I first encountered Ethan Frome (published in 1911) among the packed-away college books of one of my older siblings. I was about nineteen at the time. The arrangement of title and author on the book’s cover had me confused at first: I didn’t know which was which. In any case, I started the book that night and completed it in a single sitting.
The title character lives with his wife, Zeena, on a farm in New England. The landscape is lonely, cold, and bleak; so too is this marriage. Zeena is morbidly preoccupied with her various infirmities and Ethan is her human workhorse. He is described as a quiet and able man whose private, passionate dreams of happiness have been almost completely crushed. But that changes when Mattie Silver, Zeena’s cousin, comes to stay in the Frome household. Ethan and Mattie immediately warm up to one another, but their mutual attraction is destined for a dreadful nonfulfillment.
Every detail in the novel contributes effectively to the drama that unfolds: ‘…we came to an orchard of starved apple-trees writhing over a hillside among outcroppings of slate that nuzzled up through the snow like animals pushing out their noses to breathe’. And Ethan himself is described 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’.
Many readers might dismiss Ethan Frome as simply depressing. It could also be argued that the author unconvincingly contrived a predicament of hopelessness for Ethan and Mattie. Why not run away from their prison-like existence on the farm, assume a new identity and start over? Whatever the consequent risks, such an option is preferable to suicide!
But for me, Wharton’s rendering of this material transcends any of its shortcomings. Even the depressing elements attain a grim beauty (Ethan’s search for Mattie after their failed suicide is a heartbreaking example). Also, the author could have argued that innumerable lovers have ended their lives together under the pressure of circumstances far less desperate than that of Ethan and Mattie. Therefore, what these two do (or attempt to do) is at least psychologically plausible.
Wharton’s view of romantic love, and life in general, was decidedly pessimistic. She once said: “Life is the saddest thing, next to death.” While I do not share this outlook, her Ethan Frome touched me deeply when I read it that first time many years ago; and it continues to do so. Also, it cannot be denied that Ethan and Mattie’s awful fate has played out, in one way or another, in the lives of many people down through the ages. The only hope thus left is a life and love beyond this life. But such hope is absent from the stark, devastating vision of Edith Wharton’s novel.