Reprise Books

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton


Like peeling an onion, the tale is unravelled bit by bit

He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface...” Meet Ethan Frome, one of American writer Edith Wharton’s memorable characters, from the eponymous short novel written in 1911. Though Wharton based her more famous books in New York, including The House of Mirth and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence, she set Ethan Frome in New England, choosing to tell the bleak but beautiful story through winter in a desolate Massachusetts farmhouse.

The narrator hears the story “from various people,” and each time, it is a different story. Who is Ethan Frome? Why is he a “ruin of a man”? Why has he been in Starkfield too many winters?

Like peeling an onion, the tale is unravelled bit by bit; how Ethan meets and marries his wife Zenobia; why her cousin Mattie Silver comes to live with them; the unfulfilled love story between Ethan and Mattie — and the great tragedy that awaits them, entangling three lives in eternal despair.

Cold red sunset

Ethan Frome, who has “always done the caring”, who stayed behind to look after his folks, also takes responsibility of Mattie when she loses her mobility. Wharton wrote this novel two years before her own divorce with the banker Edward Wharton who she had little in common with; and after her passionate affair to journalist Morton Fullerton.

In the book, mirroring her reality perhaps, Ethan has little in common with his wife, but makes a connection with Mattie “with a shock of silent joy” as they watch “the cold red of sunset behind winter hills.” When she says to him once, “It looks just as if it was painted!”, it seems to Ethan “...that words had at last been found to utter his secret soul.” All along though, there’s a sense of dread. In her biography on Wharton, Hermione Lee writes that she “chose unfulfillment for her lovers... for that is what life is like, she tells us.

‘Perhaps we are even meant to feel that there is some value for the soul in not getting what you want.”

Edith Newbold Jones was born into wealth in a townhouse in New York in 1862, but the red-head was a bookworm and a dreamer. Brought up in a milieu where girls grew up to be homemakers, she took up writing as a vocation and her books sold very well.

Belonging to the upper class meant she was often travelling to the continent, to France and Italy, and it’s there that she befriended the other great American writer Henry James. She had a “fearless way of looking life in the eyes” and did particularly well in writing about “wars between women.” As Henry James wrote to her, “I applaud, I mean I value, I egg you on in, your study of the American life that surrounds you.”

The writer looks back at one classic each fortnight.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 10:04:39 AM |

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