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.