I have never read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I saw the 1993 movie with Liam Neeson but that was so long ago all I remember is a sled ride gone wrong and even my memory of that was way wrong. Not the sled ride, that happens, but the fact that it isn’t an accident was surprising.
Ethan Frome, good book. Stark. But one doesn’t expect verdant when the town is called Starkfield and the story takes place in winter. I should have waited until summer to read this instead of in the midst of a battle between winter and spring where it isn’t entirely certain that winter is going to let go.
The story takes awhile to get going. I’m not sure why Wharton chose to frame it with a narrator from elsewhere staying in town and winkling out the story of Ethan Frome because he is just so curious. I suppose it sets up the contrast between post-sledding accident Ethan and pre-accident Ethan as well as Ethan’s wife Zeena pre and post and Mattie, the woman he falls in love with. The contrasts could have been set up in a different way but I guess I am just quibbling.
We’ve got Ethan, big strong man with a subsistence farm and a saw mill that provides a living but just barely. He is twenty-eight and married to Zeena who is seven years older than he is. Ethan had dreams of getting out of Starkfield. He wanted to be an engineer. He even managed to spend a year away studying but had to go back home when his father died. His mother became ill not long after and lingered on a long time. Zeena was a cousin sent to help Ethan take care of his mother. After his mother died, Ethan was afraid of being alone so made the huge mistake of marrying Zeena. He didn’t love her, he just wanted company.
Zeena turns out to be a major hypochondriac. Eventually the doctor recommends Zeena hire a girl so she has some help around the house. But Ethan can’t afford a servant and arrangements are made for them to take in the daughter of a distant relation who was orphaned. Mattie was not raised to be a maid and is rather high maintenance. Ethan finds her charming and does his best to make up for her mistakes and her lack of abilities. He falls in love with her and thinks that Zeena doesn’t notice. Silly man!
Zeena eventually decides she’s had enough of Ethan mooning around after Mattie and makes arrangements for a hired girl without telling Ethan or Mattie until the last minute. Then there is the sledding “accident” and I won’t go on anymore because I’ve probably said too much already if you haven’t read it.
The book is a good read about being trapped in various ways. Trapped in a small backwater of a town. Trapped because you have no money. Trapped by a fear of leaving the known for the unknown.
Zeena’s hypochondria is interesting. She was healthy as could be before she married Ethan but when he started talking about saving up and selling the farm and moving away to a city Zeena’s “illness” began. Only when there is no possible way for Ethan to ever leave her or Starkfield does Zeena suddenly become well and healthy again.
And Ethan, I feel bad for him but his idea of what love is is rather twisted. To him, love means mastery. He is proud at the “thrilling sense of mastery” he felt when the tone of his voice “subdues” Mattie after she goes into hysterics because she broke a pickle dish that she was not supposed to be using. There are a few other instances where Ethan’s mastery over Mattie makes his heart swell with love for her. He can never love Zeena not because she is ill, but because Zeena holds the upperhand. Zeena has Ethan under her thumb and he is none too happy about it. No equal relationships in this book! It is all about power differentials and everybody sucking everyone else down into the depths with them.
Wharton first wrote this book in French as an exercise to help her improve her French language skills. Then later she re-wrote it in English. It is a curious story to have written in French because it is so very American. I would have expected her to write something about upper-class Americans in France or Italy not a poor town in the mountains of New England. Maybe it was easier to tell the story in French first. Only Wharton knows and she’s not talking.