Ethan Frome, a novella written by Edith Wharton, was first published in 1911. The title character of the story is a young farmer and lumber mill owner who lives in an isolated part of Vermont. As Frome’s story unfolds, the reader learns that the story’s protagonist is barely keeping his head above water. He is also stuck in a loveless marriage. His wife, Zeena, is cold, self - centered, and is a hypochondriac who uses her illness to manipulate others. Zeena’s cousin Mattie, orphaned and destitute, has come to live with the Fromes. Though their relationship is unconsummated, Mattie and Ethan have fallen in love. When Zeena decides to send Mattie away, the pair are plunged into deep despair.
This is a curious story. As it takes place during a northern New England winter, it is filled with descriptions of a snowy and cold environment. It is also a dark tale. Ethan is normally unhappy, and the events of the story drive him into desperation and gloom. The ending is odd and contains some surprising developments.
This book is filled with pathos. The passages during which Mattie and Ethan develop their attraction as well as those where they believe that they are going to be parted are tenderly and masterfully written.
At one point Ethan thinks about kissing Mattie,
"He knew that most young men made nothing at all of giving a pretty girl a kiss, and he remembered that the night before, when he had put his arm about Mattie, she had not resisted. But that had been out-of-doors, under the open irresponsible night. Now, in the warm lamplit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable."
Though short, this novella is full of ideas and contains a fascinating plot and characters. Much can be written about it. There is something that this tale has in common with other Wharton books that I have read, such as House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, in that it is a brilliant examination of a person who is trapped due to social and economic bounds. Ethan is in a miserable position, and he has come to despise Zeena. The story recounts how he made a terrible mistake when he proposed to her. He did so mostly to avoid loneliness. His dream of becoming an engineer has disappeared. He has fallen in love with Mattie, who is not only going to be torn from him, but who is going to be sent into a dire situation.
As he considers every option open to him, he realizes that there is apparently no way out. Zeena has him boxed in at home. He contemplates running away with Mattie, but he is stymied by multiple financial as well as ethical constraints. At one point he thinks,
"The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict. There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished."
The above quotation perfectly describes the situation that Ethan is in, it perfectly describes the plot of this book, and it perfectly illustrates what how skilled a writer Wharton is. The metaphors of the prison warden as well as the finality of Ethan’s situation are the expressions of a great writer.
There is so much to this short book that I have not touched on. Many words have been written about its characters and story. Wharton had a knack for describing people caught in bad situations as well as the negative emotions that go along with them. Anyone who likes Wharton or stories about relationships is likely to get a lot out of this book.
brave of you to tackle this book... i read a few pages and was turned away from the dark side... not to say that it isn't a valuable book, it's just that old persons have mostly seen too much of that part of life and tend to stay aloof from it... good summing up, tho... and informative... tx...
Thanks Muddpuddle - Dark stories get to me too.Much more so then when I was younger. The ending of this one was somewhat dark but the wideness of the ending kind of made up for the darkness.
I too was fascinated by this short novel. It has similarities to the Wharton novels you mentioned, but is somewhat more constricted in atmosphere with its isolated setting. The pain seems even greater and the inability to extricate oneself more oppressive. Nonetheless Wharton demonstrates her skill well enough to persuade this reader that she has written another great book.
Hu James - Indeed, this New England, snow bound setting is such a contrast , and even more constricting then Wharton's usual drawing rooms.
Great review, Brian. This is such an interesting book for the reasons you describe. And what a plot twist. I am interested in stories concerning human pathos and this one does show a situation where there seems to be no escape. Not just for Frome, but for his wife. I'm not sure I would end up doing what his wife did. She's more self-sacrificing than me.
Brian Joseph--a good review of a good story. It captures the darkness of the tale. There's talk of Southern Gothic, and this tale makes a superb argument for a New England Gothic.
It's a dark tale definitely, and the last chapter turns it into a horror story. The thought of the three of them locked into that claustrophobic kitchen by a New England winter scares me as few other horror tales do.
