Saturday, 16 February 2002

Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome (1911)

Edition: Modern Library, 2001
Review number: 1069

There is often a tendency to romanticise American rural life in the days before modern communication, because people admire what they call the "pioneer spirit". When reading accounts from the time, such as the bleaker parts of Laura Ingalls Wilder's memoirs or Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, or this novel, it is clear that it was not in the least an idyllic existence; it was lonely hard work for (in many cases) little return.

The story of Ethan Frome comes in two parts. The framing chapters, a foreword and an epilogue, are told by a stranger who comes to the aptly named New England town of Starkfield in midwinter. There he becomes interested in the figure of Frome, a poor farmer injured in a sleigh accident twenty years previously. The main part of the novel tells the tale of the few days leading up to the accident. Frome's wife Zenobia has over the years since they married (when her vivaciousness provoked a desperate longing in Ethan, lonely after the death of his parents) become a cantankerous invalid, turning the farm's meagre profits into faddish patent medicines. A younger, even poorer, relation of Zenobia's, Mattie Silver, helps Ethan care for her and look after the housework.

The natural consequence of this is that Ethan finds himself increasingly drawn to Mattie, and when Zenobia announces that she has decided to throw her out and hire a girl who will be better at housework, he considers running away with her. But he can't even afford to do this and is driven into a corner from which there appears to be no way to make his life happier.

The other theme of Ethan Frome, then, is doomed desire, first that prompted by desperation (Ethan for Zenobia) then that of one sufferer for another (Ethan and Mattie for each other). The cold winters in which both parts are set, the quietness of the earth covered by drifting snow, form a smothering backdrop for the story which is as appropriate as the heat for Ethan Frome's companion novel of similar themes, Summer. The weather is as symbolic here as it is in the writing of Thomas Hardy.

There is much that is imperfect about Ethan Frome. One of its most obvious flaws is a frequently repeated criticism: the narrator, an outsider to Starkfield, suddenly knows a great deal about the precise actions and feelings of the intensely private Ethan of twenty years earlier. This is clearly a nonsensical conceit on Wharton's part, but the way in which the story is constructed is to a large extent dictated by the way in which she has set up her ending. Flaws apart, Ethan Frome has a strong impact; its atmosphere seems to me as memorable as, say, that generated in Turn of the Screw.

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