Jeff Scott's Reviews > Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
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's review
Jun 05, 12

bookshelves: 1001books, fiction, classics, short-books
Read in June, 2012

I often shy away from the classics because of their length. It’s quite daunting to read something with very old language at great length. Many of them are so long because they told in parts in periodicals, the more parts, the more funds for the author.

My favorite quote about long books comes from Kurt Vonnegut in the introduction of his short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box:

““Reading a novel, War and Peace for example, is no Catnap. Because a novel is so long, reading one is like being married forever to somebody nobody knows or cares about.”

As a result, I skipped over Ethan Frome often. I put the book on the list when I added some of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die on my list. I picked it up and was surprised by how much I really loved it.

Wharton is a master at quiet storytelling, how the characters and the landscape tell the same story. The character’s desperation is palpable, but oh so quiet like a snowy winter evening, all sounds muffled. Something ominous hangs in the air, it slowly builds, and at the last moment, the big reveal. It’s no wonder she was a master at ghost stories.

A young woman in Starkfield on business, sees Ethan Frome, and with it the story of life in a small town and the desperation to get out of it. Ever burdened with his parents poor health and then his wife, he sees life in a young Mattie, his wife Zeena’s cousin. For a year he has an unhealthy fixation on her that represents the yearning for something new, to get out of the small town, to make a fresh start. As time wears on, Zeena begins to suspect something and the action of all three lead to a terrifying reality.

This would be a great book for a discussion. It’s short with such strong symbolism of the town, the weather, the characters and their actions. It ends like a ghost story, something you definitely wouldn’t expect.

Favorite passages:

Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters. 18

He seemed 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; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters. P. 22

His father's death, and the misfortunes following it, had put a premature end to Ethan's studies; but though they had not gone far enough to be of much practical use they had fed his fancy and made him aware of huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things. P.30

But hitherto the emotion had remained in him as a silent ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He did not even know whether any one else in the world felt as he did, or whether he was the sole victim of this mournful privilege. Then he learned that one other spirit had trembled with the same touch of wonder... P.33

For years that quiet company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom. "We never got away-how should you?" seemed to be written on every headstone; and whenever he went in or out of his gate he thought with a shiver: "I shall just go on living here till I join them." But now all desire for change had vanished, and the sight of the little enclosure gave him a warm sense of continuance and stability. P.44

All the long misery of his baffled past, of his youth of failure, hardship and vain effort, rose up in his soul in bitterness and seemed to take shape before him in the woman who at every turn had barred his way. She had taken everything else from him; and now she meant to take the one thing that made up for all the others. P.85

For the life of her smile, the warmth of her voice, only cold paper and dead words! P. 92

Confused motions of rebellion stormed in him. He was too young, too strong, too full of the sap of living, to submit so easily to the destruction of his hopes. Must he wear out all his years at the side of a bitter querulous woman? Other possibilities had been in him, possibilities sacrificed, one by one, to Zeena's narrow-mindedness and ignorance. And what good had come of it? She was a hundred times bitterer and more discontented than when he had married her: the one pleasure left her was to inflict pain on him. All the healthy instincts of self-defence rose up in him against such waste... P. 93

The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict. There was no way out-none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished. P.95

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