I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.Ethan Frome is structured as a story within a story: an unnamed narrator becomes intrigued by Ethan Frome, a man he first hears about while spending the winter in the town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. This structure works really well, I think, because from the very beginning readers are made to share the narrator’s curiosity. Frome strikes our narrator as a broken man; as a man who once had dreams and ambitious which for some unknown reason were curtailed, reducing him to a shadow of his former self. It’s only when, due to a severe snowstorm, Frome offers him shelter for the night at his farm that the narrator gets to the truth behind his sorrow. And the truth is a tragic story that took place twenty years earlier; a story of forbidden love, three smothered lives, and desperate unhappiness.
My reading of Ethan Frome was influenced by a conversation I had with Michelle: she recommended that I read it shortly after The Awakening, as she felt that both books dealt with many of the same themes. I agree – there are some obvious differences, but at their core both are novellas about people trapped by circumstances that lead them to desperate actions.
The main difference is of course the fact that in The Awakening gender is very much in the foreground: the fact that Edna Pontellier is a woman is a direct cause of her entrapment. Ethan Frome is a man, so his problems are not exactly the same as Edna’s, but I thought that they were caused by the very same social structure: a structure in which divorce was unthinkable; in which for a married woman to support herself was unimaginable; in which whatever mistakes you made would define the course of the rest of your life. It’s a harsh and merciless social world, and Ethan Frome, Zeena and Mattie are extreme examples of what could happen to people who were ensnared by conventions. And more than just to conventions, they fall victims to their own best feelings, to kindness and to love.
There’s no denying that Ethan Frome is a miserable and desperate book, and its desperation is all the more real because you can truly feel the characters’ lack of choices, their helplessness and their vulnerability. There was absolutely no way out for any of them. The social norms that limit them are aggravated by poverty and illness, leading them to an absolutely hopeless situation. But despite all its bleakness, I found this a beautiful book. The descriptions of the harsh winter, Wharton’s gentle irony, the dialogue, the few hopeful moments when happiness seems possible, and even the very misery of the situation the characters are in all contribute to make this a powerful and unforgettable story.
I think I’m no longer afraid of Ms Wharton. The Age of Innocence next?
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