Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (first published 1911; OUP paperback, with Summer, 1982, reprinted 1989) 

These two short novels are counterparts, Ethan Frome being set in a bleak, snowy New England winter (the story’s title is Hiver in the French translation), while Summer’s title indicates its contrasting atmosphere.

Unlike the majority of Edith Wharton’s best-known works (links at the end to those I’ve written about in previous posts) neither is set in the high society worlds of New York and Europe that the author, a wealthy woman, and close friend of Henry James, knew so well. Their setting is the remote, impoverished rural villages and small towns of Massachusetts: Starkfield (aptly named), and North Dormer respectively.

Edith had a large house (The Mount) built at Lenox in the Berkshires in 1901 as a place where she and her incompatible husband Teddy might reconstruct their marriage. The attempt failed, but it brought her into contact with the austere country settings and stoical, inarticulate people who populate these two stories. There’s maybe something of their dysfunctional relationship in the two novels under discussion here.

Wharton Frome Summer cover

What an awful cover. It depicts the pickle dish that’s broken by the cat, an accident that’s important in the plotting – but this image does the subtlety of the narrative no favours

Both tell of tragically thwarted love affairs. Ethan, a dirt-poor farmer and failing sawmill owner, inept at expressing himself or his feelings – to himself or to others – is married to the whining, needy Zeena (Zenobia – an ironic name, for the third century queen and empire builder was both regal and cultured – qualities which Zeena palpably lacks). Once married, she’s lapsed into self-obsessed hypochondria and constant complaining and fault-finding.

When she leaves to consult yet another quack doctor in a neighbouring town, she leaves Ethan and Mattie – Zeena’s orphan cousin who has lived with them for a year as an unpaid skivvy – alone together overnight for the first time. Their unstated, furtive love for each other leads to tragic conclusions.

It’s interesting to see the patrician, urban socialite Wharton portraying lives of these taciturn characters, as dour as the granite outcrops of the landscape, like those in Wuthering Heights. But she does it with aplomb.

Here’s a passage where the neurosis and perverse passions that seethe beneath the bland surface of this remote, backward region are anatomised; it narrates how Zeena responded to her move to Ethan’s house:

She chose to look down on Starkfield, but she could not have lived in a place which looked down on her…And within a year of their marriage she developed the “sickliness” which had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances. When she came to take care of his mother she had seemed to Ethan like the very genius of health, but he soon saw that her skill as a nurse had been acquired by the absorbed observation of her own symptoms.

There’s a little trace of the potentially patronising scrutiny of the sociologist or entomologist here, but the power of the portrayal carries the reader through such qualms, and it’s impossible not to read on in fascinated horror as the story plays out to its inevitably painful conclusion – one almost as heartbreaking and cathartic as great tragedy.

The evocation of the landscape and climate of the New England winter is done with exceptional skill; key images recur – blackness, whiteness, ice – all of which play a crucial part in the terrifying, gruesome climax. And this is followed by a less dramatic but even more gut-wrenching conclusion, a generation later, mediated through the poised, interpreting voice of the frame narrator. Like the one in Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, which I wrote about last time, he’s engaged in constructing and reconstructing this story out of fragments and narratives of others – a pleasing effect again reminiscent of Emily Bronte.

I’ll turn next to the companion text, Summer.

 As noted above, here are links to previous posts here on Edith Wharton:

The House of Mirth

The Age of Innocence

The Children


14 thoughts on “Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome

    • Karen: it’s not a cheerful read, you’re right. But it’s very short – just 95 pp. – and as you say, superbly written and engrossing, despite the grim material. Not even the stupid cat on the cover lightens the mood – in fact he makes the seething emotions in the Frome household worse by breaking the pickle dish. Ethan is interested in one of the gravestones near his house because it bears his name (a forebear, of course), whose wife had the uplifting name of Endurance! The headstone states they lived together ‘in peace’ for 50 years; ‘Then, with a sudden dart of irony, he wondered if, when their turn came, the same epitaph would be written over him and Zeena.’ No chance.

  1. A classic of the realistic genre. It’s in the literary American tradition, even though it was written in the comfort of her Parisian home. It brings Hawthorne to mind (if only because of the name, Ethan) but the narrator is very Jamesian…

    • Izzy: a good summary. The Jamesian tone is evident in the use of the frame narrator, the perceptive piecer-together of the disparate narratives he elicits from the townsfolk in order to get the full story about Ethan. Hawthorne is there too if nothing else because of the New England setting and the fraught emotional entanglements and dark histories.

  2. Yes, I’m with you about the evocation of the landscape too. It really adds to that feeling of bleakness. You get the feeling that something terrible could happen at any moment…

    I’ve read this book a couple of times and it definitely stands up to a second reading – one of the signs of a true classic, I think.

    • Jacqui – welcome back here – we’ve missed you. It’s a little like the importance of setting in Wuthering Heights, isn’t it? The landscape is as important an element in the narrative as the characters and plot. I’d only ever seen the film before, not read the story; I think it was Liam Neeson in one of his better roles, bringing quiet dignity and profound suffering to the part. Mind you, remember little else about it, so it can’t have been that great – though my memory isn’t what it was.

  3. I have several Edith Whartons sitting on my shelves but I’ve yet to read anything by her. (When I finally do, I’ll remember to return to your reviews.) I’ve always thought of her books as you describe – high society and privilege abounding, so it’s enlightening to read of these very different novels. I’m not sure when I’ll finally get to reading something by her, and I suspect I may not begin with this one. Any advice on which is the best book to start from, Simon?

    • Any of the usuals: House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, even the Children (the ones I link to in this post); I have yet to read The Custom of the Country, but it’s been highly spoken of. I’d like to sample the other short novels and stories, too; I have a volume of the former, so hope to get to that soon. You have a treat in store, Sandra

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