The first reference I ever heard relating to Ethan Frome came from one of my all time favourite movies, Grosse Pointe Blank when Martin Blank, killer for hire, runs into his old high-school English teacher and asks;
Are you still, uh, you know, inflicting all that horrible Ethan Frome damage? Is that off the curriculum?
I didn’t really get the joke as Wharton is not on the curriculum here, but I could appreciate that it may be the US equivalent to that other A Level misery fest by Thomas Hardy, Jude The Obscure.
I’ve never read any Wharton before, the closest I’ve got is watching The Age Of Innocence, and so I was under the impression that her novels were insider critiques of the upper classes. When I decided to take partin the Wharton Review hosted by the brilliant Brona’s Books, I picked Ethan Frome rather randomly and I’m glad I did as it features a landscape and characters that couldn’t be further from that world. I’m also glad I wasn’t forced to read this in school at the age of 14. Isn’t it funny how age and experience change what you get, and what you want, out of literature?
A little browse around the internet would suggest that Ethan Frome is the most depressing book ever written. And it is depressing, I can understand why people either love it or hate it. Wharton uses the framing device of an unnamed narrator, who, through flashback and hearsay tells the story of Ethan Frome in a manner that explicitly juxtaposes the past and present. The narrator hires a damaged husk of a man–Ethan Frome–as his driver during his stay in the town of the aptly named Starkfield.
He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of it’s frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters
A chance visit to Frome’s home makes the stranger speculates on Frome’s downfall, after which point the novel takes us back to the events that culminate in Frome’s disfigurement and current plight.
Young Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to eke out a bearable existence with his difficult, hypochondriac wife, Zeena whom he married out of a sense of duty. To add to his troubles, he has fallen for Zeena’s cousin Mattie, their live-in ‘hired girl’, seeing in her all the potential and possibilities that he has lost.
What follows is an abject telling of a love triangle, which may be reciprocal but is not acted upon.
But hitherto the emotion had remained in him as a silent ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He did not even know whether anyone else in the world felt as he did, or whether he was the sole victim of this mournful privilege
This is a scenario that is all about stagnation, repression, and resentment, with the potential affair being representative of Ethan’s wish for freedom, for a different life. Add in the puritanical nature of both the place where the Frome’s live and their way of life and you have a love that doesn’t so much allow Ethan to soar, as to cripple him under the weight of his guilt and self-loathing. It is not what is done that creates the pain in this brutal little novella, but what is wished for. Hope does not bring relief, but instead brings Ethan and Mattie an awareness of the cage life has placed them in, through both chance and choice. Fate is certainly cruel to Ethan, but his own actions are as much to blame for his plight.
It’s a simple story – that of lovers who cannot be together so decide never to be apart – but it is given a timeless dignity and passion by Wharton’s elegant and measured prose, the rhythm and pacing of which perfectly matches the themes and characters of the story. For me the love affair wasn’t the central tragedy, rather it was the depiction of Ethan as a man whose life has gone wrong at every turn and who sees no possibility of turning it in the other direction. I was caught up in the poetry and the misery, knowing that when the crash came, it would be devastating. Ethan Frome is proof that sometimes the greatest horrors aren’t expressed in the details. It deliberately forces the reader to imagine the twenty years of frustration, entrapment and obligation that occur between the first and final chapters, and to visualise the emotional pain that has been endured by these three tragic characters. Can there be any more painful description of a life as when Mrs Hale says;
…the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard
Because they are tragic, all three of them. The book is obviously being imagined from Ethan’s point of view, but the women fare no better, worse maybe. Mattie is reduced to being cared for by the woman she wished to usurp, while Zeena must live daily with the realities of her husband’s infidelity and Ethan’s disfigurement seems almost like a moral retribution for his attempt to escape his life.
Wharton includes enough ambiguity to make the reader empathise with all of them, even Zeena, who may be seen as the easy villain of the piece, but whose life and health has been blighted by the fact that her husband married her out of obligation. Of them all, I found Mattie the least interesting character and in some ways that doesn’t matter. She is the vessel for Ethan’s hopes, and at the end is shut up in that stifling farm house, a symbol of what was never to be.
It’s a haunting story, slight but packing a punch, sad and despairing yet an evocative questioning of how the choices we make and the situations thrust upon us can shape our lives, for better, or in this case, for worse…..
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