Fat Books & Thin Women

Classic Read: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

Probably the best thing that came out of my studying for the GRE was my brief abandonment of flash cards to reread Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I am pretty sure I read this in high school, but my memories of it were vague, unpleasant, and largely written over by my repeated viewing of the Gossip Girl episode in which the students of Constance Billard are acting out the play in typically self-absorbed fashion.

Now that the GRE is over I can do what I’ve been wanting for months, and get back into reading more of Wharton’s work. I’ve always halfway thought that most of the classics I read in high school were ruined because, well, I was reading them for high school, and rereading The Age of Innocence helped me realize that those books don’t have to reside in a permanent state of ruin and agonized five-paragraph essays. Wharton’s portrayal of the restrained society of Newland Archer and the manner in which he and Ellen Olenska resist their mutual love in order to protect his fiance and then wife, May, is heartbreaking; the more so when, at novel’s end, we glimpse the lives of Newland and May’s children, and their repudiation of many of the social mores that had held Newland away from Ellen.

I am not, however, writing because I have re-reread The Age of Innocence, but because I moved on to Wharton’s Ethan Frome, formerly known to me as “that book where they sled into a tree.” The book couldn’t be more distant from The Age of Innocence in terms of the society Wharton describes, and I was impressed by how she represents this sort of hardy, farming New England lifestyle as well as she does the excesses and restraints of New York society. (This book was a good reminder to me, hater of Boston and hot toddies and riding jackets and all the other things I imagine compose New England life, that not every New Englander is a graduate of Harvard.)

Ethan Frome is a short book, and I suspect that the general story is familiar to anyone who has been through a high school English class, skimmed Wharton’s wikipedia page, or read the back cover of the book. The title character, Ethan, lives with his wife Zenobia (Zeena for short) on a failing farm in a small town in New England. Ethan married Zenobia seven years before the story at book’s center occurs, and did so in some haste; Zenobia is his cousin, who came to care for his mother when her health failed. Afraid of being left alone, Ethan asked Zeena to marry him, after which she sought to distinguish herself by becoming even iller than his mother.

Wharton shows the illusions under which Ethan and Zeena marry, their dreams of greater things, and because we come into the story years later, when Ethan is a crippled man in his fifties, still eking out a living on his farm, it’s almost heartbreaking to glimpse the heights they dreamed of reaching early in their marriage. Here’s one of the earliest descriptions of Ethan, coming from the unnamed narrator of the book:

He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface…

Zeena, too, has changed with the years and become almost a part of the landscape; “Zeena herself, from an oppressive reality, had faded into an insubstantial shade.” While the reasons for the Fromes’ fading in Starkfield can’t be wholly applied to Zeena – there are a lot of mitigating factors, like the difficulty of selling a barren farm in order to move elsewhere – it’s her reluctance to move somewhere where she might get lost that Ethan seems to pick as the reason for their hard and constricted lives in this small town.

She chose to look down on Starkfield, but she could not have lived in a place which looked down on her. Even Bettsbridge or Shadd’s Falls would not have been sufficiently aware of her, and in the greater cities which attracted Ethan she would suffered a complete lose of identity. And within a year of their marriage she developed the “sickliness” which had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances.

Ethan and Zeena bring out an orphaned cousin, Mattie Silver, to act as Zeena’s nurse and help, and over the year that Mattie is with them Ethan begins to fall in love with her. Wharton does a striking job of showing Ethan’s mute inability to communicate this love, or much else, with Mattie for most of the novel; although he’s only 28 when the novel’s major event takes place, he seems far older.

It’s never flatly stated whether Zeena realizes that Ethan and Mattie have developed feelings for one another, but that’s the likeliest explanation for her sudden decision to send Mattie away to an uncertain future and hire on a new girl to care for her. Ethan wavers on how best to act, whether to attempt running away with Mattie (but as in the early years of his marriage, he has no money with which to escape Starkfield) or to act the dutiful husband by Zeena’s side. The decision is ultimately made for him by Mattie’s decision, after they pause their final trip to the train station to take a sled ride, to, well…sled into a tree, thus ending all earthly miseries and keeping them together forever and blah blah blah.

Predictably, things don’t work out as well as they did in Mattie’s fevered imagination. Neither Mattie nor Ethan dies, but their lives are irreparably twisted and brought to a sort of ruined pause. Neither of them will ever get out of Starkfield, and though they may spend their lives together – in Zeena’s home – they are both changed sufficiently by their sledding accident that this time is nothing more than a joyless counting of the years.

Wharton leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination here. One of the things that attracted Ethan to Mattie was her personality, which could probably (unlike mine or Zeena’s) be described as “sparkling.” We only see Mattie one time after the accident, and the shift in her personality suggests that she belatedly realizes she made a Big Mistake when she told Ethan to sled into that tree, and that Ethan’s been feeling that for over twenty years.

Besides her apt characterizations, Wharton describes New England winter so fully that it feels almost like a character itself. Before entering into Ethan’s story, the narrator writes:

But when winter shut down on Starkfield and the village lay under a sheet of snow perpetually renewed from the pale skies, I began to see what life there – or rather its negation – must have been in Ethan Frome’s young manhood.

Or this description of the landscape:

…above the fields, huddled against the white immensities of land and sky, one of those lonely New England farm-houses that make the landscape lonelier.

Or this description of snowfall:

…the snow began to fall straight and steadily from a sky without wind, in a soft universal diffusion more confusing than the gusts and eddies of the morning. It seemed to be part of the thickening darkness, to be the winter night itself descending on us layer by layer.

Ethan, Zeena and Mattie all seem subsumed by the loneliness of this landscape, and the story is ultimately as bleak as what the narrator sees as the negation of life in Starkfield during winter. And Wharton doesn’t shy away from this bleakness, from “the hard compulsions of the poor”; rather she shows how Ethan’s, Zeena’s, Mattie’s dreams of heading out into a larger world, are all made impossible by being poor and by honoring too strongly commitments to others, however rashly they were made.

I didn’t like Ethan Frome as much as The Age of Innocence, but it’s still a good one. (Dumbest summation of a review ever.)


Coffee and a Book Chick’s review
– the one that reminded me I wanted to read this book.

A good post on the unnamed narrator of the book. Indeed, he does read a lot like a novelist.

Ethan Frome at Project Gutenberg



A very nice review and a wonderful blog. I’m jealous of your theme. Sweet. Cheers, Kevin

Comment by Kevin Neilson

I’m so glad you picked this up — I felt the same in that although I liked Ethan Frome, I much preferred The House of Mirth much more. I do need to pick up The Age of Innocence soon!

Comment by Coffee and a Book Chick

reading this has gotten me even more excited to read wharton. i think the house of mirth is next up.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

The House of Mirth was my very first Wharton read — and between that and Ethan Frome, I think The House of Mirth is definitely favorite. You will not be disappointed by that. I also saw the film that Gillian Anderson starred in, and I thought it was a fairly good version of Wharton’s story. I’ll need to see that film again, though, it’s been years.

Comment by Coffee and a Book Chick

[…] D. Salinger – Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (11/25/10) Edith Wharton – Ethan Frome (11/19/10) Suzanne Collins – Mockingjay (11/17/10) Suzanne Collins – Catching Fire […]

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