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.