Tuesday, November 13, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

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.

The story tells of three people trapped by extreme poverty and by cruel Fate. Ethan Frome, the "hero," married a woman he does not love. He proposed to Zeena, his mother’s caretaker, after the death of his mother, without quite understanding the significance of the commitment he was making. Ethan and Zeena both wanted something other than the poor farming life ahead of them in cold, isolated Starkfield. When it became apparent they were not going to escape, Zeena retreated into the self-absorption of chronic physical ailments, real or imaginary. Ethan, worn down by the demands of the farm and the demands of her illness, tried to turn a deaf ear to her complaints. She grew more and more bitter. He grew more and more withdrawn. And then, Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver entered the picture. A lively, pretty young girl, Mattie’s economic circumstances were even worse than Ethan and Zeena’s. Completely destitute, she was grateful to accept an unpaid position as Zeena’s live-in housekeeper and nurse.

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.


  1. All of the Edith Wharton that I've read for the first time, or revisited, as an adult I've really, really liked. But I've not read this one since junior high, when it was torturously dull. I imagine that revisiting this one might improve my acquaintance with it

  2. I've always wondered why they so often assign Ethan Frome to teenagers when it's so depressing. It's beautiful and painful and compact but doesn't speak to restless young adults at all. Recently teachers seem to be teaching "Summer" instead, another novella by Wharton that was written after Edith's affair with Fullerton. Sometimes called "The Hot Ethan," it's sexier and far more compelling to high schoolers. A definite must-read. I'm so glad my novel made you want to reread Edith. - Jennie Fields

  3. I had to read this for school as well (with a teacher I hated) and lately I've been thinking I might need to reread this after having been exposed to more Wharton works, more sad writing, and more literature in general.

  4. I had to read this one for school as well! It's been ages!