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.