Edith Wharton – the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize – published Ethan Frome in 1911. It is set in the fictional town of Starkfield and centres on the life of three of its inhabitants: Ethan, his wife Zenobia (‘Zeena’) Frome and her cousin, Mattie Silver.
Should you read it? Oh yes.
Why? Bear with me…
The story is told from the perspective of a narrator, an engineer, visiting the town. He sees Ethan, a reserved and badly disabled man, struggling stoically at the Post Office. When he asks the locals about his situation, he gets some of Ethan’s history – he hasn’t always been disabled – but it seems that no one in the town really knows all the details of what has happened to him. It appears that there was a sledding accident… The narrator (we never find out his name) travels daily to a nearby town, and it is suggested that he asks Ethan to take him on his horse and cart, which he does. Ethan, obviously needing the money, agrees. Whilst they are travelling, Ethan notices a book that the narrator is carrying and – as shy and reserved as he is – begins to talk about engineering. It seems that Ethan once had hopes of being an engineer himself.
The weather worsens. During a particularly bad snowstorm, it seems unlikely that Ethan and the narrator will make it back to town. Ethan suggests that they spend the night at his house and make the journey back the following morning. The narrator crosses the threshold and hears a woman’s monotonous, whining voice.
And that’s the prologue: so far so good. The story seems to be a bleak little tale of a man who has had some tragedy in his life told by someone who has seen it first hand, from an unbiased but privileged perspective. The end of the prologue, though, is rather bizarre: the narrator tells us that ‘It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story.’ (After which, there are lots and lots of ellipses.) Wharton tells us that the version of the story we read is just someone’s idea of the events based on the few facts they know. In fact, the book becomes much more about the silences than the words, what we don’t know rather than what we do.
We meet Ethan before the accident. He’s strong, bluff and financially pretty much ruined. His father got kicked by a horse and lost his mind, giving away money to people before he died. Ethan’s mother went into a mental decline, too. Eventually, Ethan asks the family for help, and his cousin, Zeena, comes to help look after old Mrs Frome. When Mrs Frome dies, Ethan feels obliged to marry Zeena in thanks. Zeena then goes into a decline herself, saddling Ethan with yet another poorly relative. Zeena becomes a hypochondriac, sending off for medicine and appliances to help her health. She also refuses to move to a bigger town, effectively killing all of Ethan’s ambitions to be an engineer. Eventually, her doctor tells her that she’ll have to have some help around the house, and along comes her cousin, another woman made poor by feckless relatives, Mattie Silver.
Faced with a vicious, scheming, decrepit, old hag of a wife and her young, vivacious, pretty young cousin – asks Wharton – what on earth was Ethan supposed to do but fall in love with Mattie?
From this point on, it would be unfair to reveal very much more of what happens. It’s not really a novel which depends on not knowing the end (or it sort of is, but…). The technique, the silences, the long pauses, the not knowing – these are what drive the reader to keep reading. Wharton is clearly very interested in blame, too. No one in the house is happy, but whose fault is it? Beautifully, Wharton gives us enough information to blame everyone in there, and to know that we’re right in doing so, and – at the same time – no one at all. There are some powerful comments about the roles which women and men are forced into, and struggle against. There’s a good deal to say about the ambiguity of love, too, what it is, what it isn’t, and what it might never be.
But so far, I’ve not given you any reason to read it, right? It all just sounds like a ‘worthy’ book, something which should – and does – crop up on English syllabuses over and over again: no intrinsic recommendation by itself, certainly.
Okay. Think of Ethan Frome as a cartoon, boldly cell-shaded, with a muted palette, some seriously striking lighting effects and the warning ‘contains very little material likely to upset and offend unless you really think about it, but then…’
How about this: I read Ethan Frome because I had to. Half way through the book, though, I forgot where I was and needed to finish it. Wharton tricked me into reading a goreless horror story, a cross between The Waltons and The Addams Family, and right when I thought I’d got it, when I was as horrified as I could possibly be, she hit me in the head with a brick.
No other ending of a book has ever made me realise how wrong it is possible to be. And how much one silence, just one, can make a book turn in your hands into something strange and alien. 1
Ethan Frome is as nasty a book as I’ve read in a long time. And it’s marvellous.
1. What Mrs Hale nearly says that Mattie said, but doesn’t quite – in case you’re wondering.