Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

My love affair with Edith Wharton continues! I have long heard of Ethan Frome, and I knew it was terribly sad, but I had no idea that it would be so deeply, utterly, tragic. Right from the start, a sense of foreboding simmers under the surface, and the lonely, broken figure of Ethan Frome is both fascinating and frightening. Though it is much briefer than Wharton’s epics of New York society, and it is set in a working class New England community, the common themes that thread throughout Wharton’s novels are still present. Ethan and his neighbours may not be wealthy, or be governed by the strict rules of the social etiquette Newland Archer and Lily Bart fall victim to, but they are still bound by outside pressures that they are incapable of controlling. Just as much as other’s opinions control the way the upper class New Yorkers in Wharton’s most famous fiction live their lives, poverty and loyalty dictate the decisions of the inhabitants of the aptly named Starkfield, whose isolation and severely cold winters lend it a haunting, barren air.

We are introduced to Ethan Frome by the unnamed narrator, whose business brings him to the cold and lonely Starkfield during a particularly bitter winter. Ethan is a well known figure in the town; his family have always lived on the meagre smallholding outside of the main hub, and his crippled body and silent manners mark him out as being clearly different to any outsider. The narrator finds himself fascinated by this crumpled man, whose eyes express a loneliness and suffering he has never witnessed in any other human being. Asking questions among the locals, he finds out that Ethan was the victim of a terrible sledding accident years before, and that he lives with his wife Zeena, and they receive little, if any, company. The narrator engages the taciturn Ethan as his sled driver to help him get to the station through the snow, and on their rides together Ethan gradually opens up, and the narrator begins to learn a little more about his life. When he speaks, Ethan demonstrates a keen intelligence, and a fledgling interest in science and poetry, that belies his silent exterior. One day, when a snow storm overtakes the pair on their way back from the station, even the experienced Ethan decides it is too dangerous to proceed, and so the narrator is invited back to Ethan’s isolated farmhouse. It is there that the narrator discovers the secret to Ethan’s character, and why his eyes are so haunted.

The story then reverts back to a time period twenty five or so years earlier, when Ethan was in his late twenties. An athletic and popular man, he ran his farm the best he could and also took care of his sickly and querulous wife, who had little to say except about her various illnesses, mostly imagined. Recently a new arrival has come into their home in the shape of young Mattie Silver, a cousin of Zeena’s, whose father’s early death and financial ineptitude have left her destitute and with nowhere else to go. Reluctantly Zeena invites her to become a maid in their house, but her youth, prettiness, and joyful character don’t sit well with Zeena at all. Ethan, who married hastily and out of duty rather than love, soon finds himself falling head over heels for the lovely Mattie, whose presence lifts his soul and warms his heart, making his dreary and often frustrating life worth living again. However, Zeena sees the blossoming relationship between her younger husband and cousin, and is determined to get Mattie out of the house. She concocts a plan, but is no match for the passion of Mattie and Ethan, for whom the thought of separation has become unbearable. In this small farming community, however, loyalty and duty are of prime importance, and spare money for adventures or luxuries is virtually unheard of. Trapped in a marriage he hates, faced with the prospect of losing the woman he loves, and bound in every direction by his poverty and duty to his community, ancestors, and wife, Ethan’s ability to take charge of his own life and live his dreams is severely limited. His and Mattie’s eventual decision to rectify their situation has unutterably tragic consequences, but not the consequences you expect; the last page of the flashback detailing Ethan’s past took me completely by surprise, and made me incredibly sad for both of them.

Ethan Frome is one of those books that wrings you dry emotionally. It’s about ordinary people stuck in impossible situations, and how society constructs a web of ties to bind all of us into making decisions and taking actions that pull us ever tighter and tighter, making it often impossible to extricate ourselves from the situations we end up in. Duty, honour, pride, loyalty, moral obligation, guilt, love, fear, cowardice; all of these things prevent us from taking courses that would otherwise lead our lives in different directions. Ethan longs to break free of his harsh existence, in a loveless marriage, on a barren farm, living hand to mouth, struggling to make ends meet. Mattie; fresh, beautiful, vibrant, passionate, is a siren song, demonstrating the richness of life and the joy he could have, if only he could cut his ties and follow his heart. However, despite me wishing that Ethan could throw caution to the wind and run, Ethan’s conscience is what ultimately is his downfall; his obligations to his wife, to his fellow townspeople, to his farm, along with his lack of money to support himself and Mattie, lead him to take the terrible course that leads to the hollow, painful life he eventually lives. All that is left of the hope he once had for a life well lived is his downstairs office, filled with the books and poetry he used to so enjoy. His life’s course, so cruelly charted, has left him with no reason to believe in the beauty and happiness these volumes promise. But could things have been different for Ethan? Could he have taken a different course? Could Ethan have truly been happy with Mattie if he had run off with her, guilt ridden about the sickly wife and failing farm and friends he had left behind? In the same situation, I don’t know what I would have done. As much as I would be tempted to throw caution to the wind and follow my heart, as Wharton shows, life isn’t as simple as that. So much of what we do impinges on the people around us, and if we all threw down the mantle of responsibility and did exactly what we liked, would any of us really be happy, in a world without obligations?

