Summary: (via Goodreads) Best known for her satirical depictions of the manners and mores of New York society, Edith Wharton shows her mastery of a far different milieu in this classic story of a farmer who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a tyrannical wife.
Review: Edith Wharton, was a woman born into great wealth who had a keen sense of how to create great fiction out of that which she saw in the social circles of the upper class. For this most part, her literary efforts worked out beautifully, endowing all generations past her time with glimpses of what once was through such classics as The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence and The Buccaneers.
In the novella Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton steps away from that which she knows (i.e., lavishness, propriety, the upper-class) and tries to examine life from the view point of someone located closer to the bottom of the social strata: Ethan Frome is a poor New England farmer who has been dealt a difficult hand in life in terms of love and money.
From a young age, Ethan had natural ability and curiosity that made him believe he could make something of himself, but an inevitable series of ill-fortunate events find him (at age 28) the owner of a failing estate and married to the sickly and wretched Zeena. Still, Ethan’s youth and strength, as well as his budding love interest in Zenna’s cousin, Mattie, keep his dreams of a better future alive despite his pitiable circumstances. Sadly, this being the tragic tale of a man who never got what he desired or deserved, it ends on a gloomy note which find our protagonist still tied to the estate and to Zeena, but this time, deprived of his health or any hope.
I like the contrast Wharton creates between her three main characters, and the melodramatic events that ensue as their lives are intersected. Despite living in a small and sleepy New England town, Ethan, Zeena and Mattie, live lives filled with emotion and desires. Zeena is the oldest of the three; her poor health and general misfortune make her bitter and possessive. She is a villain, but not by choice. Mattie is quite different. She is young and naive and filled with romantic notions about life. She makes us think about how Zeena could have been were it not for her ill health. Ethan falls in the middle. A marriage contract binds him to Zeena, and his desire for youth attracts him to Mattie. Being that he’s near 30 years old, making a rash decision in picking either woman comes with lasting consequences for everyone. This is the tale of three people bound by love and a great deal of misfortune.
I’ve read some reviews of this book which criticize Wharton’s attempt at writing outside her scope of knowledge and attempting to penetrate the mindset of a class she knew very little about. Others point to the over-use of dramatics and gloom to make up for the lack of understanding. I would have to disagree. To me, the story’s preface serves as an explanation for all this. Ethan Frome has a fictitious preface, written in the form of an author’s note, which set-up for the rest of the story. In it, Wharton explains that the writer of the story is a female journalist spending some months in a small town in New England. While working on a news story, this journalist runs paths with a disabled older man by the name of Ethan Frome, whose stoic nature captures her attention. Since she knows so little about him and basic propriety prevent her form asking too many questions, this journalist lets her imagination fill the gaps. What she comes up with it Ethan Frome, a tale of tragedy. It is this preface that gives meaning to why the story might be seen as watered-down and overly dramatic, because in essence, what we have in Ethan Frome is nothing more than the byproduct of a momentary lament of a writer whose imaginations was briefly captured by the sad face of a stranger.
I never hesitate to pick-up one of Edith Wharton’s works when I need reminding what good literature feels like.
LitSnit Verdict: B+