Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

ethan fromeIn the bleak midwinter…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

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written novella we know that it will end in tragedy, as we see the middle-aged Ethan Frome, half-crippled and withdrawn, and looking older than his years.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…

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton

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.

Thanks again to Margaret at BooksPlease for the review that inspired me to read this, and thanks to all of you who voted to add it to my TBR. You chose well… 🙂

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51 thoughts on “Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

  1. I kinda feel bad for Ethan as well. The professor thinks that Ethan and Zeena should have gone away and spent some time together, or something like that.

    Excellent review, too, FEF! I feel tempted to read this for some reason. And it’s a wonder since it’s not an adventure of sorts.

    (Like the author’s pic…)


    • I felt a bit bad for him – for all of them really. But I also felt that they were each partly responsible for their own misery – what they needed was more chocolate.

      Really? I wouldn’t have had this one down for a Professorial book at all – you are a constant source of surprise! On the upside, it’s very short…


            • Oh, I don’t know – I think Ethan and Zeena would be quite well-matched, but Mattie squealing like a girl might spoil it.

              Haha! I know you are – poor C-W-W! (I still think you should abandon it and read The Martian instead.)


            • *laughing* Tuppence would love that – especially if we stuffed her with catnip first…

              I thought A Princess was your favourite!! How many favourites does the Professor have?? There’s something seriously wrong with this system where I keep ending up reading book recommendations from you…this wasn’t how the blog was supposed to work! *sobs piteously* Of course, you won’t be finished Bleak House till 2024… *cheers up*


            • *laughing lots* Well, I admit my favorite changes from time to time. Right now it rotates between Robin Hood and Innocents Abroad. (Rather odd favorites, hun?) The professor feels no remorse, you know! And now I have some really good encouragement to finish Bleak House. You didn’t say no…


            • Well, I have both of them on the TBR already so phew! No addition. But I like your plan! I will start reading Innocents Abroad within a week of you finishing Bleak House, but not until then – how’s that for a deal?

              Of course, if we’re both allowed to have several favourites…I’ll start working on a little list for you… *cackles fiendishly*


            • How horribly unfair, plus rotten, mean, nasty, mean, and nasty! You can’t professor-size back at me! And you basically like every book you read! Imagine! You’d bring my gray head down to the grave in mourning! Dadblameit, Aravis!

              How’s The White Apes of Mars?


            • Hehehe! Oh yes, I can – I have learned from the master! But just to be kind I’ll limit my list to 10…or maybe 20. Certainly no more than 30. For the first year.

              Just over halfway through – should I tell you, or should I make you wait for the review…hmm…


  2. FictionFan – I’m so glad you got deeply involved in this story. It shows among other things that we, your fans, have good taste in what we vote for you to read. 😉
    In all seriousness, there is something special isn’t there about a story that draws you in so very deeply that you feel the emotional impact. And that touch of the unreliable narrator just adds to it all, I think.


    • Her style is hugely readable, and she manages to get some real tension going, even though in this one you have a reasonable idea of where it’s all heading. And the unreliable narrator bit means the story leaves you thinking about it after it’s finished – otherwise it would really just have been a love story…

      I’m thinking of handing my whole TBR over to you guys – you all seem to be better at picking books I’ll like than I am! 😉


    • Thanks! Hmm…perhaps because the punishment seemed somehow excessive for the crime? Or maybe because it’s interesting to speculate whether we’d have had the courage to behave differently or would we also have been trapped by the circumstances…


      • It’s not easy for people to change. Not everyone, and certainly
        not THAT group takes yoga and is taught to muse: “I am good, I
        am strong, I am complete, I can master what I need to do . . .” and
        so forth. I think you’ve hit it on the head. They were afraid to do
        anything differently.


  3. Woohoo! Now you’ve got me wanting to go back and read it. Perhaps it lingers in the mind because it makes us wonder just how much of our own experience of the world is colored by our attitudes toward it? And if we were to change our attitudes, would our lives reflect that change?


    • Hmm…yes. I felt that each of them could have behaved more actively to change their circumstances had they chosen to, but that it seemed to be pure fear that held them back – and it left me wondering how much of that could be put down to social conventions as opposed to individual character. Intriguing…


    • Thanks, Cleo! D’you know, I really think you might love Wharton’s writing. In fact, she’s probably more your type of author than mine in general terms. And this one is lovely and short – ideal for testing what you think of her style…


      • I have yet to read any of her other books. I have been told that Ethan Frome is quite different to her usual style. Don’t know how true that is.


        • I suspect I’m going to add The Age of Innocence to the TBR, though don’t know when I’ll get to it. But I hope it’s not quite as despairing as this one – I don’t know if I could have taken that level of hopelessness for a full-length novel…


          • She seems to be able to tackle a range of styles and genres – I started out with one of her ghost stories. But that variety was more typical of writers of her generation, perhaps – whereas current authors tend to stick much more to one genre, which I always feel is something of a pity.


  4. It sounds like the story of many people who have missed the tide of good fortune. It would make a perfect book to read and comment on in a book club of some sort. So many more questions than answers at the end.


  5. It is wonderful when a book can create such emotion. Having only read two of Edith Wharton’s novels, ‘The Age of Innocence’ and ‘House of Mirth’, I would highly recommend both but if push came to shove I would say add The Age of Innocence to your TBR.


    • Yes I remember a friend knocking on my door once while I was breaking my heart over Of Mice and Men – he couldn’t believe anyone could get into that state over a book! Thanks for the rec – I feel The Age of Innocence will be making its way onto the TBR…


  6. A great read, and if you liked this, you will enjoy Irene Nemirovsky’s Fire in the Blood, which is a similar story but with a different cultural response, I read these two one after the other and found them great companions and insightful.


  7. I studied this book at university last year and I still think about the story, especially the ending. It’s bleak, but Wharton’s writing is beautiful, particularly in the way that she draws out the tension. Your review has inspired me to revisit it soon!


    • It was my first introduction to Wharton, apart from one short story, and has definitely encouraged me to read some of her other stuff soon. You’re right, she handled the tension beautifully, especially since the reader basically knows what’s going to happen from very early on…

      Thanks for popping by and commenting. 😀


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