Friday, October 15, 2010

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, A Review

The story is about a hardscrabble farmer named Ethan Frome, his unhappy marriage to his hypochondriac wife Zenobia (Zeena), and his love affair with his wife's cousin, Mattie Silver.

Ethan is broken in body when he is introduced, but his spirit had been broken long before.  As a young man he had a promising future, on his way to leaving the farm he was raised on and becoming an engineer, until his father was in an accident and he was left to care for his ailing mother.  Help came in the form of his cousin Zenobia, who knew what to do to help his mother, and stayed with her until she died.  At this point, fearing being alone, Ethan proposes to her and they marry.  They make plans to sell the farm and move on to bigger and better things, but time passes with no sale, Zeena shows herself to be a miserable hypochondriac, and remorse over a hasty marriage soon sets in.

Then along comes Mattie Silver, an orphaned cousin of Zeena's with no place to go.  The Fromes take her in to be a help for Zeena.  Mattie, however, having been the beloved daughter of a wealthy merchant and unacquainted with work of any kind, was deemed "delicate" and failed to make even an adequate showing at her duties.  This left Ethan to pick up the slack, but because she was so beautiful and cheerful, he didn't mind.  Well, that, and the fact that he'd fallen in love with Mattie -- a sentiment she returned.

Zeena, a miserable, complaining woman obsessed with her "ailments", truly excelled at making the people around her miserable as well.  She was not, however stupid, and saw what was going on.  To deal with it, she hied herself off to yet another doctor for treatments they could ill afford, leaving Ethan and Mattie alone together.  It is during this trip that they share their feelings with each other, and that a treasured wedding item of Zeena's gets broken, giving her cause to send Mattie away.

Neither Ethan nor Mattie can deal with being parted, so Ethan hastily conceives a plan for them to run away together.  When it becomes apparent to Ethan that there are too many hindrances to his plan, it is discarded, and preparations for goodbye are made.  On the way to the train station, they stop at a particularly dangerous sled run (it's winter) that they had decided to go down earlier feeling confident that Ethan could keep them safe.  As this is their last opportunity to do so, they decide to make the run now.  After safely making it down the hill, their time of parting is at hand.  Instead, Mattie asks Ethan to take her down the hill again, but this time to purposely crash so that they would never have to be parted.  And so their suicide run commences.  Spoiler Alert: They fail.

They both end up badly injured and disfigured, but Ethan heals enough to work to support them again, while Mattie becomes an invalid.  Zeena is left to take care of them both.

Spark Notes

I understand that Ethan and Mattie are meant to be sympathetic characters, and Zeena isn't, but I must say that I couldn't stand any of them.  I could find nothing redeeming in either Ethan or Mattie, and the only redeeming quality that Zeena had is that she did, in fact, stay and care for them after their attempted suicide.  I didn't care at all for this story.

I had never read anything by Edith Wharton before, and all I knew of her is that she was unhappily married, making me wonder if this book was at all autobiographical (apparently, it wasn't).  I find her writing to be everything it is purported to be -- a rare occurrence.  Clear, engaging, descriptive without being verbose, her use of symbolism is impeccable.

Her talents are, however, wasted on this story that wasn't worth the telling.

I would dearly love to have back the hours that were wasted on reading this. 

If you would like to read it yourself for free, you can do so here.

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