Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome is an American Classic and required reading at High School, at least in this area.  It’s also been made into a film several times.  So I think probably everyone knows the ending of the story.  I do think it is one of Edith Wharton’s better books.  She began this short novel while in Paris as an exercise in French, around 1911.  It is based on her long residence in the Berkshires, during which time she had come to know well the aspect dialect and mental and moral attitude of the hill people.

Wharton’s novels and novellas that  I have read so far have had an outside narrator to run the thread of the story and Ethan Frome is no different.  As the other books I reviewed, Madame de Treymes. New Year’s Day and one I will review False Dawn are all set in High Society, Ethan Frome is set in poor rural farming New England.

“That’s my place”, said Frome, with a sideway jerk of his lame elbow; and in the distress and oppression of the scene I did not know what to answer…

“The house was bigger in my father’s time;  I had to take down the ‘L’ a while back,”

I saw then that the unusually forlorn and stunted look of the house was partly due to the loss of what is known in New England as the “L”;  that long deep-roofed adjunct usually built at right angles to the main house, and connecting it, by way of storerooms and tool-house, with the wood-shed and cowbarn.  Whether because of its symbolic sense, the image it presents of a life linked with the soil, and enclosing in itself the chief sources of warmth and nourishment, or whether merely because of the consolatory thought that it enables the dwellers in that harsh climate to get to their morning’s work without facing the weather, it is certain that the “L” rather than the house itself seems to be the centre, the actual hearth-stone of the New England farm…

I like the above passage because the house seems to represent their life, the core has been torn away from it.

In happier times when Ethan’s father was alive he went to engineering college, but after his father died he had to come home to run the farm.  His mother fell into a long illness and a distant cousin Zeena came to nurse his mother through her illness.  It was said that if his mother had not died in winter, he may never of married Zeena but he did.  She was about seven years older than him, and not long after getting married she herself sunk into a long time illness. Zeena either needs to be nursing, or be nursed.  Early on they had wanted to sell the farm and move to town, for Ethan to pick up on his studies, but they could not sell the farm.

Zeena had always been what Starkfield called “sickly,”..

So indeed it was an isolated stark life at Starkfield Farm. You feel the hardness of life. The fact that they are trapped, both Zeena  because a woman has to be married to have protection and basically just a place to live and Ethan who cannot sell the farm and resume his studies.

Zeena decides that she needs help and invites her cousin Mattie Silver to come and live with them.  Her parents have died and she has run out of visiting all the family.  It seems a good arrangement for both.  Mattie has not been brought up to cook and clean and these come hard to her, plus the fact that she did not arrive in the best of health.  But in the country she begins to bloom.

Zeena has taken note of  Mattie and Ethan’s growing closeness and makes remarks that one day Mattie will leave and marry, as Denis Eady has taken an interest in Mattie.

“I guess you’re always late, now you shave every morning.”

That thrust had frightened him more than any vague insinuations about Denis Eady…

Ethan looks after Mattie’s interests, picking her up from the village dance.  Watching other young couples going coasting.

“There was a whole lot of them coasting before the moon set,” she said.

Zeena takes note of all this and arranges for Mattie to leave and another girl to come and nurse her, turning Mattie out on her own to fend for herself.  Ethan is stunned, angry and helpless.

Coasting is sledding.  There is a special hill with a giant elm half way down the run; which has to be navigated around, it is dangerous, but still all in the village go coasting.

Here is the stage.

It was a shy secret spot, full of the same dumb melancholy that Ethan felt in his heart.

“Matt! You be quiet!  Don’t you say it.”

“There’s never anybody been good to me but you.”

“Don’t say that either, when I can’t lift a hand!”

On the slow drive to the train stop, they decide to take a coast, the one they had promised to take but never had.

He laughed contemptuously:  “I could go down this coast with my eyes tied!”  and she laughed with him, as if she liked his audacity.  Nevertheless he sat still a moment, straining his eyes down the long hill for it was the most confusing hour of the evening, the hour when the last clearness from the upper sky is merged with the rising night in a blur that disguises landmarks and falsifies distances.

Earlier in the book you think that Ethan may just run off with Mattie, as there is mention of a man in the area who did just that.  But Ethan is a man who knows his duty.

It’s an interesting read, well written.



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