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Book Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

ethan frome Book Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Despite having finished Ethan Frome a good fortnight or so ago now, Im still haunted by this book, and suspect that I will be for a long time to come. If youre after a read thats relentlessly desultory but that is, despite its inherent emo-ness, worthy of your emotional investment, then pick up a copy of this book, and read it straight through. I would, however, suggest supplementing your literary journey with a hot chocolate or something similarly comforting.

Ethan Frome is a challengingly bleak novel that slowly, quietly forces itself upon the unsuspecting readers psyche. Its less a recount of something that has happened than one of what might or could neverhave happened. Wharton takes a circular approach to her narrative, using the flashback framing device popular when the book was written to explicitly contrast the then and the now. The book opens with an unnamed narrator hiring a crippled husk of a manEthan Fromeas his driver during his stay in town. Inclement weather forces them to return to Fromes home, where the stranger speculates on Fromes downfall, after which point the novel takes us back to the events that culminate in Fromes disfigurementa disfigurement that certainly seems to be a sort of moral or karmic retribution.

Some twenty years ago Frome was a strong, able-bodied man, although emotionally he has never been in especially good shape. Fromes life has been one of expectation and obligation, and he has spent the better part of his youth caring first for his mother, and subsequently for his wife Zeena, whom he takes in out of a sense of duty. The dynamic between Frome and Zeena is a chilling one, and its one that no doubt deserves some dissection by someone whos more pyschoanalytically inclined than I am. Zeena is the type who is perpetually indisposed, something she puts down to her past efforts to care for Fromes mother, and their entire marriage revolves around this fact. Zeena plays the consumptive card to keep Frome close, while Fromes sense of residual guilt over both his late mothers and over his wifes health sees him take her incessant barbs without comment.

The puritanical context in which Frome and Zeena live, as well as Fromes wont towards self-flagellation, essentially create a scenario that is all about stagnation, repression, and resentmentso what better way to throw a spanner in the works than a love affair? And this Wharton does in style by introducing Mattie, a live-in, unattached housemaid who happens also to be Zeenas cousin. What follows is an abject depiction of a love that is notionally requited, but that is acted upon in only the most roundabout way. This affair, after all, is representative of Fromes freedomsomething which his moral concerns disallow him from chasing after. Every wayward thought or action, therefore, becomes something that cripples Frome with its weight, and Frome and Mattie find themselves in a spiral of increasing lust (if one could call it that) and thus increasing self-loathing.

Zeena, of course, is aware of the tension between the two, and thus of Fromes desire to reclaim his freedom and youth, and she seeks solace in her illness by claiming ever worsening symptoms. In what is a stroke of manipulative genius she heads off to a nearby town in search of a diagnosis solemn enough that it might force Frome to remain by her side. Frome and Mattie are left alone during this time, but their sense of duty and moral uprighteousness, which are underscored by the moralistic challenge inherent in Zeenas actions, precludes them from doing anything wayward. But its not their adulterous actions that pose the problem hereits the fact that that desire exists despite not being acted upon. And given thatFromes relationship with Zeena is necessarily emotional rather than physical, the psychological nature of his adulterous inclinations is all the more sordid.

Did I mention that Frome is the self-flagellating type? Well, things become even more desperately bleak upon Zeenas return, when Zeena circuitously condemns the affair by noting that she has hired a new girl to replace Mattie. Given that Zeena has essentially okayed casting out her own kin, Frome feels vindicated in doing the same, and decides that hell leave his wife at last. But upon making this decision, he realises that he cannot do so without taking advantage of those who have historically been kind to him. Mattie gets in on the act at this point, suggesting a suicide act by sled (possibly one of the more novel approaches to suicide Ive heard), but Fromes guilt is such that he derails the sled at the lost moment, meaning that the two end up seriously injured rather than dead. This, perhaps is the most challenging aspect of the novel, and I could go back and forth for hours attempting to tease out the motivations here. Mattie, now an invalid, is cared for by Zeena and Frome (or at least by Frome when he is well enough to do so, having been nursed back to health by Zeena), adding a whole new dimension to the dynamics here. Is this Fromes way of seeking retribution? His way of ensuring that he can spend the rest of his days by Matties side? His way of punishing both himself and Mattie for their unbidden love? And what of Zeenas response to this? Where her husbands infidelity was ostensibly once the stuff of her paranoia, she now has proof of its existence, but is forced to live with the knowledge of his quiet desperation for the rest of her days.

Ethan Frome is proof that sometimes the greatest horrors are those that arent made explicit. It deliberately forces the reader to imagine the twenty years of convalescence and obligation that occur between the first and final chapters, and to endure the emotional challenges no doubt involved in this time. And if youre not thoroughly disturbed by the thought of this, then youre made of sterner stuff than I am.

Rating: star Book Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Whartonstar Book Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Whartonstar Book Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Whartonstar Book Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Whartonblankstar Book Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (excellent)

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Other books by Edith Wharton:

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  1. This sounds like a fascinating but horrible story. Im definitely curious but I dont know if I could handle it.

  2. Stephanie /

    Its very good, but Id advise buying a block of chocolate to eat while you read it :)

  3. Love that opening paragraph great advice! I read this one a few years ago. Definitely intense, but definitely worth it. I should have thought of hot chocolate!

    • Stephanie /

      Agreed. Its a fabulous, haunting readmade better by chocolate :)

  4. Am really enjoying this at the moment, on the last chapter!

    Im actually surprised by just how UNlikable Zeena is!

    I love the overall bittersweet tone so touching

    • Stephanie /

      I loved this, but my goodness, the most depressing book in the world! (And I majored in Russian, so, you know, Ive read some depressing books)