Ethan Frome book review
“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story”.
The story, as we will learn, is the strange, sad case of the reclusive Ethan Frome, a New England farmer who, decades earlier, suffered a terrible accident. The “smash-up” has left him with a vivid red gash across his forehead and shortened and warped his right side so that “it cost him a visible effort to take the few steps from his buggy to the post-office window”. Tall, gaunt, and grizzled, Ethan is the most striking figure in the town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, and the narrator, who’s spending the winter there on business, is driven to learn his story.
By questioning the his landlady and various townspeople he learns that Ethan was studying to be an engineer but had to leave college when his father became ill, and was never able to return. Apart from that, the people who know Ethan are unwilling to say any more.
The narrator (who is never named) needs to get to the train station each morning in order to travel to his job at Corbury Junction. When the horses in the livery stable fall ill, someone suggests he hire Ethan to drive him to the station, implying that Ethan could use the money. Coming back from one of their journeys, the two of them are caught in a blizzard; Ethan offers to shelter the narrator for the night:
“It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story”.
The rest of the story is told in flashbacks. As a young man, Ethan is recalled to his parents’ farm when his father is ill; after he dies Ethan must stay and work the farm. When his mother, too, becomes ill, a distant cousin, Zenobia (Zeena) Pierce arrives to act as her nurse. After several yers his mother dies and Ethan, suddenly afraid to be alone, asks Zeena to marry him. She, who was as healthy as a horse when she was caring for his mother, turns sickly and demanding. They invite Mattie Silver, a young cousin of Zeena’s, to board with them and help out around the house. Mattie was left destitute when her parents died and has no prospects or means of living on her own. Although Ethan resents the idea at first, from the moment he picks Mattie up from the station he’s smitten. She’s sweet-natured and lovely with a naturally outgoing disposition – pretty much the direct opposite of Zeena – and Ethan falls in love with her. Passing the graveyard, it occurs to him that, “We’ll always go on living here together, and some day she’ll lie there beside me.”
Zeena, who’s nobody’s fool, sees the growing attachment between Mattie and her husband and, quite naturally, resents it. She hints that Mattie, who is not adept at housework or nursing, will have to leave one day; Ethan cannot bear the idea and tries not to think about it. The more he cares for Mattie, the more he realizes the regrets the impulse that led him to marry a difficult, nagging shrew.
Zeena leaves for an overnight visit to consult with a specialist; on her return she informs Ethan that’s she’s much sicker than he knows. She has “complications”, and Ethan knows immediately what that signifies:
“Almost everybody in the neighbourhood had ‘troubles’, frankly localized and specified; but only the chosen had ‘complications’. To have them was in itself a distinction, though it was also, in most cases, a death-warrant. People struggled on for years with ‘troubles’, but they almost always succumbed to ‘complications'”.
According to Zeena, the doctor has told her she’s too sick to do anything at all around the house. She must have a properly trained hired girl live with them and to that end, Mattie will have to leave. This is terrible news for Mattie, who has nowhere else to go and no way to support herself. Nothing Ethan can say will change Zeena’s mind. Distraught, he fantasizes about running away with Mattie, but knows his finances, or lack of them, make it impossible.
On the day Mattie is to leave, Ethan drives her to the station; they both know they will never see each other again. They stop at a hill and, on a whim, they borrow a sled and coast down to the bottom. In her despair, Mattie begs him to take her down again and this time run the sled into a tree so that they’ll be killed and never have to part. He refuses at first but finally, seeing no way to go on living without her, he agrees.
They crash headlong into a large elm tree, but, unfortunately, they survive. I say “unfortunately” because the ending is worse than if they had died. Mattie is left paralyzed, and becomes a sour, embittered woman, old before her time. Zeena, who had insisted she was close to death, miraculously revives. She brings Mattie back to live with them and becomes her lifelong caregiver. Day after day, hidden away from the rest of the community, the three of them live a lonely, isolated existence. Zeena does the housework and nursing, Mattie sits in her chair and complain, and Ethan does his best to keep a roof over their heads.
“I think it’s him that suffers most,” the narrator’s landlady says. “Anyhow, it ain’t Zeena, because she ain’t got the time.”
She goes on to say there was one day, about a week after the accident, when everyone thought Mattie couldn’t live.
“Well I say it’s a pity she did. … And I say if she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have to hold their tongues”.
Edith Newbold Jones, who used her married name of Wharton when writing, was descended from wealthy English and Dutch American merchants. Her family took summer vacations in Europe and owned a large house in the fashionable seaside resort of Newport, Massachusetts. It’s said that her father’s family was the inspiration for the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”. For much of her career, Wharton’s writing concerned the manners and mores of American high society, in particular the monied elite of old New York. It was a world she knew well; some critics, in fact, disputed her ability to write about anything else, especially the isolated backwaters of rural New England.
Those critics, of course, were wrong. Ethan Frome is the best-loved of all Wharton’s books, and has been compared to a kind of fairy tale, in terms of its moral concepts. In Mattie Silver she created a character fully representative of the plight of women living in isolation and dependence: the young woman’s naturally affectionate, easygoing nature is crippled by the harsh New England winters, and the brutality of the culture at the time. Zeena, married to an impoverished farmer, has only two courses available to her for achieving status: she can be known and pitied for her ‘troubles’ or celebrated for her nursing. As for Ethan, having had to decide between doing his duty and following his heart, he chooses to do his duty, and is punished for it.
A starkly beautiful, harrowing tale that will stay with you long after you read it.