Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Genres: Classics, Fiction
Published by Arc Manor LLC on 2008
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Set against the bleak winter landscape of New England, Ethan Frome tells the story of a poor farmer, lonely and downtrodden, his wife Zeena, and her cousin, the enchanting Mattie Silver. In the playing out of this short novel's powerful and engrossing drama, Edith Wharton constructed her least characteristic and most celebrated book. In its unyielding and shocking pessimism, its bleak demonstration of tragic waste, it is a masterpiece of psychological and emotional realism. In her introduction the distinguished critic Elaine Showalter discusses the background to the novel's composition and the reasons for its enduring success.
I’m about to admit something that I rarely share. Please sit down, you are not going to believe this. I’m a total Book Nerd. That’s right, I said it and I admit it because only a Book Nerd would do the following: Read a family member’s Facebook post about a crazy inappropriate book their teen has to read for school and then read said book (Ethan Frome) in one night. To be honest, I had the book on both my Nook and Kindle and I had no idea how short it was, I finished it in one night. I also made it to bed before midnight.
Set in the late 1800s early 1900s (maybe I missed the date), Ethan is a want-to-be engineer/scientist type but his mother is ill and he must stay on the family farm/mill to take care of her until her death. By the way, she doesn’t speak a lot in the end and he goes days/weeks without hearing another human voice. As was customary of that time, a female cousin comes to help Ethan take care of his mother in her final days (weeks, months….whatever). Needless to say Ethan was elated to hear/see/talk to his cousin Zeena. After his mother’s death Zeena packs to go and he freaks out and asks her to stay with him (as his bride obviously) on the farm. Needless to say, he soon realized that he was just lonely and he shouldn’t have done this, but what’s an honorable 19th century-ish man to do? He sucked it up and dealt with his mistake.
View Spoiler »Zeena ends up being a sickly hypochondriac who rarely speaks and basically Ethan is unhappy/miserable. [Site note – I’m not sure how old Zeena and Ethan are, but Zeena has false teeth and this seems like it would be a total turnoff. But hey, maybe everyone in their 30s had false teeth back then? I wonder if they were made of wood like George Washington, or was that a myth? I’ll have to google that one later.] Then Zeena’s cousin (let’s make this clear, she is not Ethan’s cousin) comes to visit/help with Zeena’s care. Her name is Mattie…nickname “Matt”. She’s a fun lively young girl (early 20s) from a big city and Ethan loves how lively and talkative she is. She pays attention to Ethan and listens to him. He grows to like the attention and looks forward to walking her home from the barn dances (or whatever they called them) in their little town. Zeena realizes that he’s stated shaving daily (scandalous behavior if I do say so myself) and spends a lot of time away from the house. Remember, this is 1899(ish) and scandalous behavior included THINKING about holding the hand of a woman other than your wife. Well his wife is a real B word and concocts some crazy plan to go to the big city to visit a doctor (for her faux illnesses) which will turn into an overnight trip. FYI – Ethan and Zeena are poor, but getting by with what he makes selling lumber. Anyway, while Zeena is gone, Mattie breaks Zena’s prized possession, a red glass pickle bowl (Who knew there were pickle bowls? Made of red glass no less?) which was a wedding present from someone (there was an accident involving a cat). Cutting to the end – Zena comes back, tells everyone she’s terminally ill and says they are sending Matt back to wherever (Mattie has no place to go) and we are hiring a fulltime nurse/housegirl. Zena is not to lift a finger for the rest of her life (according to the big city doctor). Matt and Ethan are basically in tears and while Ethan is taking her to the depot to catch a midnight train to Georgia (OK, I Made Georgia up…can’t remember where she’s going…probably to hell for being a floozy.) They decide to go for a night slide (sledding in the snow). These two star-crossed want to be lovers decide to end it all by slamming into the big oak at the end of the hill. (Didn’t Sonny from Sonny and Cher die like this? Or was it a skiing accident?) Big shocker, neither of them dies! However, they are both seriously injured and now Zeena has to nurse them back to health and they all decided to live under the same roof miserably ever after. « Hide Spoiler
I think the moral of this story is: Don’t marry someone because you are lonely. Your aspirations to become something bigger will be (could be) squashed like a bug because you asked your crazy cousin to stay and keep you company.
My take as a concerned parent: Most children from 1st grade on have some friends with divorced parents. While they do not need to know the gory details of why people get married and divorced, it is indeed a fact of life for over 50% of school aged children (don’t fact check me please…I could be wrong, but I remember that number from something about divorce.). Reading this book as a child would give you the vantage point from inside a loveless/joyless marriage. The vantage point of a totally G-Rated book about adultery (Adultery in the 1899 sense of the word, not the 1999 version which produces babies).
Read it, it’s quick and entertaining and you can mark off another classic from you To Be Read List! – Michelle