Friday, December 7, 2018

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

A skillful slice of depressing realism
Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel Ethan Frome takes place in the fictional small town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, a boondock hamlet whose provincial remove from urban centers like Boston and New York is heightened by the paralyzing effect of a frigid winter. The book’s title character, a farmer struggling to get by, is a lifelong member of this community. Ethan once dreamed of leaving his hometown and even studied engineering at the technical college in Worcester, but his studies were brought to an end when his father passed away, leaving him to support his ailing mother. Shortly thereafter, Ethan acquired a wife named Zenobia, or Zeena. At the time the novel takes place the two have been married for seven years, and whatever love may have existed between them has long since passed. Ethan has fallen in love with his wife’s cousin, Mattie Silver, who has come to stay with the couple in order to assist Zeena, who is subject to frequent bouts of illness. Though Ethan’s farm and marriage make him feel trapped in a world beyond his control, thoughts of infidelity, more emotional than physical, offer him a ray of hope for a happy life.

Ethan Frome is a beautiful piece of realist writing, but the world it so vividly depicts is a relentlessly depressing one in which marriage is a trap, no one ever gets what they want in life, and the pursuit of happiness is hopeless and futile. This feeling is highlighted in no small part by the book’s introduction. Wharton begins the story after the fact, with the bulk of the narrative taking place in flashback. A narrator who meets Ethan in the present day describes him as a broken man. The reader, therefore, already knows how the story is going to end, and that foreshadowing negatively taints any moments of hope or optimism towards Ethan’s chances at happiness. It is unclear why Wharton felt the need to tack an introduction and an epilogue onto the story, other than perhaps that sort of literary embellishment was just expected of Gilded Age writers. The novel would have been better off without its bookends. Despite the story’s foregone conclusion, Wharton tries to add a little twist to the ending, but it is not entirely unforeseen and feels more contrived than authentic.

The way that Zeena is written as such a villainous hag, even though she’s the one getting cheated on, is also rather unpleasant. The character of Mattie errs in the opposite direction, as she comes across as too innocent and idealized much of the time, although perhaps the reader is simply viewing her through Ethan’s adoring eyes. It seems unusual that a female writer would choose to draw such one-dimensional female characters, especially an author who clearly demonstrates in Ethan that she has the ability to generate genuine, fully-fleshed, psychologically complex characters. Perhaps Ethan is intended as a male stand-in for all the powerless women before him who had the misfortune to be trapped in loveless marriages with overbearing spouses.

Though I wasn’t completely satisfied with Ethan Frome, most of my reservations are with the plot. As a fan of naturalist literature, I really enjoyed Wharton’s impeccably realistic prose, enough to know that I will likely seek out more of her work in the future. Though this novel is set in Massachusetts, and Wharton moved in New England literary circles, her writing bares less resemblance to the sober verbosity of Nathaniel Hawthorne than it does to the French naturalism of Emile Zola, the regional realism of Willa Cather, or even the early modern realism of John Steinbeck. Ethan Frome is certainly worth a read to those who enjoy naturalist literature, but don’t expect to be thrilled with the ending.

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