Novellas in November: Ethan Frome

I intended to post this review of Ethan Frome at the weekend, but Storm Arwen stopped that. We were without power from last Friday afternoon until yesterday (Monday) afternoon! It was a cold, dark weekend. So this post about Edith Wharton’s short classic (120 pages) and the ‘buddy’ read is overdue!

I first read it seven years ago and although I remembered that it was a beautifully told tale I didn’t remember all the details. So I loved it all over again when I re-read it. What follows is a revised version of my original review.

It’s a tragedy, signalled right from the beginning of the book, when the unnamed narrator first saw Ethan Frome and was told he had been disfigured and crippled in a ‘smash up’, twenty four years earlier. Life had not been good to him:

Sickness and trouble: that’s what Ethan’s had his plate full up with ever since the very first helping.

Even though Ethan Frome is a tragedy there is light to contrast the darkness, and there is love and hope set against repression and misery. It’s a short book and deceptively simple to read, but there is so much packed into it. As well as striking and memorable characters the setting is  beautifully described – a ‘mute and melancholy landscape, an incarceration of frozen woe‘, in the isolated village of Starkfield (a fictional New England village).

Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Ethan’s life had changed when his father died and he had had to give up his studies to work on the farm. His wife Zeena had always been ill and needing help in the house, which was why her cousin Mattie came to live with them. At first it worked out quite well, but Ethan can’t shrug off a sense of dread, even though he could

… imagine that peace reigned in his house.

There was really even now, no tangible evidence to the contrary; but since the previous night a vague dread had hung on the sky-line. It was formed of Zeena’s obstinate silence, of Mattie’s sudden look of warning, of the memory of just such fleeting imperceptible signs as those which told him, on certain stainless mornings, that before night there would be rain.

His dread was so strong that, man-like, he sought to postpone certainty.

As I said I didn’t remember the details of the tragedy and had thought that the outcome was different, so I was surprised by it. I think that made it even more tragic than I’d thought. I’m glad that I re-read it.

Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937) was an American author. Ethan Frome was first published in 1911 and is in contrast to some of her other books about the New York society of the 1870s to 1920s. It’s a rural tragedy of inevitable suffering and sadness that reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s books.

14 thoughts on “Novellas in November: Ethan Frome

  1. Oh, I am sorry to hear you lost power, and for that long, Margaret! I’m glad it’s back now, and I hope it stays on. Storm Arwen was awful! At any rate, I’m glad you liked Ethan Frome so well, and it’s interesting that you loved it just as much the second time you read it. I always think it’s fascinating to see how we react to a book the second time, especially if it’s been a while since the first time.

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