Edith Wharton filled her novels with a feeling of ruin, passion and restriction. People can fall in love, but rarely do things turn out well.
But but few of even her books can evoke the feeling of "Ethan Frome," whick packs plenty of emotion, vibrancy and regrets into a short novella. While the claustrophobic feeling doesn't suit her writing well, she still spins a beautiful, horrifying story of a man facing a life without hope or joy.
It begins nearly a quarter of a century after the events of the novel, with an unnamed narrator watching middle-aged, crippled Ethan Frome drag himself to the post-office. He becomes interested in Frome's tragic past, and hears out his story.
Ethan Frome once hoped to live an urban, educated life, but ended up trapped in a bleak New England town with a hypochondriac wife, Zeena, whom he didn't love. But then his wife's cousin Mattie arrives, a bright young girl who understands Ethan far better than his wife ever tried to. Unsurprisingly, he begins to fall in love with her, but still feels an obligation to his wife.
But then Zeena threatens to send Mattie away and hire a new housekeeper, threatening the one bright spot in Ethan's dour life. Now Ethan must either rebel against the morals and strictures of his small village, or live out his life lonely. But when he and Mattie try for a third option, their affair ends in tragedy.
Wharton was always at her best when she wrote about society's strictures, morals, and love that defies that. But rather than the opulent backdrop of wealthy New York, here the setting is a bleak, snowy New England town, appropriately named Starkfield. It's a good reflection of Ethan Frome's life, and a good illustration of how the poor can be trapped.
Even when she describes a "ruin of a man" in a cold, distant town, Wharton spins beautiful prose ("the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow") and eloquent symbolism, like the shattered pickle dish. There's only minimal dialogue -- most of what the characters think and feel is kept inside.
Instead she piles on the atmosphere, and increases the tension between the three main characters, as attraction and responsibility pull Ethan in two directions. It all finally climaxes in the disaster hinted at in the first chapter, which is as beautifully written and wistful as it is tragic.
If the book has a flaw, it's the incredibly small cast -- mainly just the main love triangle. Ethan's not a strong or decisive man, but his desperation and loneliness are absolutely heartbreaking, as well as his final fate. Mattie seems more like a symbol of the life he wants that a full-fledged person, and Zeena is annoying and whiny up until the end, when we see a different side of her personality. Not a stereotypical shrew.
"Ethan Frome" is a true tragedy -- as beautifully written as it is, it's still Wharton's description of how a man merely survives instead of living, hopeless and devastated.
on September 1, 2007
This is a short, intense novel that absolutely gripped me when I read it. The cold, bleak setting seems so appropriate to Ethan Frome's existence. A life full of obligation and duty, with no hint of joy or spontaneity.
Mattie Silver, a cousin of Ethan's wife Zenobia (Zeena) brings a small amount of light and life into Ethan's life. Ethan pays a heavy price for this, as do both Mattie and to a lesser extent Zeena.
This is a sad novel about duty, tragedy and mutual obligation. It is not a light read, but it is a wonderful piece of prose that demonstrates that there is a form of beauty in brevity.
on July 12, 2000
Once in a while you have to put down those current novels, and read some classic literature. And Edith Wharton is one of the best.
This story takes place in the cold, bleak winter farmlands of Massachusetts. Ethan Frome, a poor farmer, has a hard life tending to his land, trying to make a meager living, and also taking care of his ungrateful, demanding, sickly wife, Zeena. When her cousin, Mattie, comes to help her, Ethan's life changes completely. He falls deeply in love with Mattie. This being the 1800's, he must endure the stifling conventions of that era's society also. There love for each other proves to be a fascinating story.
I loved this book. This is a story that will definitely take you away. You'll actually feel you are there. Edith's detail description of the scenery and landscape of that time are truly vivid. I found myself pausing from my reading to look outside to see if it was actually snowing. I highly suggest you find time to read "Edith Wharton's books, you'll be grateful. I certainly was!
In a way, Edith Wharton was at her best in her novellas -- her stories are lean, taut and emotionally deep. That's what "Summer" and "Ethan Frome" have in common, as they look at love, sex, marriage and the conventions of the 1800s. Put together, these novellas are utterly fascinating.
"Ethan Frome" is the male half of a loveless marriage, with the fretful, fussy Zeena. Then Zeena's lovely cousin Mattie Silver comes to live with them, and she brings out a happier, more passionate side of Ethan. But when Mattie is sent away, Ethan must make a decision. He knows he can't stay in his horrible marriage, so will he run away with Mattie? Or will something worse happen?
"Summer" shocked the 1917 public, with its frank-for-its-time look at a young woman's sexual awakening. It takes place in the New England village of North Dormer, where the young librarian Charity lives. But when Charity falls in love with an upper-class young rake named Lucius, she finds herself pregnant and unmarried -- a destructive combination in the 1900s.
Edith Wharton gave unvarnished looks at social conventions throughout her career -- she doesn't judge, she just tells it how it was, whether she's talking about the Roaring 20s or the uptight Victorian era. Divorce was almost unthinkable, affairs scandalous if revealed, and women had the cards stacked against them in matters of love, marriage and sex.
Both novellas also display Wharton's talent for writing characters who were totally unlike her, especially working-class heroes. Charity is an uneducated, naive, rough-mannered young woman, while Ethan is... well, male. Neither is much like Wharton, but she gets inside their heads and makes them entirely believable.