I can understand Mudpuddle's reluctance to go on with the story. It was many years before I reread it.
This novel sounds very intriguing. I really should read (or reread) more classics! Thanks for another top notch review, Brian Joseph.
I love this book, one of my favourites - it's so brutal!
I like stories that point out the complexities of different human relationships.
i saw some movies that slightly seemed related to the main theme of the novel but right now one movie which is striked in my head is (my fav Kate's movie) "LITTLE CHILDERN" .
Writer is unfamiliar to me still if he wrote much about human relations and psychology i would like to look out for his work here
Such a powerful story with a stunning ending! I started listening to this book on audio but stopped and went and found the book at the library. I wanted to slow it down as I knew it was inexorably heading somewhere & I didn't want to be rushed. For me, it showed how we can justify just about anything we want to in our own minds & that our hearts can be incredibly deceitful & we aren't even aware of it. I just loved how Wharton wrote this.
Ethan Frome is so dark, yet stunning, and I appreciate it much more now than I did in school. If you haven't already read it, I recommend Wharton's Summer - a novel she refers to as "Hot Ethan."
Thanks Sharon - She is indeed self sacrificing. It turned out to be very unexpected in this story.
Thanks Suko. I would love to know what you thought if you read this.
Hi Jacqui - The ending is indeed ironically brutal.
Thanks Fred. I love the term "New England Gothic". I think that one could view this as a horror story.
Hi Baili - Complex relationships are the root of so much good literature.
I have not seen Little Children. I Googled and and it looks good though.
Wharton usually wrote novels about the wealthy and elite of the early Twentieth Century. So this work was different for her.
Hi JoAnn - I have not read Summer. I see that it is also set in New England. I must give it a try.
Hi Carol - Indeed the book is partially about justifying things. I am thinking more and more about how unreliable a narrator Ethan may be.
Oh my goodness! As you know I'm not a fan of the short story/novella but there are so many things about this one that intrigue me on so many levels. Definitely one I'll make a note of, I hope our library has a copy.
Hi Tracy - I also do not read a lot of short works, but I really like this one.
Hi Brian, I read Ethan Fromme in high school and House of Mirth years later. I never thought about it until your review but you are right, Ethan Fromme and Lily Bart are brought down by social & economic forces. Fromme can't leave a bad marriage and Lily Bart falls from high society and was never trained economically to survive on her own. When I think of Edith Wharton I think as well of Henry James, two great writers who mined similar territory in their novels.
Hi Kathy - I have not read Henry James at all. I really need to as I thing that I would really like his work.
I right this right after The Age of Innocence and found it awfully depressing. I felt trapped, like Ethan, while reading it and glad when it was over.
I first read this book in high school and re-read it a number of years ago and was surprised at how much I had missed the first time around. A very sad, rich story and typically Wharton. Lots packed into so few pages!
Hi Caroline - Perhaps claustrophobic would be a good descriptor of the feeling that this story imparts.
Hi Stefanie - This was the first time that I read this. I think that a reread would be fruitful.
Thank you for the post, Brian. I love the quotes you have posted. I bought this book a couple of years ago, and I felt intimidated by its darkness. For it is short, I must give it a try.
You are right about Wharton writing about characters trapped in impossible situations. Hardy does that so powerfully as well.
Now I'm wondering about the odd or surprising ending a bit. I hope there is a way Out for Ethan. But I guess i'll have to read it to see. In the present day, surely Zeena would be given the boot! Wharton sounds like an enticing and masterful writer. I will have to return to her classics. Nice review.
This is one of the most depressing books I have ever read, and yet I still like it. This and Summer concerns two people who have such promise, but are stuck in their familial and societal roles, but the writing is so good!
Summer is also a novella (so it's short!) and I would love to get your take on it.
Hi Laurie - This was mostly depressing. The oddness of the end, while dark, pushed off total despair for me.
I must read Summer!
