Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

I read this during Virago Reading Week, hosted by Rachel at Book Snob and Carolyn at A Few of My Favorite Things.

I have officially been convinced of the genius of Edith Wharton.  Until recently, I would give her novels dirty looks whenever I saw them, having not forgiven her for (my incorrect high school opinion of) the awfulness of Ethan Frome.  I so deeply hated this book.  It seemed over dramatic, melodramatic, too much fuss over a pickle-dish (what was a pickle-dish anyway?), but most of all, Boring.  I didn’t understand my eleventh grade English teacher’s obvious love and affection for this little novel(la?), how he could be so deeply affected by this simple story of unconsummated love during a New England winter.

Over the summer I decided to give Wharton another chance with Summer, which I liked, but wasn’t quite ready to rescind my previous opinion.  Then in October, I read The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, some of which I enjoyed very much, and others not so much.  Not wanting to attempt one of her larger novels while still unsure about her, I (somewhat reluctantly) decided to go back to the beginning, the scene of the crime, Ethan Frome. Everything seemed to line up, it was Virago reading week and there was snow on the ground (though not as much as in the fictional Starkfield, Massachussettes), it was winter (can you see my love of seasonally-appropriate reading?).

And it was perfect, the exact opposite of everything I thought it was before.  Not the slightest bit boring, I hung on every word.  Even though I knew where the story was headed, it was still heartbreaking to see it tumble tumble tumbling towards its inevitable conclusion.

The initial (present) Ethan we meet is “the ruin of a man,” but (past) Ethan we meet later has within “him a slumbering spark of sociability which the long Starkfield winters had not yet extinguished,” which Mattie’s arrival in Starkfield awakens in him: “All his life was lived in the sight and sound of Mattie Silver, and he could no longer conceive of its being otherwise.”

Although the construction of the narrator ostensibly makes the story seem at least partially contrived (how could he know every thought and feeling of Ethan’s?), I never doubted the credibility of it (much like James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime).  Of course this was exactly how Ethan felt, of course this was exactly how Mattie acted.  (How could it be any different? It all seemed so genuine, so affecting.)

I know I will come to treasure every facet of this little gem (even more than I do now, it seems like one of those books that grows larger and more powerful over time) from Ethan’s past, his family troubles, his unfulfilled dreams, to his present, shriveled, irrevocably trapped human form, but the part that remains most beautiful to me now is his love for Mattie:

These alterations of mood were the despair and joy of Ethan Frome.  The motions of her mind were incalculable as the flit of a bird in the branches.  The fact that he had no right to show his feelings, and thus provoke the expression of hers, made him attach a fantastic importance to every change in her look and tone.  Now he thought she understood him, and feared; now he was sure she did not, and despaired.

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10 Responses to Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

  1. Violet says:

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. I must admit to never having read Ethan Frome, but I keep seeing it reviewed and most people seem to like it, so I’m adding it to the list.

  2. bookssnob says:

    Fantastic review, and wonderful that you’ve had your mind changed about Edith Wharton! I have rediscovered her recently and been bowled over – you MUST read The Age of Innocence next. Thank you so much for taking part in the reading week and sorry I missed your post -you will be up today!

  3. ellen says:

    i had some pretty rough wharton memories from high school too, but in the fall i broke down (i make it sound like wharton was haranguing me for years; really, i guess i just decided she was worth another try) and reread “the age of innocence.” and, oh my god, i had a moment kind of like you had here – i realized that i should never, ever, let my 16-year-old self’s opinion of required reading limit my reading. then i read “ethan frome,” and though i didn’t think it matched up to “innocence,” those descriptions of winter are pretty stunning. it’s almost like the weather and the landscape are a character all their own. and when you hit the end of the novel and see more fully what’s become of ethan and mattie…

    great review. i definitely need to read more wharton this year.

    • I’m not sure why high schools assign Wharton’s work to their students. I feel like you need more perspective to get enjoyment out of them, maybe? But we both found our way back to her, so maybe others will too! The end of the book killed me. I had so much to say about the ending, but I didn’t want to ruin it for anyone who planned to read it!

  4. Great review! I’m so glad you revisited EF as an adult — I didn’t read it in high school and I’m so glad I didn’t. I know I wouldn’t have appreciated it nearly as much as a teenager. Sometimes I think high school ends up ruining classics for people, which I find so sad. I’m glad you gave it another chance.

  5. Darlyn says:

    I recently finished reading this, and I might post my thoughts some time in February. 🙂 I loved it, especially the winter atmosphere and how Wharton depicted it. Also, that pickle dish gave me a lot to think about it. I ended up thinking that maybe it symbolized the destruction of Ethan and Zeena’s marriage.

    • I’ll be looking forward to your thoughts! Yes, and it’s such a good time to read Ethan Frome, in the middle of winter. The pickle dish is much more meaningful to me now than it was on my first read.

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