When I finished The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, a novel of the life of Edith Wharton, I knew I’d have to move one of Wharton’s classics to the top of my list. The Age of Innocence has been sitting on my shelf for a good while, but for some reason I felt compelled to re-read the novella Ethan Frome instead. I read it in high school, and while I couldn’t remember it in too much detail, I vaguely remembered the plot. I recalled the impression of it being the bleakest, most depressing novel I’d ever read. Was it really that bad? I had to read it again.
It is a downer. However, since my high school days, I’ve been exposed to a great deal of bleak reading material--not all of it fiction--so Ethan Frome didn’t retain quite the power to depress that it had back then.
Set in a fictional New England town in the dead of winter, an unnamed narrator tells the story of a mysterious local figure, the partially paralyzed, physically arresting Ethan Frome.
Of course, Ethan and Mattie fall in love. Zeena senses their growing attraction and attempts to banish Mattie. But everyone’s plans go awry and the three are trapped even more cruelly.
The story is told in such a way that everything is seen from Ethan’s perspective. Zeena is a sour, scheming, hypochondriac whose only joy in life seems to be making other people miserable. Mattie is sweet, innocent, and tragically unlucky. And Ethan is stoic and accursed.
However, there is more than one side to every story and this time around I had a bit more sympathy for Zeena’s position. Young Ethan seemed more pitiably weak. And I found Mattie to be a bit stupid. There is plenty of tragedy to go around in Ethan Frome, but I’m not so sure that it is as inevitable a tragedy as I believed it to be the first time I read it. Fate is certainly cruel to Ethan, Zeena and Mattie but their own poor decisions are just as much to blame.