Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (#NovNov Classics Week Buddy Read)

For the short classics week of Novellas in November, our buddy read is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911). You can download the book for free from Project Gutenberg here if you’d still like to join in.

Did you have to read Ethan Frome in school? For American readers, it’s likely that it was an assigned text in high school English. I didn’t happen to read it during my school days, but caught up in 2006 or 2008, I think, and was impressed with this condensed tragedy and the ambiance of a harsh New England winter. It struck me even more on a reread as a flawless parable of a man imprisoned by circumstance and punished for wanting more.

I had forgotten that the novella is presented as a part-imagined reconstruction of the sad events of Ethan Frome’s earlier life. A quarter-century later, the unnamed narrator is in Wharton’s fictional Starkfield, Massachusetts on business, and hears the bare bones of Ethan’s story from various villagers before meeting the man himself. Ethan, who owns a struggling sawmill, picks up extra money from odd jobs. He agrees to chauffeur the narrator to engineering projects in his sleigh, and can’t conceal his jealousy at a technical career full of travel – a reminder of what could have been had he been able to continue his own scientific studies. A blizzard forces the narrator to stay overnight in Ethan’s home, and the step over the threshold sends readers back in time to when Ethan was a young man of 28.

 

*There are SPOILERS in the following.*


Ethan’s household contains two very different women: his invalid wife, Zeena, eight years his elder; and her cousin, Mattie Silver, who serves as her companion and housekeeper. Mattie is dreamy and scatter-brained – not the practical sort you’d want in a carer role, but she had nowhere else to go after her parents’ death. She has become the light of Ethan’s life. By contrast, Zeena is shrewish, selfish, lazy and gluttonous. Wharton portrays her as either pretending or exaggerating about her chronic illness. Zeena has noticed that Ethan has taken extra pains with his appearance in the year since Mattie came to live with them, and conspires to get rid of Mattie by getting a new doctor to ‘prescribe’ her a full-time servant.

The plot turns on an amusing prop, “Aunt Philura Maple’s pickle-dish.” While Zeena is away for her consultation with Dr. Buck, Ethan and Mattie get one evening alone together. Mattie lays the table nicely with Zeena’s best dishes from the china cabinet, but at the end of their meal the naughty cat gets onto the table and knocks the red glass pickle dish to the floor, where it smashes. Before Ethan can obtain glue to repair it in secret, Zeena notices and acts as if this never-used dish was her most prized possession. She and Ethan are both to have what they most love taken away from them – but at least Ethan’s is a human being.

I had remembered that Ethan fell in love with a cousin (though I thought it was his cousin) and that there is a dramatic sledding accident. What I did not remember, however, was that the crash is deliberate: knowing they can never act on their love for each other, Mattie begs Ethan to steer them straight into the elm tree mentioned twice earlier. He dutifully does so. I thought I recalled that Mattie dies, while he has to live out his grief ever more. I was gearing myself up to rail against the lingering Victorian mores of the time that required the would-be sexually transgressing female to face the greatest penalty. Instead, in the last handful of pages, Wharton delivers a surprise. When the narrator enters the Frome household, he meets two women. One is chair-bound and sour; the other, tall and capable, bustles about getting dinner ready. The big reveal, and horrible irony, is that the disabled woman is Mattie, made bitter by suffering, while Zeena rose to the challenges of caregiving.

Ethan is a Job-like figure who lost everything that mattered most to him, including his hopes for the future. Unlike the biblical character, though, he finds no later reward. “Sickness and trouble: that’s what Ethan’s had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping,” as one of the villagers tells the narrator. “He looks as if he was dead and in hell now!” the narrator observes. This man of sorrow is somehow still admirable: he and Zeena did the right thing in taking Mattie in again, and even when at his most desperate Ethan refused to swindle his customers to fund an escape with Mattie. In the end, Mattie’s situation is almost the hardest to bear: she only ever represented sweetness and love, and has the toughest lot. In some world literature, e.g. the Russian masters, suicide might be rendered noble, but here its attempt warrants punishment.

{END OF SPOILERS.}

 

I can see why some readers, especially if encountering this in a classroom setting, would be turned off by the bleak picture of how the universe works. But I love me a good classical tragedy, and admired this one for its neat construction, its clever use of foreshadowing and dread, its exploration of ironies, and its use of a rustic New England setting – so much more accessible than Wharton’s usual New York City high society. The cozy wintry atmosphere of Little Women cedes to something darker and more oppressive; “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters,” a neighbor observes of Ethan. I could see a straight line from Jude the Obscure through Ethan Frome to The Great Gatsby: three stories of an ordinary, poor man who pays the price for grasping for more. I reread this in two sittings yesterday morning and it felt to me like a perfect example of how literature can encapsulate the human condition.

