Most of Edith Wharton’s fiction focuses on the American privileged classes at the turn of the 20th Century. Specifically, she examines the impact of the strict social expectations on the lives of the elites. Ethan Frome departs from Wharton’s usual social milieu and focuses on the rural isolation and hardscrabble poverty in Starkfield, a small New England village. The plot revolves around three main characters, Ethan; his wife, Zeena, and Zenna’s cousin, Mattie.
Several years prior to the events recounted in the novel, Ethan and Zeena entered into a marriage of duty (on Ethan’s part) and convenience (on Zeena’s). The marriage is loveless and Zeena chases the attention she desires by becoming a hypochondriac. Ethan once had prospects that might have allowed him to escape the dreary life in Starkfield, but his duty to his ailing parents and then to his bitter, complaining spouse have trapped him in a desultory existence. It is no wonder that when Zeena’s young, vivacious cousin, Mattie, arrives to keep house and take care of the ailing Zeena, Ethan is smitten and begins to dream of escape. Before long, Ethan and Mattie acknowledge their mutual attraction which sets in motion a tragic, inevitable chain of events that end in an equally tragic and ironic climax.
The novel is an uncompromisingly sad and bleak examination of life when choices are limited and individual desires are sublimated to the repressed, Puritanical “rules” of society.
Here is the short analysis of the five broad categories I use to consider when thinking about a novel.
On one hand, Wharton’s characterization is spare and somewhat stereotypical; however, as the novel reads like a fable and the setting and lifestyle portrayed are stark and desolate, the characters seem perfectly wrought for the story they inhabit. While the three main characters are all flawed in their own particular ways and act on impulses that are completely selfish, the reader cannot help but feel great sympathy for all of them in the end. I would give the novel 4 out of 5 stars for characterization.
The plot is uncomplicated and tightly controlled by Wharton. The main events of the story are told as a flashback in a straightforward, linear fashion. Wharton also uses a framing device with a prologue that provides some foreshadowing of the events to come, and an afterward that reveals the devastating ramifications of the main story’s conclusion. Four out of 5 stars for plot.
The spare writing style reflects the setting and the characters perfectly. Wharton effectively uses symbolism (the color red, the winter cold, illness, crumbling buildings, etc.) to expand on her themes of loneliness, disappointment, despair, loss, and morality. In general, I love Wharton’s writing and Ethan Frome did not disappoint. Five out of 5 stars for Writing Style.
Made Me Think
Like many people, I have a bit of a romanticized idea of life in New England. Wharton does not shy away from depicting the unforgiving, harsh life that was reality in many dying, rural communities at the turn of the 20th Century. Wharton is also masterful at exposing the terrible impacts on individual happiness and fulfillment in the face of social obligation and expectations. There is a lot of food for thought here. Five out of 5 stars for making me think.
This is a dark, brooding book with an ominous undertone throughout. At the same time, the narrative is compelling and I was eager to see how the story would be resolved. While the climax of the main story was easy to predict, the denouement was something of a surprise–but also pitch perfect. Four out of 5 stars for pure enjoyment.
So, overall 4.4 stars for Ethan Frome.