🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
From the beginning of this beautifully written novella we know that it will end in tragedy, as we see the middle-aged Ethan Frome, half-crippled and withdrawn, and looking older than his years. We are told his injuries date back to his ‘smash-up’ twenty-four years ago. The book then takes us back to that time, when Ethan was a young man in his prime, but struggling to scratch a living from a failing farm and shackled to a sickly wife he couldn’t love. The only happiness in his life comes from his growing love for Mattie, cousin to Ethan’s wife Zeena – a young girl left on her own in the world and reliant on Zeena’s cold charity.
The tone of the book is uncompromisingly tragic with no humour or joy or feeling of hope to lighten it. The story takes place over a few short days in the depths of winter and Wharton uses the frozen icy landscape to great effect, both symbolically and actually, as Ethan struggles to find a way out of the trap of his life. Because we know that we are heading towards the smash-up, and because we know that Ethan is still in the town years later, the tension comes from not knowing exactly what form the tragedy takes.
In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.
Looked at coldly, none of the three main characters is particularly admirable. Ethan is a weak man, who has married out of fear of being alone and now resents his wife for indulging in an illness in which he doesn’t quite believe. Zeena is shown as cold and selfish – too lazy to give Ethan the help and support he needs. And simple, pure little Mattie is so weak and alone, so desperate to be loved. But our narrator only learned the story many years later and much of it from Ethan himself, so how much faith can we put in these pictures of Zeena and Mattie? Is Zeena’s illness real or imagined – physical or psychological? How much is she affected by the solitude and drudgery of the farm, and by the lack of love she finds there? Is Mattie really the helpless little thing we see, or is Ethan’s view of her distorted by his own passion?
They had sat for a few minutes on the fallen log by the pond, and she had missed her gold locket, and set the young men searching for it; and it was Ethan who had spied it in the moss… That was all; but all their intercourse had been made up of just such inarticulate flashes, when they seemed to come suddenly upon happiness as if they had surprised a butterfly in the winter woods…
I freely admit it – I sobbed for most of the last quarter of the book. As we approached ever nearer to the tragedy, Wharton’s emotional writing managed to make me feel a sympathy for Ethan that temporarily suppressed my desire to tell him to stop whinging and blaming other people for the misery of his life. Little Mattie didn’t get quite as much of my sympathy, I confess – I really wanted to tell her that if she worked as hard at making herself likeable to Zeena as she did making herself irresistible to Ethan, then the three of them might have managed to rub along together pretty well. And as for Zeena – well, I’m still not sure how I feel about her, to be honest. She’s the enigma at the heart of the story – though she’s overtly portrayed as cruel and selfish, it is also quite possible to see her as a victim fighting to hold on to her place in a world where women are still restricted to the domestic sphere and defined by marriage. And it’s the enigma of Zeena that makes this just a little more than a bleak and tragic love story. Well written and interesting, with great use of descriptive writing to build atmosphere and with something to say about the society in which it’s set, this novella has left me intrigued to read more of Wharton’s work.