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.)

Edith Wharton’s granite outcroppings

Ethan FromeIn Edith Wharton’s introduction to Ethan Frome, she complains of New England fiction that it fails to faithfully represent “the harsh and beautiful land as I had seen it. Even the abundant enumeration of sweet-fern, asters and mountain-laurel, and the conscientious reproduction of the vernacular, left me with the feeling that the outcropping granite had in both cases been overlooked.” Hence Starkfield, and the tale that she had to tell, as she saw it, “starkly and summarily,” of “granite outcroppings; but half-emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate.”

I doubt I have read any of the regional literature Wharton was contrasting her efforts with (though I should), but I like the way she thinks. New England is picturesque, but the harsh, wintry existence eked out in Ethan Frome is at least as real. The narrator, like Wharton, describes Ethan as “a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface,” and it’s just what he proves to be. Western Massachusetts is a fitting place for stoicism.

That warmth beneath the surface is important though, because no matter how many cold New England winters have blanketed Ethan with another layer of snow, there is a desperate anguish to his life. When he finally lays it bare, taking Mattie to the train station on her way back down to Stamford, is when he’s really crushed under the weight of this damned harsh place, and it’s not until a generation later when the narrator is in town that his trouble is really uncovered again.

Speaking of Mattie, she is, in part, an example of what happens when you leave the granite. Her part of the family “went down” to Stamford, and after leaving the depths of New England they turned soft. Her father cheated his family members and left her with nothing; now she’s just a little slip of a thing that has to return to Massachusetts and can barely do housework. And Zeena sees her as a “bad girl,” “seducing” her husband. Well, Zeena, don’t worry. Even though “all the first winter…she had shivered with cold when the northerly gales shook the thin clapboards and the snow beat like hail against the loose-hung windows,” after a few more winters Mattie will have hardened to become as grey and bloodless as the granite mountains where Starkfield is nestled.