Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)
After reading one of the funniest books ever (according to multiple top ten lists, anyway), I moved on to what has to be one of the most depressing books of all time: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I am SO glad that I was not made to read it in high school, because that probably would have put me off reading Wharton for the rest of my life. In notes referenced in my Modern Library edition, she avows that her purpose is to counter the rosy picture of old-fashioned New England put about by lightweights like Sarah Orne Jewett, and show the grim reality of isolated farms, suffocating snowfalls, and grinding poverty.
It’s a story of excruciating hopelessness, which we know from the start is going to end in disaster, due to a framing device in which our narrator, an outsider to the town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, meets the crippled Ethan Frome twenty-five years after his “smash-up.” Curious about Ethan’s history, he pieces it together and presents it as a third-person narrative before coming back to the present day for a heartrending epilogue. We never learn exactly how he accessed all the intimate details of Frome’s life, or how from being an engineer he suddenly morphed into a skilled novelist, but never mind that; the pull of the tragic story quickly draws us in.
What is the purpose of this grim tale, other than to de-romanticize our notions of rural New England? It illuminates the inner life of a man who, though in regular interaction with people through his work, has no one with whom to communicate his inmost essence, and thus lives in terrible loneliness. With New England moral logic, as soon as he finds a true mate — forbidden, because he is already married to a pathological tyrant — they both have to be put to death, figuratively if not literally.
Yet through the magic of storytelling, we readers now possess the secrets of Ethan’s soul, his passion, his hopes, his despair, his moral choices, and his ultimate, fatal mistake. What are we to do with this knowledge? Does it make us more likely to rage against or calmly bear our own fates? How would we act when trapped in an impossible situation?
I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think that perhaps Wharton meant with Ethan Frome to make us ask them. Unlike Ethan’s, our stories are not over, and we do have power to change, if not our outer circumstances, the inner attitudes and intentions with which we meet them. Gratitude for even the smallest acts of self-determination is one lesson we can take away from this bleak tale, and perhaps Ethan’s suffering will not then be in vain.