Monday, November 18, 2013

Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome

A sign inside Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts, says:

Edith Wharton did not write happy endings. Her stories feature the lost chance; her characters yearn for someone to join them in that innermost room of the soul.

Having recently visited Wharton’s home, I wanted to read more of her writing. I began with Ethan Frome, which she wrote in 1911 while still living in the Berkshires. Those mountains and their harsh winters set a stark tone for the story of Ethan Frome. Even the town is named Starkfield. Consider one of the narrator’s first impressions of Ethan Frome: “There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man …” A longtime resident described Frome’s off-putting appearance this way: “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters.” The snows in this rural small town were formidable as “white waves massed against the garden-fence.” As Ethan Frome transports the narrator in his horse-drawn buggy, the narrator notes: “… We came to an orchard of starved apple trees writhing over a hillside among outcroppings of slate that nuzzled up through the snow like animals pushing out their noses to breathe.”

Many such descriptions symbolize the suffocation of Ethan Frome’s love and dreams. Although I admire Wharton’s masterful telling, I find the story she tells to be depressing. Ethan marries Zenobia out of gratefulness rather than love, falls in love with Mattie, and ends up despairing of being loved by either of them. I won’t reveal how that actually happens. I suppose because Ethan sacrifices for decades to support the two women and care for their ailments, this could be called a love story. However, although committed to Zenobia and Mattie, Ethan finds no joy in his service to them. Compared with Wharton’s soaring descriptions of Mattie’s and Ethan’s rosy hopes and orange-flamed desire to escape together, what they are left with feels like gray ash—not even smoldering embers.

The sign in Wharton’s home proves true for this novel.

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