Tuesday, May 31, 2011
"Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton
When the book opens, we are being addressed from the first-person narrative of a visitor to Starkfield, one who has seen Ethan Frome but longs to know the story behind his physical appearance. Frome is literally and figuratively a broken man after his "bust-up". The narrator gets his wish when he's driven by Frome in his carriage to a neighboring town; on the way back, a snowstorm forces them to stop at Frome's failing farm for the night.
Once upon a time, Ethan was a brilliant lad with a bright mind. He had gone to college to study science until his father died suddenly; at that point he had to return home to work the farm. When his mother became ill, Zeena (Zenobia) came to help care for the woman. When his mother passes, Ethan is so distraught at the idea of Zeena leaving that he asks her to marry him. Forward to years later and the scene is an unhappy one: the farm barely provides the couple a living, and Zeena is always "sickly". Eventually her illnesses are bad enough to require help of her own, at which point her cousin Mattie Silver comes to live in the Frome household.
Of course Ethan can't help but notice Mattie. She's everything that Zeena is not - healthy, young (Zeena is 7 yrs older than Ethan), and full of laughter. Ethan and Mattie develop feelings for each other, and Zeena becomes suspicious. When she puts her foot down and says she's hired another girl, one who will actually be able to "do something", Ethan is devastated, as is Mattie. They act rashly near their parting moments, with grave consequences.
While I am again impressed with Wharton's ability to turn a phrase, I have to admit that I wasn't as moved by this novella. I certainly felt the pain of two people in love but unable to be together. I could almost feel the cold and the snow of Starkfield. No, I believe for me the fault lies with Zeena. Wharton never explains why Zeena is bitter nor does she explain her illnesses. Is Zeena unable to have children? Is the illness a chronic one, or does she have a new one each time? Are the illnesses real or is she just wanting some sort of sympathy from others, sympathy she doesn't get? I understand wanting the reader to fill in some of the blanks on their own, but her character was written in such a way that I couldn't understand why Ethan married her in the first place, nor could I understand why he hadn't already left her. I also don't agree with some of the reviews on Amazon that say the end of the book shows Zeena to be more than one-dimensional; I thought the final scene showed her to be just as cruel as ever.
Overall I'm glad I read this and I would recommend it to others (especially students needing a short classic!) But this isn't my favorite work by Wharton.