Friday, March 11, 2011
Thoughts: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
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.
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?