Book review: Ethan Frome
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton; afterword by Alfred Kazin. Highly recommended.
Ethan Frome is a powerful story about powerless people. The title character is held in thrall by his parents, his land, his poverty, and his lifeless and loveless marriage. His wife, Zenobia (Zeena), cannot escape the confines of her narrow mind; her imaginary illnesses and the status they give her in a small village like the aptly named Starkfield, Massachusetts; and the meanness of her own life (symbolised by her attachment to her pickle dish and her refusal to use it, even for visits by the minister). Finally, there is Mattie Silver, the relative who has come to help care for Zeena and the house and who has nowhere to go. Interestingly, the three prisoners are related; Zeena is referred to as a cousin of Ethan’s, while Mattie is Zeena’s cousin. Zeena is, literally and figuratively, the central figure who connects them all and who keeps Ethan and Mattie apart.
From his youth, Ethan’s impulsive, reactive nature leads him into trouble. When Zeena helps him out with the care of his mother, who dies and leaves him alone and lonely, “before he knew what he was doing, he had asked her [Zeena] to stay there with him.” It is soon thereafter that he discovers that his loneliness gave him selective vision and that Zeena is more than a good nurse; she’s an excellent hypochondriac. When someone asks him if he lacks money, “‘Not a bit,’ Ethan’s pride retorted before his reason had time to intervene.”
Ethan is hindered from all he desires, whether it’s his technical education, his potential career as an engineer, or the arms of Mattie Silver, by his prevailing sense of duty and honor. Although he feels trapped on his land and in a farming life with which he is not happy because he has had a succession of people for whom to care — first, his father, then his mother, then Zeena — Ethan tells Mattie, “I want to be there when you’re sick and when you’re lonesome.” Later, his last thought before unconsciousness will be about his responsibility to his horse: “I ought to be getting him his feed . . .” He struggles constantly with his need to be free of Zeena and his obligation to take care of her.
Zeena and Mattie are contrasted throughout; Zeena’s lashless lids are nothing like Mattie’s fully lashed lids, which Ethan observes “sinking slowly when anything charmed or moved her.” Her laughter is seen “sparkling through her lashes.” While Zeena is thin and hard, Ethan sees Mattie (in Zeena’s overnight absence) as “taller, fuller, more womanly in shape and motion” than when she is under Zeena’s watchful eye. Light, which brings out the sharp hollows of Zeena’s face as in a horror film, “threw a lustrous fleck on [Mattie’s] lips, edged her eyes with velvet shade, and laid a milky whiteness above the black curve of her brows.” Is this Mattie as she really is, or is this Mattie as Ethan’s loneliness and imagination need her to be?
Around Mattie, Ethan is often overcome by the strength of his emotions. When she serves him dinner, with the cat lying drowsily by the stove in a carefully drawn domestic scene, “Ethan was suffocated with the sense of well-being.” This sense of being overcome recurs throughout their encounters. He doubts that he inspires such a glow. “Could it be his coming that gave her such a kindled face?” He is jealous of every man Mattie encounters, particularly the wealthy Irish grocer’s son, Denis Eady.
Whether Wharton is writing of society New York or rural New England, such an illicit romance cannot succeed, and Ethan’s fails spectacularly — leaving behind people who are emotional and physical wrecks. Zeena is transformed into reluctant caregiver, while Mattie is transformed into yet another part of the trap that keeps Ethan on the farm, impoverished financially, intellectually, and emotionally. His emotions about his fate and that of his would-be lover are never revealed other than through an indescribable look that haunts those who witness it. In life, all are more dead than the Fromes in the graveyard. Ethan Frome is the literary embodiment of Wharton’s quote, “Life is the saddest thing, next to death.”
Ethan Frome‘s framework is awkward; a narrator from outside Starkfield manages to get into Ethan’s home and learn the whole story, which then is improbably told in great detail in third-person omniscient. This detracts only slightly from the novel’s wintry, claustrophobic atmosphere and evocative powers. In her introduction, Wharton calls the reader “sophisticated” and the people of whom she writes “simple” — as stark as the New England backdrop. Yet Ethan Frome, for all his “simplicity,” is a rich, fully realised person as memorable as Newland Archer (The Age of Innocence) — and as tragic as Lily Bart (The House of Mirth).
14 June 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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