Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton (1911)

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“Oh, as to that, I guess it’s always Ethan done the caring.”

This re-read of Ethan Frome was, to be honest, a perfect read – one of those titles that you pick up and everything about the story blows you away. As mentioned, this was a re-read, and this was a   completely different experience than before. I even immediately started to read it again after I had finished the first time as I wanted to see all the foreshadowing that I’d missed the first time around.  (I would compare it to the re-read experience of The Great Gatsby in terms of how different this time around was.)

Checking on-line, it seems that Ethan Frome can be rather polarizing for reviews, the majority of whom (depending on the site you visit) tending to be pretty negative about it which is a big shame. I do think that age (and life experience) can play a determining role in how you perceive this story, and I would argue that this book is one to read when you’re slightly older (as opposed to high school or junior high school).

I happen to love the writing of Wharton (as seen here and here) as she is an expert at describing people and locations and at how she pulls phrases together. As I think a lot of people have already read Ethan Frome, I’m going to jump straight into some thoughts that I put together during my own read.

Quite early in the story, Wharton describes the farm house where Ethan has spent his life and she mentions that the “L” part of the house (joining the stable etc. with the main house) had been demolished earlier. The “L” part is called the “center of New England farm life”, “itself the chief sources the sources of warmth and nourishment” and the “actual hearth-stone of the New England farm”, and yet in recent years, Ethan had knocked this integral piece of farming life down. Why, if it was so important to people in that region? Wharton doesn’t actually specify why (or at least I didn’t spot it), which led me to speculating why it was mentioned.

This shows the L part in a New England regional style similar, perhaps, to the house mentioned in Ethan Frome.

This shows the L part in a New England regional style similar, perhaps, to the house mentioned in Ethan Frome.

The “L” part of the house is linked with warmth and safety. Perhaps after his mother died, the demolishing reflects how his feeling of safety was eroded once he was alone in his family. The missing “L” not only represented a missing link between his house and his stables (protection for the inhabitants during the harsh winters as they went from hearth to work), but also is an image of the hole in his life (perhaps his heart?) after his mother dies. His old comfortable way of life has ended, and this space represents the gap he feels between his old life and his new, his home and the outside, which suddenly seems unstable and fraught with difficulty now that his mother (his anchor) has gone. (I don’t know – just making this bit up but seems to fit.)

Another reason why it’s referred to as an “L” (aside from its architectural significance) could be that the “L” also refers to “Love” – a comfortable and safe feeling that is forever gone now his parent has died.

There are numerous references and imagery associated with the dichotomy of interior/exterior, inside/outside, insider/outsider relationship. Ethan’s sticky relationship with Zeena: he spends time working (and feeling most comfortable) outside the house in the fields, whilst she (Zeena) spends her time indoors being “sick” and waiting for him to return to pounce on him with demands and questions.

thresholdThe threshold (i.e. the crossover point between inside/outside) plays a large role as several sentinel events occur over it: the time that Zeena locks Ethan and Maddie outside when they return late from the church dance, for example, and how both Ethan and Maddie can only be authentic with each other when they are outside the confines of the home, out in the fields or walking along lanes. (There’s also this idea of domesticity vs. agriculture/nature and the natural order of things.) This imagery continues when Zeena leaves to visit the out-of-town doctor (so she leaves the interior to enter the exterior) which allows Ethan and Maddie to enter the formerly hostile interior of the house as it’s now safe.

The threshold (interior/exterior) also plays a role when Ethan and Maddie return from a snowy walk, and enter the house where Zeena is (as always) grumpy. It’s a drafty old house, with the cold continually coming in through the ill-fitting windows and doors (sneaking inside, in a way) and when the couple cross the threshold (to interior) after their walk (exterior), Ethan accidentally brings in some snow that rapidly melts in the dining room and gets scolded by Zeena for making a mess.  It could be argued that nature/exterior (the snow) is overcome by domesticity/interior (heat in the house) in this situation. (Another case of the interplay between interior and exterior, and the reversal of what is usually a haven (inside the house) vs. outside.)

And this balance continues when you consider that most of Ethan’s thoughts are reported (his interior mind) as he keeps the harsh exterior of Zeena in the dark about his real attitude to her and to the marriage.

Another clever image using this dual imagery, this relationship of freedom vs. confinement (interior/exterior), is when Wharton describes the evening when Ethan turns up to escort Maddie home after a church dance. Again, it’s outside (Ethan watching through the windows) whilst Maddie is inside in the warm, and even the church window shadows are described as “bars” on the snow (referring to prison bars) that provide a barrier between Ethan and happiness, between him being included vs him excluded, as an insider vs. outsider…

So, lots to think about here, and I’m so glad that I reread this gem of a novel (or novella). Highly recommended that you undertake another read if you were forced to study this in school.

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5 thoughts on “Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton (1911)

    • Thanks. I went and read your review of it on your blog. Seems like we both enjoyed the read! I also noted some other Wharton titles from your writing. Thanks for the info.

  1. I love Edith Wharton…she’s one of my favorite authors, but this is probably my least favorite book of hers. Still, I’ve only read it once and that was years ago. Your post makes me think I need to read it again and give it another chance. So, thanks! 🙂

    • I think you may have a different view of it now that time has passed. (If you don’t, not to worry — it’s a short read!) Have a go. I’d be interested to hear your perspective on the re-read.

  2. Pingback: Suggested Summer Reading…. (Part One) | Just One More Page…

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