On liking Ethan Frome

I’m not what you would call a huge fan of Edith Wharton, but I did like her after reading The Age of Innocence and The Glimpses of the Moon. I had long shied away from Ethan Frome, though, for pretty mediocre reasons. First, the fact of its being named for a man seemed strange, and made it seem unlike her other works in an unattractive way—and the name itself being almost absurdly unattractive didn’t help matters there. But also because, though I was never assigned the novel in high school, a lot of other students at my school were, and it was almost without exception the most reviled book in any English class. It was hated to an impossible degree, really. I’m not exactly one to go in for the evaluations of high school classes but it made me feel like, I don’t know, this wasn’t actually her best work but was short and perhaps “easy” and therefore given to sullen children to read and complain about.

But now that I’ve read it, I not only liked it, I really liked it. And I’m not sure why kids would hate it so much—it’s too short to be all that painful, and it’s about an affair. Affairs are exciting! Well, this one isn’t really exciting I suppose. And it made me think of a post from D.G. Myers last month, which touched on The Age of Innocence:

Teaching Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence yesterday, for example, I observed that the moral dilemma in which Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska find themselves—unable to marry without damaging others—no longer seems like much of a moral dilemma.

The double bind of The Age of Innocence may strike my students as no longer relevant. Only Newland’s horror at being buried alive in a passionless marriage may have any significance for them. The “battle of ugly appetites” which is loosed when men and women chase personal fulfillment instead of doing what has to be done may seem an inevitable patch of unpleasantness, a mere episode, to young persons who have grown up in the popular ideology of you owe it to yourself!

I might dispute the details—it’s not a matter of owing it to oneself, for me, but of the fundamental contemptibility of both May Welland and Zeena Frome—but I can definitely see this as an issue in reading Wharton, for us young’uns or what have you. I don’t think Ethan makes the right choices. Just as I thought Newland Archer should have been smart enough to get rid of May when he had the chance, Ethan should have gotten rid of Zeena years ago, and, barring that, should have absolutely put his foot down about Mattie leaving and kicked his wife out instead; she is a horrible woman. (When I say “should,” I obviously don’t mean “in the novel,” but that if the events were real. And yes, this makes Frome and Archer a bit contemptible too.)

So this got me wondering—why did I still like Ethan Frome, when I’ve been known to have issues in the past when I have serious disagreements with a protagonist’s moral choices? Maybe partly because I don’t think Frome is an idiot through and through, and he has semi-decent reasons to feel stuck because of his financial situation. Or maybe it’s because he decides to go through with it and go on that sled ride with Mattie—that was a good choice.

Only Wharton is so harsh that, since she’s in control, she can make it a bad choice, and she can use it to show how wrong I was to favor Mattie at all. It’s a bit cruel of her really, and in fact that’s what should make me dislike the book—Wharton’s actions, not Frome’s. I think the real key is I can’t fault her for being so bleak and showing up the underlying awfulness of life, because while I may quibble, again, with the details, I don’t really disagree.

(I realize I’m using a very limited definition of “liking” as it pertains to literature here. Deal.)

7 comments to On liking Ethan Frome

  • Despite being quite a fan of Wharton I haven’t touched Ethan Frome – beyond everyone’s seeming dread of the book, the New England setting rather than old NY society is what has made me noncommittal. Not that this makes sense in any way.

    Maybe its wishful thinking on my part, but in House of Mirth and Age of Innocence I have found her harsh judgments or punishments to actually be condemning of society. I guess its a fine line, but I have a hard time believing her intention was to be so morally harsh to her creations, but rather to be very condemning of society’s cruelty.

  • nicole

    Yeah, you will totally like it if you ever do pick it up. It’s definitely different but I’m sure you will.

    I think she does come down on society, but I would check out the linked post and also this one; I think there is something to it. Also, I think it comes out more in Ethan Frome.

  • I haven’t read (or even thought about) Ethan Frome in nearly 25 years, but your post made me remember it vividly. The book shook me with the suggestion that we’re given very small worlds to live in, so if we screw up, we’re stuck in tiny, claustrophobic hells of our own making. I don’t know if that’s an accurate take on the novel, but it’s what the 14-year-old in me found a terrifying prospect indeed.

  • “I can’t fault her for being so bleak and showing up the underlying awfulness of life, because while I may quibble, again, with the details, I don’t really disagree.”

    Yes, exactly!

    I wanted Ethan to go west with Mattie SO badly. But when he pauses to consider what borrowing the money and the running off would mean, and what leaving Zeena behind would mean, I don’t blame him for being unable to follow through. And yet he’s clearly also unable to settle into a miserable life with Zeena while Mattie is out there going through goodness knows what… It’s such a harsh world, and such an impossible situation, and Wharton makes readers feel that so clearly.

  • Just read this and was looking around for litblog cronies who had done the same. You give a good sense of the “high school revulsion” syndrome, which I wasn’t even aware of, but it makes a lot of sense. And I was surprised like you, as it went against all of my notions of Wharton and her books. I also thought it was a phenomenal bit of work, worthy of its classic status, especially with its deep roots and updating of Hawthorne.

  • Oh yeah, Hawthorne: forgot to make the point, and noting your Hawthorne posts, that now that you’ve made a Hawthorne-Melville discovery, my guess is that you’d really enjoy getting into Hawthorne and getting past your “hsr” (revulsion, above) towards Scarlet Letter. My reading (and others) of Blithedale is that it’s all about Hawthorne-Melville, which I think you’d enjoy. And looking at Ethan Frome after Blithedale is pretty amazing.

  • I certainly could use your nudge—I picked up a new copy of The Scarlet Letter pretty much as soon as I read that sketch a couple years ago, knowing that it would likely be a very different experience if I read it now. I haven’t gotten to it yet, though I have read a few more stories, all of which I’ve liked. I should do The Scarlet Letter sooner rather than later though.

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