I’ve now read all of two Edith Wharton novels and she is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. With beautiful evocative prose, Wharton creates the socially circumscribed world of early 20th-century East Coast America, a bleak place where romantic tragedies occur. In The House of Mirth, the main character Lily Bart was a beautiful young woman whose family status gave her access to upper class New York society but whose sex and poverty severely limited her ability to function successfully there. In Ethan Frome, the main character Ethan is also unable to get what he wants in life — an education, a career that would take him away from his hometown, a loving marriage — and faces a barren future. Wharton gives us realistic endings which are deeply unhappy and yet so compelling. The reader’s heart breaks for her protagonists; they are victims of circumstances but not without some responsibility for their sorry plights. I think it’s their ability to see this too late that makes them so sympathetic.
Ethan Frome takes place in the aptly named Starkfield, Massachusetts. It’s a small rural town where everyone knows everyone and their stories. Our unnamed narrator arrives in winter as part of an engineering project in the area, and he is immediately drawn to the haunting figure of Ethan Frome, a tall man in his 50s but looking much older; quiet, reserved, he walks with a limp and has spent his life taking care of other people rather than pursuing his dreams. Townspeople give the narrator little bits of information but never reveal the full story of Ethan’s tragedy, only to say that he was never the same after the “smash up” 24 years ago. The narrator gets to know Ethan and his story after Ethan acts as a driver for him and, due to a blizzard, invites the narrator to stay overnight in his home.
Ethan’s story involves thwarted hopes at every turn. He had gone to school to become an engineer and with dreams of travel (which, incidentally, is the life of our narrator), only to have to sacrifice it all when his father became ill and died. Ethan returned home to run the family farm and mill. When his mother became ill and died, Ethan married his cousin Zenobia who had come to nurse her. Zenobia then fell ill and her impoverished, unconnected yet beautiful cousin Mattie came to the Frome farm. Ethan and Mattie’s love for each other and Zenobia’s jealousy lead to the “smash up” and its tragic consequences.
Wharton’s writing is a joy to read. Her descriptive passages provide not just the physical environment but also the psychological mood of the novel. The narrator initially finds the snow-covered town of Starkfield to be full of beauty and delight, but then,
When I had been there a little longer, and had seen this phase of crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the devoted village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter.
In reading Edith Wharton, I often find myself thinking of Jane Austen. The two women were extraordinarily talented authors and wrote with keen observation and personal insight about rigid class systems and the pursuit of happiness within them. Yet they reach very different outcomes. Edith Wharton is what I would call the anti-Austen, her characters unlucky and/or unable to manipulate the social system to their advantage. If Wharton had written Pride and Prejudice, the Bennett girls would’ve have lost Longbourne, their reputations, and possibly their virtue, and they would have found themselves on the street and/or dead; the “shades of Pemberley” would not have been “polluted” by the likes of Elizabeth Bennett, and the Bingleys and Darcys would have continued as ever in their lofty social sphere. As an Austen fan, I’m glad Jane didn’t take us there, but by the same token, I don’t think I would have wanted an Austen-like happy ending to Ethan Frome. This is a novel that fits in a bleak mid-winter. And please be careful when you go sled riding!