This novella is truly superb. Edith Wharton was a genius. I can’t wait to read my way through the entirety of her ouevre; I haven’t been this excited about a novelist since I found Jane Austen many years ago. What a treat to have so much more to read! And, for those starting out, Ethan Frome is a perfect place to start.

41 comments

  1. I’m so glad you’re discovering one of my favorite writers. I need to plan some re-reading. Though possibly not this one… to me it’s a book that I want to have read, but couldn’t look forward to reading again. I hope you’ll have a chance to visit The Mount in Lenox while you’re here…though there’s a lot of New York in EW too!

    1. I am too, Audrey! I can’t believe it’s taken me this long! I can understand that…it’s very sad. I am definitely going to be visiting The Mount in the Spring! I am excited already!

  2. I still get Edith Wharton and George Eliot mixed up in my head, even though I know they couldn’t be more different, and then I have it in my head that I dislike Edith Wharton. Not good!

    1. Oh Jenny, you are funny! Edith Wharton is so different! I think I like her books better…George Eliot is wonderful but I thinK Wharton packs a greater emotional punch.

  3. Oh, Rachel, I’m in two minds about this! I love Edith Wharton’s writing and had heard about this novel, but I don’t know if I could bear to read it!
    In several of the books I’ve read recently, people’s lives have been circumscribed by the times they lived in, the mores of those times, their communities… Often I find myself thinking, ‘If they’d lived nowadays, they wouldn’t have to suffer like this!’ But, of course, that raises the question of whether, even in more ‘enlightened’ times, there would have been other constraints. I often have to remind myself, ‘It’s a book! She made these people up!’ Doesn’t always work, though, and I suspect it wouldn’t with Ethan Frome!

    1. Penny, it is a heart wringer but I promise, it’s worth it! Well yes exactly – I kept mentally shouting at Ethan to just chuck everything and run, but then I thought – well what if we all just did that? Would I have done it? And I don’t think I would have done! Isn’t it funny how everything can seem so real and vital and terrible when you really get into a book? I always get far too involved!

  4. Rachel, you bring such fresh enthusiasm to a novel that most American teenagers were forced to read in high school and never want to encounter again! terrific review.

    1. Thanks Mumsy! I didn’t realise this was an American High School text – it’s probably similar to how The Lord of the Flies is viewed in England – how I hated reading that book!

  5. We must be thinking along the same lines this week – I just listened to Ethan Frome (had already read it twice). Wharton is a favorite and, if you have time, Summer is the perfect follow-up. Same setting, similar theme, but different season. Wharton referred to it as ‘hot Ethan’. Maybe instead of writing a review myself, I’ll just direct people here😉

    1. Well, JoAnn! Great minds! Oooh Summer sounds very interesting and I will be sure to pick it up next time I’m in the library. I’m assuming the ‘hot’ part refers to the weather rather than the content!!😉

      I would be flattered if you did, but I’d still love to read your thoughts!

  6. I just experienced the beauty of Wharton’s Ethan Frome as well and absolutely loved it! So glad to see you enjoyed it as well — how sad and horrifying for Ethan’s life to be such as it was. And I could not stomach Zeena at all. I do not approve of infidelity as I mentioned in my post, however, I was a bit shocked he didn’t entertain options sooner. Not that he really had any other than Mattie, but I just couldn’t believe Zeena’s overbearing suffocation!

    My first Wharton read was The House of Mirth which was incredible! I might try The Age of Innocence next!

    1. Isn’t it wonderful to be discovering Wharton? I know I just love reading her and I can’t wait to read more. You are going to ADORE The Age of Innocence! I read House of Mirth years ago and remember it blowing me away, but The Age of Innocence really did have a massive effect.

      I know, poor Ethan. Zeena was a nightmare and I felt awful for him, living with such a self absorbed woman who made no effort to make his life comfortable or happy. Why marry someone if you don’t care for them? I was just so angry – but then, she does slightly redeem herself at the end..

  7. I feel the same way about Wharton – I can’t remember the last time I felt so excited to read all of an author’s work. But I’d argue “Age of Innocence” is a better one to start with…I mean, only because I preferred it to “Ethan Frome,” I admit. There were some things I loved about EF, like the descriptions of winter, but the novella as a whole didn’t catch me the same way “Age of Innocence” did.

    1. Wharton has a way of sucking you in, doesn’t she? I completely see what you mean – I only think EF is a good place to start because it’s so short, and if you like the themes and atmosphere of it, you’re certain to thoroughly enjoy her longer novels. It’s a taster, if you will! But yes, The Age of Innocence would certainly still be my preferred of the two!

  8. I haven’t been this excited about a novelist since I found Jane Austen many years ago.
    Me too, me too !!! I’m so glad you are enjoying her work.

    1. There are so many of us Wharton fans out there! Clearly she is more widely read than I thought. I’m so glad you love her too – what a fantastic writer she was!

  9. ‘I haven’t been this excited about a novelist since I found Jane Austen many years ago.’ Now that is high praise indeed! I still rate JA above every other writer but EW comes close!

