Author: Edith Wharton
Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious, and hypochondriac wife, Zeenie. But when Zeenie's vivacious cousin enters their household as a "hired girl", Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent.
In one of American fiction's finest and most intense narratives, Edith Wharton moves this ill-starred trio toward their tragic destinies. Different in both tone and theme from Wharton's other works, Ethan Frome has become perhaps her most enduring and most widely read novel.
I am just going to get this out of the way, and say this book is screwed up like a soup sandwich. I felt a little run over by a train at the end of it, but that doesn't mean that I didn't like the book.
I picked this book up because I recently read two articles online - one for classics so short that you should be ashamed not to have read the, and one about books to put you in a holiday spirit. I am a reader that needs the atmosphere to be perfect for books, and I love to read wintry books in the winter, summery books in the summer, and so on. Ethan Frome sounded perfect for one of the coldest weeks of the year so far. So I retired to the couch, bundled up, hot chocolate at hand, and read the slim novel of Ethan Frome.
The introduction warns you from the very first, that upon the books first publication, newspapers and journals reviews were harsh; The Saturday Review even declared that they wished they had never read it. I don't feel like I wish I hadn't read it, but the book is bleak. Desolate. Stark and cold and isolated and desperate. The novel begins when the narrator first glimpses Ethan Frome, and wonders what in the world happened to this man with a limp, and the look of a man who is dead and in hell already. He is told that Ethan has been in "Starkfield too many winters" and is only 52 years old, although he appears much older.
The novel flashes back to when Ethan is a young man of 28. He is a farmer barely ekeing out an existence, and every day requires hard laboring. His wife Zeena is a hypochondriac, spending his hard earned money on medications and doctors. Zeena's cousin Mattie is a down on her luck relation, and she lives with the Frome family as a hired girl, helping about the house. Where Zeena is described as tall and emaciated, with an exacting, shrewish demeanor, Mattie is her opposite, pleasant to look at, and to be around with her vivacious, friendly nature. When we enter the story, Ethan is in love with Mattie, and obsesses over her, wanting to be with her. He is jealous of her flirtations with Denis Eady, the son of a prosperous grocer, and stresses out that she will leave the Frome residence to be married to Denis. Ethan is a bit of a creepy stalker with Mattie - one night she is in town at a dance, and Ethan is to pick her up to walk back to their house. He watches in the window as she dances with Denis, and waits in the shadows when the dance is over, and Mattie and Denis walk outside. He is waiting to see if Mattie is going to accept Denis' offer of a ride in his wagon before he announces himself. And when she turns Denis down, Ethan feels triumphant before greeting Mattie and walking her home.
They love each other, but there is no torrid affair, burning up the sheets in the spare bedroom while his wife's back is turned. No, they love each other in shared glances and walks home, where they don't even do so much as kiss. And when Zeena, who has a glimmer of what is going on between her husband and cousin, announces that she is going out of town for an overnight visit, Ethan is excited to be able to "play house" with Mattie, and eat dinner together, him in his stocking feet at the table, just the two of them. And the cat..
This can only end one way - disaster. You know from the beginning that these people are doomed. The tension builds, you wonder, is Ethan going to man up and get a pair, and do what he wants, run away with Mattie? Or what will happen? We are not expecting this instrument of destruction - this child's play toy gone rogue, destroyer of lives. But a moment of play leads to an act of desperation, crazy as it is, further dooming them all.
These characters are all so flawed and hopeless, and trapped by their own devices, yet tragic because their is a goodness in them as well. Zeena was a healer once - we learn that she was one of the best at doctoring and nursing around, and helped when Ethan's mother was dying. But her greatest gift is her downfall, maybe left with no one to help she turns this inward, and becomes a selfish hypochondriac. Ethan is weak, never able to follow through on anything he desires, giving up and taking the easy path his whole life. Yet he doesn't like to see anything, like his old sorrel horse or anyone in pain, and can't cause anyone harm either, like when he dreams of leaving Zeena to go west he can't do it, although he can't bear the thought of sending Mattie away either. At the end of the story, everything is a twisted mess, even Ethan's formerly strong young body.
This tragedy is written beautifully - if you haven't read it, I really recommend you do. It won't take you long, at less than a hundred pages. If possible, pick a freezing cold day.