This might have been a morality tale, a warning of the dreadful things that happen when your marriage turns sour, or when you consider committing suicide. But this is written by Edith Wharton, when her own disastrous marriage was at an end and she had fallen in love with Morton Fullerton and was living in Europe. The year was 1911, and society still found it easy to condemn people who found it hard to remain committed to a bad marriage. Edith Wharton was independently wealthy enough to afford a separation. She writes about people who did not have the means to do anything but stay married.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
The story is set up by an unnamed narrator who is intrigued by what happened to Ethan Frome. The ‘author’ is in the well-named Starkfield, a small town in Massachusetts.
It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but a ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the “natives” were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed; it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of lameness checking every step like the jerk of a chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear he was not more that fifty-two. (11)
The narrator is informed that
“He’s looked that way ever since he had his smash-up; and that’s twenty-four years ago come next February”. (11)
If you are the kind of person who does not want to know how a story ends then perhaps you can just take my recommendation to get acquainted with this book and leave the post here. For others, who do not find their enjoyment spoiled by revealing the story but have other reading interests, please read on.
The ‘smash-up’ is not quite the climax of the story. It begins twenty-four years before the time of the Author’s Introductory Note. Ethan Frome is struggling, as are all the inhabitants of Starkfield, to make a living out of his farm. He inherited it from his parents, and more or less inherited his wife too. His mother was nursed by a cousin, Zenobia, known as Zeena, and Ethan marries her when her nursing duties are over. She is an unappealing woman, although she had been kind enough as a nurse. She is a hypochondriac and a complainer and would have liked to live a more glamorous and stylish life. But although Ethan had hoped to provide this, they are trapped by the smallness of the farm’s income.
Zeena has a cousin, Mattie Silver, who comes to live with them for she has nowhere else to go.
Zeena took the view that Mattie was bound to make the best of Starkfield since she hadn’t any other place to go; but this did not strike Ethan as conclusive. Zeena, at any rate, did not apply the principle in her own case. (39)
In this novella, both men and women are trapped by social conventions. With no one to provide a roof for her, and with little to recommend her as a servant, Mattie is one step away from prostitution. She must act as an unpaid servant for the Fromes to justify living with them.
Both Ethan and Mattie live lives of drudgery and both suffer from the effects of Zeena’s apparent ill health. Even more, Zeena wishes to hold her head up in Starkfield society, meagre though it is.
Both living in their own lonely worlds, Ethan falls for Mattie, and she for him. When Zeena goes away overnight to consult a doctor the pair enjoy a cosy evening and between them a bond grows. When she returns Zeena ratchets up the tension.
“I’ve got complications,” she said.
Ethan knew the word for one of exceptional import. Almost everybody in the neighbourhood had “troubles”, frankly localised and specified; but only the chosen had “complications”. To have them was in itself a distinction, though it was also, in most cases, a death-warrant. People struggled on for years with “troubles”, but they almost always succumbed to “complications”. (65)
Zeena plans to eject Mattie, and Ethan becomes desperate. Mattie will have to make her own way in the city, which means prostitution. The two feel they have no escape except to toboggan into a tree at speed, killing them both. They set off as if for her train and stop to find the sledge. Then comes the smash-up.
Instead of dying, the lovers are badly wounded. Mattie is confined to a wheelchair and Ethan suffered dreadful injuries. Zeena did not succumb to her complications, and instead the trio live together, tied to each other and to the town where the author meets them after a quarter of a century.
I think Edith Wharton was writing about the damage done by being trapped in a loveless marriage. Ethan and Zeena have very little economic power, but are tied by social convention, and any affection has evaporated between them.
Edith Wharton had endured twenty-four years of a dreadful marriage with a man who was mentally unstable and who embezzled her money to set up his mistress. The ideas and development of the novella occurred at the time she was leaving him and developing her own passionate affair with Morton Fullerton.
Although Ethan Frome lives in a very different social milieu to Edith Wharton or to the characters in House of Mirth the themes of the necessity of marriage for women, and of the restrictions of marriage and of marriage conventions are not so far away.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton was first published in 1911. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition from 1991. (103pp). I bought it for £1 second hand in a National Trust bookshop at Dinefwr while in Wales recently.
You can find The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1906) here.
A film of Ethan Frome was released in 1993, with Liam Neeson in the title role and also starring Patiricia Arquette and Joan Allen.