Wharton's formal writing style is offset by the starkness of her stories -- if she took a hard look at Victorian social conventions, she didn't flinch from showing what happened to those that transgressed. (I'll give you a hint -- neither novella has a smooching-lovers-ride-off-into-the-sunset finale) It's realistic, but a bit depressing.
"Summer" and "Ethan Frome" are both tales of love doomed by social conventions, and also two of Wharton's best stories. Sad and beautiful, gripping and classic.
on March 12, 1999
Ethan Frome is the sad story of a hopeless marriage worsened by the blossoming of star-crossed love. Ethan and his invalid wife Zeena resent their loveless marriage and life together. When Zeena's sickness requires additional attention, Zeena's cousin Mattie is invited to Starkfield. Mattie's lovely and warm personality contrasts Zeena's cold character, revealing to Ethan how much is missing from his life. He and Mattie immediately fall in love, but with Zeena's constant presence their love is doomed from the start. All of the characters are well-defined, especially Ethan. Although her writing style is hardly complex, Wharton, a woman, demonstrates an amazing skill in creating a believable sensitive and stern main character. Her vivid descriptions of nature throughout the book create an environment that is chillingly beautiful and captivate the reader. Wharton creates a sense of isolation and regret, often countered content and happiness. Ethan Frome is a classic. Wharton writes a novel that is both easy to follow and sophisticated. The ending is extremely suspenseful with a surprising result. This novel is recommended for anyone who wants to read a short, simple love story.
on January 19, 2014
A story within a story, but with a difference. The main character finds himself, as do so many people, in a marriage that died before "I do" had passed into history. But in "those" days divorce was not possible. Enter stage right the girl that would...if she could... define his life, make things wonderful, create all the elements that we list as essentially perfect for the condition of love; deep and lasting and painfully wonderful and elusive love. And she does as only Edith Wharton can set out in language so sublime, you can feel the pulse of all and know the strain. You can taste the pain! I kept hope he might have the courage to do what was needed... and that's the story of this book, the balance between right and wrong, good and evil, love and despair....life and long-tern dead end nothingness, I wish I could read it for the first time....again. I envy you.
"Ethan Frome," by Edith Wharton, is a fine example of Wharton's skill and power as a writer of fiction. But beyond that, this is a really depressing read. The story is basically a domestic tragedy set in the cold, grim town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. The title character is a poor farmer whose wife, Zeena, seems to be a hypochondriac. Their life together is complicated by Ethan's problematic attachment to Zeena's cousin, Mattie, who has come to live with them.
Wharton's prose is impressive on many levels. She really brings the reader into Ethan's tormented mind, and the effect is heartbreaking. Her representation of American vernacular speech is intriguing, as is her use of foreshadowing. Ethan--"the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man"--is a memorable creation.
Ultimately, "Ethan" is a horrific vision of human coldness, cruelty, bitterness, hopeless, and longing. Despite Wharton's abundant talent, the book is a hard pill to swallow.
on February 26, 2012
Amazon should do everyone a favor and get rid of these poorly formatted "classics" that give all e-books a bad name. This version is completely unreadable with no paragraph indents, a typewriter font and bizarre random breaks in the text. So now I am buying another version. It's not the 99 cents, it's the bother and the feeling that I have been had. This is not th first time this has happened. My kindle is full of useless poetry books where the breaks between the stanzas are missing. If Amazon cared about e-books they would make it a top priority to clear out this trash.
on January 17, 2013
Last week I joined, at the urging of Love at First Book, the Classics Club. What this means is that I vow to read at least 50 classics in 50 years (see my list here). Because classics come with the stigma of being heavy and daunting, I started out with Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton because it's short and I've never read her. Don't get me wrong, I love some of the classics (Pride & Prejudice and Tess of the D'Urbervilles are in my top ten favorite books), but it has been a while since I have read one.
Ethan Frome is a story that pits love against duty, demonstrating that the two are not necessarily the same thing. It is, quite possibly, one of the most depressing stories I have ever read. There wasn't anything catastrophic, per se, but the quiet desperation of Ethan and Mattie was palpable and it broke my heart. Because the story was published in 1911, I imagine the outcome is very different than what it would be if it were written today. This is not a book with a predictably happy ending, and yet it will draw out your sympathetic side.
All in all, it was not a bad way to start off the Classics Club.
on March 14, 2014
WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD
10/8 - Enjoying this short book so far. The story is engaging, the writing easy to understand, Wharton even has a page of notes at the back of the book explaining some of the more difficult words or phrases in the story. Wharton jumps back and forth between 'current time' and about 20 years earlier, she does this without advising the reader of the time change, which has caused me some confusion. There is a perfect description of the landscape of the farm and beyond seen after a dreadful winter storm. The description is so clear I could see exactly what the narrator was seeing - spectacular sunrise, dazzlingly glittery snow and amazingly clear atmosphere after such foul weather the night before. If only you didn't have to have the violence of the storm to have the beautiful morning after. To be continued...
11/8 - I don't usually get themes or hidden messages that authors try to convey through their stories, I just enjoy the book for what it is telling me on the surface. But Ethan Frome's 'message' (if that's what it is) seems to be quite obvious. Wharton seems to be saying that no matter what you do to try to improve your situation in life, fate won't let you. If your fate is to live a miserable life, and you try to make it better (in whatever small or big way), fate will turn those actions around and bring you back to your miserable life, perhaps even make it worse to punish you. The descriptions of the scenery are beautiful but the story itself is quite depressing, but despite the latter I actually enjoyed the story.