Ethan Frome is one of those things that I heard about on The Simpsons, ‘Ethan Frome, finally a copy to call my own’ says Lisa. Like so many other references on that, once great, show it went over my head until years later when I finally got it.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
It’s a book by the way, if you were still unclear, by Edith Wharton. Set in the early 20th century, in a small, lonely village in New England with it’s cold harsh winters. Wharton was trying to depict what life was really like. The isolation of the small farms in snowbound Starkfield is seen through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, who learns the story of Ethan Frome.
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.
Our narrator has been sent to the area by his employer, something to do with the ‘power-house’. He is stuck in Starkfield over the winter, and experiences first-hand how tough it can be. He regularly sees Ethan Frome. Tall but with a jerking walk, with a gash on his forehead and struggling to take each step. He’s been that way ever since the ‘smash-up’.
Though Harmon Gow developed the tale as far as his mental and moral reach permitted, there were perceptible gaps between his facts, and I had the sense that the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps. But one phrase stuck in my memory and served as the nucleus about which I grouped my subsequent inferences: ‘Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters.’
We do learn the story of Ethan Frome who, as a young man, had studied science at college. But had to return to the family farm following his father’s death. His mother dies not long after and Ethan is left to struggle alone to keep the farm running. Not quite alone though. He has married Zenobia, his cousin who nursed his mother at the end of her life.
His wife, though has ‘troubles’. She is ‘nervous’, a catch-all term for anything from agitated to mentally-ill. It’s a term with definite sexist undertones as only women get described as ‘nervous’. But regardless she provides little help on the farm, instead spending the little money they have on doctors visits.
Ethan’s only moments of joy come from Mattie Silver, his wife’s sweet poor relation sent to do household chores. Frome begins to fantasise about a different kind of life, but his desires remain frustrated.
Yay or Nay?
This book is 80pages long, and Wharton has a beautiful but efficient prose. This may be a story of longing, but Wharton made me feel how trapped Ethan Frome was, and not just because of all the snow everywhere. Another book to add to the list of ‘great books under 200 pages’.
Sister told me to check out The Age of Innocence also by Wharton. That’s actually what she won her Pulitzer Prize for. She was a prolific writer and nominated for the Nobel Prize three times. So, after all the other books on my pile, I think I will.
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