You m must read this one Susan! Wharton is si good, I really loved both House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.
EXCELLENT analysis as usual, Brian!
Although I've heard of this book, I've never read it. I don't own this one, but I do own "Age of Innocence", which I have yet to read.
Just reading your review of this novella has made me feel depressed.... What a HORRIBLE situation for anyone to be trapped in! Loveless marriages in the 19th century were mostly arranged marriages. In the 20th century, this began to change. But then there's the case of people making mistakes in their selection of marriage partners. In this case, Ethan wanted to avoid loneliness. That's one of the WORST reasons to enter into the commitment of marriage. As is borne out in this book, his decision was disastrous.
I don't think I'll read this novel, to be honest. It will make me feel too depressed. As you know, i prefer happy endings! Lol. I can see that Wharton is a masterful writer, however, so I will give "The Age of Innocence" a try.
You know, it's unfortunate that the work of great writers tends to not have happy endings..... Classics and literary fiction are usually full of tragic events. Perhaps this is what makes them such powerful works, but they do depress me. A case in point is Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying". I have read the plot of this novel on Goodreads. VERY depressing.... I did read "Light In August", also by Faulkner, and it took me forever to finish it, due to this depressing factor.
Hermann Hesse, too, has a couple of very depressing novels. As you know, I HATE "Steppenwolf"! But part of the reason for that is the fact that I think it contains misogynistic elements. Another Hesse novel, "Beneath The Wheel", is VERY depressing, as well.
This is part of the reason that "Jane Eyre" remains my favorite classic!! Yes, it does contain masterfully-told dramatic conflict, but then there's the happy ending (although it's rather bittersweet).
Thanks for your insightful thoughts!! <3 : )
Thanks Maria. This was indeed a dark story. So was House of Mirth. The Age of Innocence was less negative.
There really are a lot of unhappy stories within the realm of Classic Literature. I agree that it adds to there power. As I Lay Dying is a great example. There are so many more.
I also love Hermann Hesse. While many of his books were really positive, Steppenwolf really did take an unusual, dark turn.
You hit it on the head with Jane Eyre. It was happy ending with a dark twist!
So glad you read this book--I loathed it as a teenager and love it as an adult. The writing is awesome and the themes are timeless. I also thought the metaphor of the prison was spot on.
I feel like reading this now, you make it sound very good!
You've made me want to read this one Brian, it sounds interesting. I like the last lines you shared especially.
Thanks Jane - I also would not have liked this book when I was younger.
Hi Evelina - If you read this, I would love to know what you thought about it.
Hi Naida - That is a great quote.
I read it a few years ago, and you're so right about that feeling of being trapped in all kinds of constraints. I also remember thinking that it would have been interesting to hear a version of the story from Zeena's POV. She's not a likable character, but I think her POV would also be interesting, and in her own way, she's as stuck as all of them. It's a book that weighs on the spirit.
Hi Hila - I would love to know more of Zeena's point of view. Perhaps the ending indicated that there is more to her then Ethan has made us believe.
I hope to get back to Wharton before the year's out. I think you're right about how well she writes about "trapped" characters, but that kind of makes her novels threaten to be emotional slogs in a way!
Hi Richard - Wharton can be very depressing. She tends to also write dark endings. Though I thought that it was brilliant, I found House of Mirth one of the grimmest books that I have ever read.
I read this book in the early 1980s. It was my introduction to Wharton, and I went on to read several of her books - novellas and novels - and also some short stories. I love the way she describes entrapment. The house of mirth has to be one of my favourite books, gut wrenching as it is. Its exploration of social entrapment combined with a personal failure of courage combined with a developing moral code is so beautifully done.
Anfpd her heroine's name in The custom of the country - Undone Spragg - is one of my all-time favourites!
Darn it, Undine Spragg!
Hi WHispering Gums - I think that rvus is a good Wharton book to start with. I agree that House of Mirth, while tragic, was a great book.
I need to read The Custom of the Country.,
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