(Secondhand purchase) [181 pages]

 

My original rating (c. 2008):

My rating now:

 

Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books), using the hashtag #NovNov. We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts.

27 responses

  1. Ethan Frome is one of my favorite pieces of writing so I was anxiously looking forward to your review. Glad to read your praise; it reinforces the belief I have that I can reliably follow your lead through the stacks. Many thanks for all you add to book-loving.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a kind thing to say. Thank you, Vicki! It’s always a relief when a book more than lives up to my memories of it.

      Like

  2. […] Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (Rebecca at Bookish Beck) […]

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  3. I loved this one too Rebecca – it’s not an easy read but it is so powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess because I knew what to expect I didn’t find it so devastating. But it did still have the capacity to surprise me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a great review, Rebecca. I’ve just read the book it for 6 Degrees, and I’d never come across it before. I’m interested that it’s a High School text, as I’m not sure I’d have been ready to read this as a young student. But I was utterly absorbed in the story and its telling, and found, as you did, that it encapsulated the human condition so well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Margaret. I’d forgotten it’s the 6 Degrees starter for next month — a good excuse to read it! I think those who have encountered it at school tend to hate it, which is a shame. This must be one of THE classic novellas.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, but I think you need a bit of life experience to appreciate it. What a shame to introduce it at the wrong time.

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  5. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to fit this one in (shoehorns reviews in desperately anyway) but I’m glad you found it such an interesting and powerful read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No need to apologize. It’s a great read whenever you can get to it. I see you’ve read a fair bit by Wharton before? I only know a few of her books.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I’ve done some of the big ones, Song of the Lark and the Hudson River ones. I’ve read others but pre-blog / book journal!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah, Song of the Lark is a Willa Cather — funny you would mention her, as Ethan Frome definitely reminded me of her work, but I couldn’t remember any of her plots (I’ve read 4 or 5) well enough to make direct comparisons.

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  6. Great post! I first read Ethan Frome several years ago and like you my memory of it wasn’t quite right. I too thought Mattie had died in the crash! I’m hoping to write a post at the weekend about the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t it funny that we both remembered it that way!?

      Thanks so much for participating with our buddy read!

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  7. The human condition… yes, very much so. I’m glad you can appreciate it better today, and I’m glad I had the chance to read it with everyone else!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Margaret21 (above) thinks one needs a little more life experience to appreciate the book. I think I’d agree! Thanks for joining in.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I loved reading your review! Brilliant! I just posted my review of it. You can read it here:

    https://thesimplyblog.wordpress.com/2021/11/26/ethan-frome-by-edith-wharton/

    I, too, gave it 4 stars this time around. But I wonder if it will become a 5 star read when I read it again. For I do plan to read it again! Thanks for hosting this buddy read. It was the perfect opportunity for me to read this title that has been on my TBR for awhile!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the novella (and my review) — thanks so much for joining in!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Do you know I was never assigned this one in school? I find it hard to believe. If I do another Classics Club list (after I finish my current one) I’ll add it. Which is why I skipped over your spoiler section – thanks for that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it was one of the options for my 11th grade American Literature curriculum, but we did The Scarlet Letter instead. It’s probably for the best that I discovered Ethan Frome for myself as an adult!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] by Deborah Levy plus two rereads, Conundrum by Jan Morris (above) and our classics buddy read, Ethan Frome by Edith […]

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  11. […] always, I encourage you to read Cathy’s and Rebecca’s reviews. I’m down to the wire here so this will be a short comment on a short book that needs […]

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  12. […] Wharton, which was our buddy read for the short classics week of Novellas in November. I reread and reviewed it recently. (See Kate’s opening […]

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  13. […] This month’s chain began with Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, which I’m so glad to have read. Bookish Beck has written a wonderful review of it, which I can’t improve on. Read it here. […]

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  14. Thanks for your awesome review. I have only read The Touchstone by this author

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very kind of you, thanks! Ah, I haven’t heard of that one. I’ve only read a few of her books myself, but Summer was recommended to me over the course of Novellas in November and I think I’ll try it next year.

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