Reading Ethan Frome is my first exposure to Edith Wharton’s writing. That admission makes me wish, once again, that I had paid more attention in high school English classes and taken a more English literature classes in college. The edition that I borrowed from the local library features an introduction by Bernard DeVoto. I suspected I was in trouble when he used the word “dithyrambs.”
Edith Wharton’s text is finely crafted. The writing is formal, proper, precise, and a bit spare. Owing perhaps to that spareness, Ethan Frome is a novella; the edition that I borrowed is 181 pages long, not including the introduction. It begins with an unnumbered chapter that serves as a prolog and is set in the recent past from a first-person narrator’s perspective. The main narrative concerns a few days twenty years earlier in the life of Ethan Frome, his wife Zenobia (Zeena), and Zeena’s cousin Mattie Silver, who lives with them and serves as Zeena’s housekeeper and cook. A final chapter serves as the epilog, set once again in the more recent past.
Zeena is presented first as a sickly woman, although it is suggested that she has worn herself into this condition by helping Ethan care for his ailing mother. Zeena is no longer capable of fully meeting Ethan’s needs. Ethan enjoys Mattie’s company much more, and he learns near the end of the main narrative that she has feelings for him as well. A crisis arises that threatens to separate them forever. Ethan and Mattie discuss several options for escaping the crisis and remaining together, finally settling on a drastic course of action that—minor spoiler alert—ends in a way that they do not anticipate.
Mr. DeVoto tries to convince the reader that Edith Wharton did not care about her characters and how they got on (or didn’t), that the perfectly constructed story was her sole aim. I’m not convinced, but I will let his assertion stand without further comment. Ethan Frome does remind me of other characters from American fiction. His desire to have Mattie for himself, despite her being pursued by at least one eligible bachelor, reminds me a little of Ichabod Crane from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Ethan’s tendency toward unfaithfulness also reminds me of Clyde Griffiths from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, who sets aside and ultimately causes the death of his pregnant shop-girl girlfriend Roberta Alden in his pursuit of socialite Sondra Finchley.
Ethan Frome is one of twelve works of fiction that Karen Swallow Prior discusses in her outstanding book from 2018, On Reading Well. Each work of fiction is analyzed as a story about a virtue. Swallow Prior treats Ethan as an antitype for chastity. I’ve read half of the twelve works that Swallow Prior discusses; the rest are on my to-be-read list and I’m thinking of making the reading of them one of my goals for 2020.
If you’re a competent reader, and you’ve never read Ethan Frome, it could take you as little as a couple of hours to finish. That would be a couple of hours well spent.
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