    1. JA is hard to make comparisons with – no one can beat her for pure reading pleasure, I quite agree! But Edith Wharton, in quality, certainly is not far behind, and I am so glad I have SO MUCH more to read. If only there was so much Jane!

  10. Thanks for the great review, Rachel! You are definitely making me excited to try out Edith Wharton’s work. I read The Age of Innocence when I was a teenager, but now, I’ve forgotten the book. She definitely sounds like an author that makes you think more about the world around you and the forces that impact our choices. I’ll definitely have to give her a try.

    1. You are so welcome Virginia! I am glad to hear it, and I urge you to start reading The Age of Innocence just as soon as you can – it’s superb. What I think is so special about Edith Wharton’s novels is that while they are definitely period novels and beautifully evoke the time they were written in, the situations the characters find themselves in are still very relevant to today’s reader, and are very thoughtprovoking as a result. I hope you pick her up soon and love her as much as me!

  11. You make me want to read everything by Edith Wharton again, Rachel; she is definitely a Jane Austen-level discovery and they don’t come along very often. (That’s why I was so pleased to discover Willa Cather recently.)

    1. Well isn’t that the truth, Mary! There aren’t many novelists of this calibre out there and I am thoroughly enjoying reading my way through Wharton’s work. AND Willa Cather’s, as well – I LOVE her and I can’t believe she isn’t read more.

  12. I agree, Ethan Frome is a great introduction to Wharton, one of my favorite writers. This is frequently assigned reading in American high schools, and I think many young people dislike Wharton because of it — I think can’t appreciate the terrible situation Ethan is in. I didn’t read Wharton until I was an adult, and I loved it, even though it’s so tragic.

    Wharton’s short stories are also great — she was wonderful at dramatic irony. My favorite is Roman Fever. And she wrote ghost stories! Of her other novels, my favorite so far is The House of Mirth. If you liked Ethan Frome you might like Summer, which Wharton referred to as the “hot Ethan.”

    1. Yes I can imagine that this is the sort of book teenagers would hate and consider boring. It’s a shame really, that such beautiful literature is wasted on the young sometimes! (Doesn’t that make me sound like an old woman!!) Wharton is definitely an author you need to read once you’ve experienced life a bit in order to fully appreciate what she’s writing about.

      Summer is definitely going on my reading list, thank you, and I would love to read more short stories. I read and loved Roman Fever a while ago and I keep meaning to read the volume of ghost stories I have on my shelf!

  13. Excellent review, Rachel. Your wonderful writing brings out all of the bleakness of Ethan’s situation and winter itself and makes me want to pluck Wharton’s book off of the shelf when I return home and read it again.

    It has been discussed on your blog before how time changes one’s reading of a book, brings a different perspective and life’s own experience into the reading. Ethan Frome was required high school reading for many of us here in the states and I think this one needs some year’s worth of experience to draw out the story.

    I’m sitting here in MN, visiting family and hunkered down by a major snowstorm, the bleakness of winter nipping at my heals, and the pure joy of reading you evoke on these cyberpages inviting me to read more, and more again and the questions you pose probing. I thank you, Rachel.

    1. Thank you Penny! I hope that you do go home and pluck Ethan off of your shelves!

      Yes I completely agree – as I said above, Edith Wharton’s novels are definitely for an older reader who has seen something of life and can understand the quandaries the characters find themselves in. It’s a shame that so many young people are put off great literature for life when they in school, simply because they read it at the wrong time.

      I hope you are having a wonderful time with your family and aren’t too cold…it’s a pleasure to have you reading along and I am SO pleased that my writing gives you such joy! What a compliment! Bless you, Penny!

  14. The point about a reader’s approach differing over a lifetime was made by Nadine Gordimer just yesterday on Radio 4. Some books are forced upon us too early by school schedules and the like. I think I’m ready for Ethan Frome now. So looking forward to receiving it in the post.

    This afternoon I closed The House of Mirth and wept a little. Now it’s back to The Age of Innocence which I had abandoned for poor Lily after reading your review and others’ comments on HofM.

    I really think Wharton is unique. Nearly every paragraph has some incredibly sharp insight into human nature.

    1. Exactly – I think so many books and authors are needlessly ruined for people because they read them too young, and never shake the negative association they had of a book they were too young to fully understand and appreciate.

      I’m so pleased to hear you are also reading Wharton and absolutely loving her – The Age of Innocence will also make you weep! And Ethan Frome – how exciting that it’s winging its way to you!

      Yes, so true – what an intelligent and perceptive woman she was.

  15. I’m so glad you enjoyed this book. I know a lot of people who encountered it in high school and it put them off Edith Wharton forever. Which is a shame, because it’s a gem. If you’re looking for something absorbing, Wharton’s “The Buccaneers” was never finished, but is still a cracking great read!

    1. Hi Kate! I quite agree – I’m really sad whenever people tell me that reading books in school put them off some of the greatest literature there is – there obviously aren’t enough inspiring teachers out there!

      Thanks Kate – I’ll definitely be looking out for that. I am going to have a Wharton fest soon!

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