Mr Ethan Frome still cuts an imposing figure in Starkfield, despite being left ‘but the ruin of a man,’ by a terrible accident some years previously. As mute and melancholy as the wintry New England landscape he inhabits, Ethan stoically shoulders the burden of a cruel past. In Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, we uncover the story of his joyless existence and his one shot at blazing, beautiful love. An intense and compelling addition to our Classics archive, this certainly isn’t a tale for lightweights.
Following our introduction to the sombre Ethan, a man of no more than fifty-two but looking ‘as if he was dead and in hell,’ the action rewinds twenty plus years to the heart of the tale, where we find him leading a threadbare life. From a farming family, Ethan’s days have revolved around a homestead ‘ ‘bout as bare as a milk pan when the cat’s been round,’ his dreams of studying engineering thwarted by his father’s death and the torturously slow demise of his mother.
Having proposed marriage to his mother’s nurse through utter dread at the thought of being alone in the world, Ethan is now left in a loveless void, as wife Zeena, disappointed with her lot, has taken to her bed with a suspiciously vague series of ailments. Sour and eternally disapproving, Zeena and her undiagnosed malaise shackles him to a life of grind at the farm. Honing the skill of endurance, the ever-dutiful Ethan watches the years slip away against the backdrop of the Frome family gravestones.
‘We never got away- how should you?’ seemed to be written on every headstone.’
The light, when it arrives, takes the delightful form of Mattie Silver, impoverished cousin of Zeena’s who has come to help run the household. Good-humoured and kind, Mattie is everything her cousin is not, and predictably, inexorably, Ethan falls in love with her, as his wife watches silently.
Ethan Frome is a tragic novel and a famously bleak one at that. But there is such beauty within the austerity and for me this is encapsulated in Ethan’s slow burning romance with Mattie. In one memorable scene, Ethan and Mattie enjoy a companionable lamplit evening by the stove. Exercising great restraint, Wharton manages to make everything and nothing happen simultaneously. By the end of the evening, the sexual tension is at an agonising simmer, and yet ‘When the door of her room had closed on her, he remembered that he had not even touched her hand.’
Mattie has brought a joy to Ethan’s life that he never imagined would be his. Under the desolate and immense Massachusetts skies, he hatches a plan.
Recalling our introduction to Ethan, the reader already knows that this doesn’t end well, but the how and why is a ride of shocking twists and turns. In this novel of repression and stagnation, Wharton delivers the gift of consuming passion, followed by a writerly punch to the solar plexus. An unforgettable read.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is published by Penguin Classics, 128 pages.