As you can see, I am continuing my theme of reading short classics that pack a punch (à la Passing by Nella Larsen).
I sped through Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton this week. It is my first Wharton novel. It just happened to catch my interest on the library shelf and, at an easy 99 pages, I thought it may be a way of easing myself into her oeuvre.
In the beginning, Ethan Frome looks to me like a man who only wants to see himself reflected in the woman he loves, rather than loving the woman for who she is.
He falls hard for his wife’s cousin, who, 20, orphaned, and unmarried, comes to be a sort of caregiver and helper to Frome’s sickly wife Zeena (Zenobia—isn’t that a great name?).
Ethan’s story starts off with a scene where he is creeping around a church hall, spying on the dance happening inside, and specifically on the young woman, Mattie, with whom he is in love.
He watches her through the windows and then hides in the shadows where she can’t see him. Watching her brief interactions with the various young men, Denis Eady, son of the town grocer, in particular, Ethan’s jealousy mounts.
Turns out, this creeper was there to walk her home and instead of just walking up to her, he decided to creep on her instead. This pissed me off to no end. And because it made me mad, I kept reading. Way to keep me involved, Wharton.
After my initial irritation with Ethan, further reading led me to understand what drove him to seek himself reflected in the eyes of the woman he loves.
First, he led an austere childhood in rural New England in the aptly named fictional town of Starkfield. He cared for sick parents, whose illnesses, coupled with the utter silence in his home, left him bereft of human contact.
The following passage helped me to develop some compassion for Ethan:
There the silence had deepened about him year by year. Left alone, after his father’s accident, to carry the burden of farm and mill, he had had no time for convivial loiterings in the village; and when his mother fell ill the loneliness of the house grew more oppressive than that of the fields. His mother had been a “talker” in her day, but after her “trouble” the sound of her voice was seldom heard, though she had not lost the power of speech. Sometimes, in the long winter evenings, when in desperation her son asked her why she didn’t “say something,” she would lift a finger and answer: “Because I’m listening”; and on stormy nights, when the loud wind was about the house, she would complain, if he spoke to her: “They’re talking so out there that I can’t hear you.”
Can you imagine? Wharton so thoroughly communicates the loneliness Ethan must have felt through those sentences. The silent, oppressive winters of rural Massachusetts are a perfect backdrop.
Given his history, and the fact that his wife, Zeena, has descended into the same preoccupation with illness, along with the same pervasive silence, it’s no wonder Ethan longs to be seen–and simultaneously fears it.
This post is already too long and I feel like I could write a book about this book. So, I will just offer a few more bullet points to sum up my thoughts:
- I loved the character of Zeena. Could have used more development there, but she ended up coming across as a stereotypical nagging wife, in my opinion. Though I suppose Wharton shows us more or less how she might’ve become that way.
- The broken red dish. What a scene when Zeena discovers it!
- Unfortunately, the character of Mattie, Zeena’s cousin and Ethan’s object of affection, is just that. She is a two-dimensional ingénue: simple, sweet, endlessly good-natured, and pretty–and serves only to motivate Ethan’s feelings and actions. That makes the story nice and tight, but I would like to have seen more focus on her perspective. In this book, she’s a device, I think.
- There is a surprising and sad, sad ending. The novel ends in great irony, which I will leave you to discover for yourself.
Goodness, if you read all that, I applaud and thank you!
Obviously, I so loved this book. It’s a quick read, yes, but if you love exquisite writing, you may enjoy lingering over the language and perfectly constructed sentences as I did. Likewise, the tragic events of the plot.