Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome

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.

20 thoughts on “Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Well, Trevor, I’m certainly with you on The Age Of Innocence. It has a habit of getting into my top ten whenever such conversations arise. It’s a masterpiece. And like you, other than the almost as good House Of Mirth, I simply haven’t ventured further with this great writer. I like to imagine it’s because I’m leaving the rest of her oeuvre for a ‘rainy day’ or whatever. In truth I’m doubtful anyone can keep that level up over more than two or three books and I’ve lazily attested to such conjecture by not picking anything else up! I will read this, at some point; I’ve got a copy of the NYRB New York stories in the pile as well.

  2. Rhys says:

    Well Trevor…….I have never read any Wharton …but now you have revealed your great opinion of her I might try her…..

  3. This is one of Edith Wharton’s books that I read with great regularity Trevor and the punch in the gut happens every single time…

  4. I’ve read a fair bit of Wharton (including those New York stories Lee mentions, which I love) but Ethan Frome is one that I am saving for one of those “rainy” days when I know I need a great book. This taste tends to confirm that I can count on it to deliver when I do read it.

    I’d add The Custom of the Country as another example of why Wharton is a great author.

  5. Tony S. says:

    Fortunately my opinion of Edith Wharton is similar to yours, so I guess I pass that litmus test. I’m trying to define my own list of litmus test authors. It would include Patrick White and Dawn Powell for sure, maybe Michel Tournier, etc.

  6. Trevor says:

    Hi everyone. How exciting to see such a positive respone to Edith Wharton. And that so far no one has to get blocked from commenting. Just kidding about all that, of course. I welcome all opinions here — just don’t expect me to countenance them all :).

    Lee — I have the same problem you do. When I read a brilliant book I sometimes hesitate before reading more by that author for fear it will disappoint. I’m very pleased that didn’t happen here, and I have reason to suspect it won’t happen with The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country (thanks to Kevin).

    Rhys — Let’s get rid of this conditional “might.” It will be a treat, I promise ;)

    DGR — I can imagine it actually gets worse each time because the ending would loom.

    KFC — I’m anxious to read more Wharton and for you to read Ethan Frome. It will certainly get you out of any reading rut. I’ve got several books that I’m saving for such ruts, but I’m happy to say that I’m currently enjoying everything I’m reading immensely.

    Tony S. — I still haven’t read Patrick White or Dawn Powell. I picked up The Vivisector a while ago (haven’t quite had the courage to open it) and was actually just yesterday perusing Dawn Powell’s collections in the Library of America. I don’t know her at all, but that she is one of your litmus authors makes me much more anxious.

  7. Guy Savage says:

    I remember discovering Wharton and feeling shocked that I’d never read her before. Then I read as much as I could through the course of one summer. The Custom of the Country is my all-time favourite of those read. She’s a superb writer.

  8. Lisa Hill says:

    Phew, I thought Age of Innocence was a wonderful book too so our friendship doesn’t need to be tested LOL. On the strength of knowing that you reviewed it kindly, have just downloaded it to my Kindle for the princely sum of $2.99. It comes with some other short stories too!

  9. Kerry says:

    Ethan Frome is one of my absolute favorite novellas ever. Apparently, my reticence about picking up another Wharton is a common theme. My excuse is that this one was perfect in about 100 pages and The Age of Innocence is considerably longer. Maybe I only liked her short stuff. Bad reasoning, but it has become clear from this and other reviews that I must pick up The Age of Innocence soon.

    Thank for the great review. It brings back delightful literary memories. I am fired up for Wharton’s other work and I may have to re-read Ethan Frome too.

  10. Trevor says:

    I’m still fired up about Wharton’s books, though it has now been over a month since I readthis one. My wife and I bought The House of Mirth last year when visiting Edith Wharton’s lovely home in the Berkshires. Shall pull it out soon!

  11. Kevin says:

    Ethan Frome is one of those books I recommend to everyone, from low- to high-brow readers. Your post has gotten me excited to read The Age of Innocence, which is standing upright on a shelf, looking at me right now. What else of Wharton’s should be read?

  12. Nicola says:

    Dare I say it? Lily Bart is my favourite literary heroine and I prefer The House of Mirth to The Age of Innocence. I really need to read Ethan Frome, though, great review.

  13. A disturbing opening Trevor. Who would have thought that there could be people who have read Age of Innocence but don’t think it’s brilliant? I find the very idea shocking. If someone did say that I could only surmise they read it in a poor translation rather than the original.

    Oddly, I’m like you in that I’ve failed to live up to the passion Innocence inspired in me. I’ve not read on, which is peculiar. I think perhaps I was afraid other titles by her wouldn’t measure up. It’s reassuring to hear that this one does.

  14. Trevor says:

    Nicola, I’m happy to announce that I started The House of Mirth this morning. I usually like to spread out my readings of a single author, but since I feel I’ve already neglected Wharton enough, that wasn’t the best plan here.

    Max and Kevin from California, it sounds like, from the comments above, that when deciding what is the best of Edith Wharton (i.e. what must be read) there are four contenders: The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and The Custom of the Country. Does anyone consider another of Wharton’s books to be in that list?

  15. Lee Monks says:

    And The House Of Mirth has THE BEST opening, possibly, of any novel I’ve read. It’s heart-stoppingly brilliant.

    I haven’t read any beyond TAOI and THOM but I certainly will at some point.

  16. That’s the four I hear of in that category Trevor, I’m aware of other titles but they don’t generally get put in quite the same light.

    There is a Pushkin Press edition of one of the less well known Wharton’s though that I’ll be trying at some point. My impression is that it’s one of her more minor works though.

  17. I’ll be a little bit contrarian and suggest that you should adjust Wharton reading to your mood, much as you should with James. There is no single best, it depends on how you are feeling at the time. I agree with the four volumes cited ( and think that House of Mirth tends to get the short shrift) but would certainly add the NYRB collection of her New York short stories to the list of essentials. It is particularly useful for “train” reading when you want to both start and finish on the journey.

    I have the Pushkin book Max mentions (Glimpses of the Moon) and am saving it for my next Wharton moment. I’d also recommend the Hesperus version of The Touchstone which is a wonderful, very dark novella that has her at her introspective best.

  18. Trevor says:

    Thanks Kevin. I must say, I’m in the mood for Wharton now and finding The House of Mirth excellent. Her writing, regardless of the subject, is so captivating and revealing.

    As much as I love her New York novels, though, I find them quite different from Ethan Frome and the New England described there. And certainly which one I want to read at a moment would depend on my mood (though I have a suspicion that starting a Wharton book one will, if not in the mood, find the mood soon).

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