An unhappy ménage

Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome
Introduction and notes by Pamela Knights
Wordsworth Classics 2004 (1911)

The sled started with a bound, and they flew on through the dusk, gathering smoothness and speed as they went, with the hollow night opening out below them and the air singing by like an organ.

Even this passage, full as it is with the exhilaration and joys of sledding in the snow, is full of the portent of tragedy: the night is hollow — it opens out below them like the abyss — the sound of the organ evokes both weddings and funeral services. The settlement of Starkfield, desolate both by name and by nature, has a secret in the form of Ethan Frome which a visitor, an engineer, seeks to penetrate. It is a sad tale, yet one with an unexpected ending.

Ethan, sometime in the late 19th century and somewhere in the mountains of Massachusetts, is cursed with a loveless and childless marriage and a failing timber business, any prospects of advancement and intellectual satisfaction denied to him due to having a semi-invalid hypochondriac partner to support.

When his wife’s cousin, Mattie, saved from destitution by coming to stay and help in the house, proves younger, more convivial and attractive compared to Zenobia, he can’t help but feel a lighter heart when Mattie is in his presence. But things come to a head in the dead of winter when Mattie is faced with banishment.

I can see why Wharton is lauded so much and why this novella is held up as exemplary. Like a stage play with a limited cast we see the mostly unspoken interactions between three principals, but with the addition of explicit stage directions. And what directions she provides: beautiful writing, subtle language, telling details. We gauge Ethan’s frustrated ambitions in the small room he furnishes for himself:

Here he had nailed up shelves for his books, built himself a box-sofa out of boards and a mattress, laid out his papers on a kitchen table, hung on a rough plaster wall an engraving of Abraham Lincoln and a calendar with ‘Thoughts from the Poets’…

Mattie is the epitome of perfection as far as Ethan is concerned, despite Zeena’s constant disapproval:

It had been one of the wonders of their intercourse that from the first, she, the quicker, finer, more expressive, instead of crushing him by the contrast, had given him something of her own ease and freedom…

Zeena is the last corner of this triangle, the archetypal wicked stepmother of fairytale. Before ever her orphaned cousin comes to Starkfield

Zenobia, though doubtful of the girl’s efficiency, was tempted by the freedom to find fault without much risk of losing her…

and afterward “Zenobia’s fault-finding was of the silent kind, but not the less penetrating for that.”

Throughout the novella in fact Ethan’s wife is depicted as some kind of psychic vampire with false teeth, a malign presence sucking out any joy, whose focus on her own illnesses — real or imaginary we are never sure — denies anyone else a right to feelings or the means to administer to those emotional needs. Meanwhile Ethan is the perpetual martyr, tied to an loss-making rural enterprise and a self-centred wife who won’t ever move; Mattie is a supposedly good-for-nothing lazy parasite whose actions nevertheless belie Zeena’s characterisation of her, for she is forever tidying away and clearing and washing up, all with a good grace.

And now, in deep winter, the reckoning for this unhappy ménage must come to pass. The temporary absence of Zeena to consult a new doctor will allow Ethan and Mattie a respite to quietly enjoy each other’s presence, but the breaking of a glass dish will presage the rupture of an uneasy truce, leading to an inevitable tragic outcome. However, this drama, with a frame told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, provides a final twist, showing that we may well have been mistaken in the precise nature of the expected outcome. If anything it is like a morality tale, but without the moralising.

This consummately-written novella has so much for me to admire. Visually, for example, it is dominated by tones and hues, the whiteness of snow contrasted with darkness of course but with reds — the glass dish, a scarf, geraniums, the low sun — depicting muted passion, and very occasionally gold, as with Mattie’s lost-and-found locket, suggesting a glint of happiness. Names too are suggestive: Zenobia was a Syrian queen who defied the Roman Empire, as Ethan’s wife quietly defies him; Ethan himself takes his name from the writer of Psalm 89, a song which extols God’s mercy; and Mattie’s surname Silver suggests a glittering treasure which, over time, may well tarnish.

Pamela Knights’ extensive introduction, with bibliography and notes fully one quarter of the length of Wharton’s tale, covers the book’s strengths so much better anything I can say on my own account, and with much more authority — but I would recommend any perusal take place after a reading of Ethan Frome. That the novella was even better than I had expected is both testament to Wharton’s skill and an encouragement for me to seek out more by her.

6 thoughts on “An unhappy ménage

  1. This was my introduction to Wharton a few years ago and still the one that stands out most in my mind. I don’t usually like stories that are quite as bleak as this but the writing is wonderful, and I found myself fully caught up in the emotion of it. Zeena was the enigma that gave the book its depth for me – hard to sympathise with though her situation surely merits sympathy, but then we only see her (if I remember rightly) through Ethan’s eyes and how much can we rely on his portrayal of her?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I so agree: Zeena is very much both enigma and heart of this story, the twist at the end revealing more of her than Wharton cared to let us see through the preceding chapters. The way Wharton plays with our emotions—fears and hopes—is magisterial.

      And the landscape too has its role to play. In fact, though (as Pamela Knights makes clear) this is merely one way to approach the novella, I was strongly reminded of fairytale elements in an otherwise all too realistic tale. Especially the Snow White motif: that heroine’s mother wished her baby daughter to be white as snow, dark as the ebony frame of a window, red as the blood spilled from her pricked finger; and with Zeena as the wicked crone of a stepmother and the suppressed hints of incestuous feelings in many such fairytales, Wharton cunningly plays havoc with our expectations as we veer between the knowledge that tragedy is the only outcome and wishing for a happy fairytale ending.


  2. A lovely review I haven’t read this one, but The Age Of Innocence and The House Of Mirth are favourites. I came across her also in a book about the wealthy American girls who married British aristocrats – in that society she was thought to be overly clever and bookish.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, her biography is really interesting, Gert, certainly a woman and an author I want to find out more about. This short novel was probably the best entry for me, I think, encouraging me to read more of her work.


  3. Thank you for this review, which inspires me to read Ethan Frome. I had (mistakenly, I see from your review) thought of it as dreary. In graduate school I read and loved Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, and wondered whether Ethan Frome was the Wharton novel taught in American high schools only because it was so much shorter than her others. Do you think the subject matter is age-appropriate for teenagers?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it would be perfect for teenagers of an age to have experienced besottedness, Josna: there’s no sex, either explicit or implicit, just the ache of longing — as long as they can bear the slow build-up, which may be where any reputation for dreariness comes from! But the twist at the end is very Jamesian, for want of a better description.

      Liked by 1 person

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