Friday, March 11, 2011

Thoughts: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

"All the long misery of his baffled past, of his youth of failure, hardship and vain effort, rose up in his soul in bitterness and seemed to take shape before him in the woman who at every turn had barred his way. She had taken everything else from him; and now she meant to take the one thing that made up for all the others."

Even if I had never read one of her books, I usually thought of Edith Wharton as a chronicler of the travails and heartbreaks of the upper class, a class where she belonged. So, I was surprised when I discovered that her novella Ethan Frome is about a poor farmer.

The story is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator who’s new to the town of Starkfield. The narrator’s curiosity is piqued when he sets eyes on the disfigured Ethan Frome. One of the townspeople says that Frome has “spent too many winters in Starkfield.” Through a flashback, the narrator, along with the reader, learns all about the tangled and completely tragic lives of Ethan Frome, his wife Zeena, and her young but poor cousin Mattie Silver.

There are no heroes or villains in Ethan Frome. There are merely people who cling to every last bit of happiness in order to survive in their bleak surroundings. Ethan blamed Zeena for his miserable life, but he was the one who chose to marry her simply out of his fear of loneliness. Zeena hides behind her illness, but she was capable of taking care of Ethan’s sick mother when they first met. There’s obviously something more to her.

Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie aren’t the only characters in the book. Winter plays a vital part in the story. Wharton’s descriptions of Starkfield winters are lush, and I could almost feel the snow falling on my shoulders and the coldness of the air. Somehow, the season echoes the bleakness, coldness, and maybe even hopelessness of the characters’ lives. Ethan marries Zeena after his mother dies, because he’s afraid of being alone on his farm during winter. This beginning sets the tone for the rest of their lives, and has dire consequences on their future.

Also, I recently read The Awakening by Kate Chopin and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert—both are about women who commit adultery. Gender wasn’t an issue in Ethan Frome, but I liked the contrast between the protagonists of the three books. They all struggled against the constraints of the lives they chose for themselves or were thrust into. Funny enough, the female characters in The Awakening and Madame Bovary were braver than Ethan, and infinitely more assertive of their desires.

Ethan Frome was a beautiful book that made me experience a Starkfield winter with my breath fogging in my face and my hands trembling from the cold. It was short and very sweet. I look forward to reading more of Edith Wharton’s books.

Rating: 5/5

Note: No one I know personally has read Ethan Frome, so I don’t have anyone to talk to about the ending. So, if you’ve read this book, what did you think?

14 comments:

fatbooks.org said...

great post, i think we feel almost exactly the same about this book...the winter descriptions were, like you write, so lush that i felt as though winter itself was a character. also like you, i thought wharton wrote only about the upper class, so it was a pleasant surprise to see how well she writes the life of a farmer who's never experienced the privileged life of, say, lily bart.

-- ellen

Trish said...

I've only ever read some of her short stories but I keep seeing great reviews for this one. I'll have to add it to my TBR pile.

Stephanie M. Hasty said...

what do i think of the ending?...hmmm...changes every year i teach because the kids are so darn good at persuading me to think this way or that. my initial reaction was i hated zeena for forcing ethan into a marriage and then forcing him to stay in it and then forcing him to commit such a violent act. this year the kids (honors soph eng) were all about hating mattie, pitying zeena and chastising ethan for being weak and easily persuaded by the women in his life and his 'duty' to a decaying town and farm. this year i also have mostly girls in all of my classes...so it's interesting to get to visit this book and its dynamic characters over and over and over. :D

Beth said...

Interesting. I read this book during the winter of the previous year and remember thinking that if I stepped outside the ground would suddenly be covered with snow. The bleak, winter landscape sets the tone for the entire piece. It was beautiful and depressing all at once. I, too, was amazed at Wharton's ability to capture the essence of a character she had no experience with. I enjoyed the novel enormously, and am glad to hear you did as well. The ending was, well, fitting. Wharton always goes out with a gloomy bang. I'm not sure I felt that Ethan should have been punished for his desire for a life with Mattie. It seemed more than simply physical. However, I often question the attraction between a character so deeply depressed and his desire to have Mattie. It seems like a way to escape. This post has encouraged me to re-read my copy.

Zibilee said...

My husband actually prompted me to read this book, but he sort of gave away that there was a twist to the ending, so I was looking for it, and it didn't have quite the same impact on me that it should have. I had a curious reaction to this book because when I finally turned the last page, I almost hated it (except for that twist) and as the years have passed by, I grew to love it, and now want to read it again. I do agree with you that the winter scenes evoked such a great degree of realism and ambiance to the story.

Avid Reader said...

I loved this one, so heartbreaking. The ending was so poginant. To Ethan, Mattie embodied life and hope and everything good that he was missing in his stale life. Then in the end she becomes one more tie, completely void of joy and life, holding him in his horrible situation. So tragic.

Brenna said...

This was the first Wharton I read as well. I thought it was beautiful. She sure does have a knack for writing fantastic heart-breaking endings.

Kristi said...

This was my first experience with Wharton and I was impressed. It's so heartbreaking. I thought the choice of sledding was kind of dumb, but it didn't keep me from enjoying the book. It's sad that they were all essentially trapped in their situation.

Sam said...

I haven't read any Edith Wharton - just never felt drawn to until now.

I can see why people compare Anna Karenina to Madame Bovary but to me Anna was just so much better. I did enjoy Madame Bovary but found it harder to relate to the characters and their decisions. Tolstoy took you deeper into their minds in Anna Karenina, if that makes sense?

Trisha said...

I loved Ethan Frome when I read it. The story is just so wonderfully bleak and authentic. I found the lead male character heartbreaking. I wasn't thrilled with the ending, but I don't think you are supposed to be; it just continues the endless sadness of the story.

Nymeth said...

I found this beautiful too, even though Wharton broke my heart and then STOMPED on it. Such a bleak story.

Allie said...

I absolutely LOVE Edith Wharton and this is my second favorite of hers (The House of Mirth is number 1). And this title beats out so many other great novels...

Yes, she is certainly bleak, but she writes so beautifully that you simply get sucked in to her worlds. This one appears far more simple than some of her others (and it is definitely different in WHO is focuses on), but the story and the emotion it evokes at the end just gets me every time. Every time I reread it, it makes me cry because you have to feel for all of the characters at the end.

I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Aarti said...

Wow, I don't know if I want to read this after seeing how gut-wrenching and depressing it can be! Though in a way, that makes me want to read it MORE because only really great books can do that to you!

I love that you compared this to books about females committing adultery, and the universal feelings associated with that.

Rebecca Reid said...

I've read two novels and two novellas by Wharton (this being one of them) and this was my least favorite. The ending just was so abrubt, as a whole I found the whole thing rather blah, except for the wonderful winter descriptions. Great writing. It just has such a different feel from the other Wharton's I've read. (Age of Innocence and House of Mirth were the biggies.) I don't know, now that I'm commenting, I'm wondering if I need to revisit the novel. I can't really defend myself here as to WHY it didn't move me....

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