and a rude and violent event a structure whose purpose is the infinite refinement of torture. All that is human and pitiful and tender in the tale — and there is much — is designed and contrived to sharpen the keen edge of that torture.” I thought I could see the ending clearly. I thought the clues throughout the book were leading me to that Romantic ending suitable of a poet. I was wrong and so much more disturbed by the perfect ending than any Romantic ending could have offered. There’s a cynicism that reveals an ugly undercurrent and that brings on an eternal winter.