Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 24, 2019

‘Ethan Frome’, in Ethan Frome and Summer, by Edith Wharton

The Constable Edith Wharton edition that I’ve just read contains both Ethan Frome and Summer, but I am reviewing them separately because whether or not Edith Wharton considered them ‘inseparable’ as claimed in the default description at Goodreads, they were published six years apart in 1911 and 1917 respectively; one is a short story and the other is a novella; and I read them separately too, with other books in between.  Both are included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, along with The House of Mirth (1905), Bunner Sisters (1916), The Age of Innocence (1920, which won the Pulitzer Prize), and Glimpses of the Moon (1922, see my review).

The Reef, however, isn’t included in 1001 Books, and I wasn’t surprised to find that in the Introduction to this edition, Michael Millgate says that although Henry James admired it (no doubt because it is the most Jamesian of Wharton’s works), later critics have commonly been less certain of the quality of The Reef.  It seems they have the same reservations as I do that the exploration of the central situation only succeeds in inflating it beyond all reasonable proportion. i.e. Anna Leath making a mountain out of a premarital molehill, but see my review for how I came round to the view that the novel is really about trust not sexual propriety.

Michael Millgate‘s Introduction to this edition of Ethan Frome and Summer really is excellent.  Written for this 1965 edition, it predates a biography of Wharton, so its 23 pages include biographical details about her childhood, her unfortunate marriage and divorce, her life in France including her war service, and a good discussion of not only Ethan Frome and Summer but also her other works as well.  Speculating before the availability of her private papers in the Yale Library, which were embargoed till 1968, he writes:

It is a familiar and curious point of speculation whether the inadequacy, in one way or another, of the men in Edith Wharton’s life can be said to have influenced the presentation of her fictional heroes.  Certainly the heroes are all, in the final analysis, less than heroic, unable to confront with sufficient strength or resolution the demands of the situations in which they find themselves, incapable of meeting the needs of the women who depend on them. (Introduction, p. 15)

Well, presumably there is an authoritative bio by now, and perhaps someone who’s read it, can answer that question!

Anyway…

Ethan Frome is (as 1001 Books says) about sexual frustration and moral despair.  Like Summer, it’s set in a turn-of-the-century New England farming community, or what we might less charitably call the backblocks i.e. impoverished rural communities characterised by limited opportunity and populated by people with little education or wider experience of the world.  The reader is introduced to Ethan Frome in the Prologue by an un-named stranger to the town, whose compassionate gaze reveals Ethan to be aged beyond his years, and crippled since a ‘smash-up’.  This narrator, alerting us to the small canvas of the township, learns the story from various informants though most of the dwellers in Starkfield, as in more notable communities, had had troubles of their own to make them comparatively indifferent to those of their neighbours.  Wharton makes it clear from the outset that this is no romanticised pioneer community; although nearly all the characters are long-term residents born and bred there, social isolation adds profound loneliness to the troubles of these people.

By chance, the narrator comes to use Ethan as a driver while he conducts his business in the town, and caught out in a snowstorm, he ends up staying overnight at Ethan’s house.  There the prologue of eleven pages ends, and the story proper (of 80 pages) begins with the first of what turns out to be nine short chapters written from the limited perspective of a third-person narrator, bookending the narrative with a return to the first person narration as the un-named man enters Ethan’s house.

The central narrative takes place twenty-years before, when Ethan, married to a dreary hypochondriac called Zeena, finds his life brightened by the arrival of young Mattie Silver.  She is the orphaned cousin of Zeena, and has nowhere else to go, so (like so many women of that era) she finds herself an unpaid domestic in her only relative’s house.  Ethan, who is then only a young man himself, is attracted to Mattie, and when things come to Zeena’s attention, she wastes no time in despatching Mattie, even though she has nowhere to go, no marketable skills, and no prospect of employment. Zeena #Understatement is not a nice person.

Michael Millgate’s Introduction tells me that Wharton was an enthusiastic home decorator during the years of her American marriage and had even collaborated with a young architect, Ogden Coleman, in a work called The Decoration of Houses in 1897. This attention to interiors reminded me of Marion Halligan‘s writing, which is infused with attention to the fine arts and interior decors.  In Wharton’s story, it is a precious pickle-dish which crashes to the floor that brings about Mattie’s fate: it was a wedding present, all the way from Philadelphia, from Zeena’s aunt that married the minister. Zeena kept it with her best things and never used it — and Mattie knew this — but she took it down from its place of safety so that she could lay the table in a special way on the first night that she and Ethan are alone, because Zeena has gone to see a doctor in another town.

It should have been a magical night.  Ethan comes in out of the cold — literally —the portrayals of bitter weather in this story are vivid…

She wore her usual dress of darkish stuff, and there was no bow at her neck; but through her hair she had run a streak of crimson ribbon.  This tribute to the unusual transformed and glorified her.  She seemed to Ethan taller, fuller, more womanly in shape and motion.  She stood aside, smiling silently, while he entered, and then moved away from him with something soft and flowing in her gait.  She set the lamp on the table, and he saw that it was carefully laid for supper, with fresh doughnuts, stewed blueberries and his favourite pickles in a dish of gay red glass.  A bright fire glowed in the stove and the cat lay stretched before it, watching the table with a drowsy eye.

Ethen was suffocated with the sense of well-being.  He went out into the passage to hang up his coat and pull off his wet boots.  When he came back Mattie had set the teapot on the table and the cat was rubbing itself persuasively against her ankles.  (p. 67)

All set for what passes for a seduction scene in fiction of this era… but that cat, in pursuit of the milk-jug while they are distracted by their clasped hands… well, you know what cats are like!

The citation in 1001 Books has this to say:

An interplay between external environment and inner psyche is dramatised here; the inarticulacy of the characters is central to the novel, [LH: it’s much too short to be a novel!] which is framed by the words of a narrator whose knowledge of the history he recounts is unreliable.  We are left with disconcerting questions about moral choice and agency, the role of environment in determining behaviour, and the conflict between social mores and individual passions.  Ethan Frome focusses primarily on the suffering of its eponymous protagonist, but it also depicts the social conditions that enable the formation of so manipulative a figure as Zeena.  (1001 Books to Read Before You Die, 2006 edition, p 262)

So, no, not a cheery read, but Millgate, quoting Wharton’s autobiography that Summer was written in a deliberate attempt to escape from the pressures of the war, promises a more optimistic outcome…

Ethan Frome was made into a film in 1993.  It seems to have taken considerable liberties with the original.

PS See Simon’s review at Tredynas Days here.

Author: Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Title: ‘Ethan Frome’ in Ethan Frome and Summer
Publisher: Constable & Co, London, 1965, 272 pages
ISBN: none
Source: Port Phillip Library


Responses

  1. Ethan Frome was the first Wharton I read, back in the early 1980s. I’ve gone on to read a lot of her books, including Summer, though of all her books I’ve read Summer is the one I remember the least. I loved Ethan Frome (obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone on to read more of hers!) What I love about Wharton is her exploration of how narrow social attitudes and conventions impinge upon individual freedom and happiness.

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    • Yes, that’s definitely the take-home message.
      Now I must get onto doing Summer, but I’ve just got home from our wine club dinner’s EOY Fling, so not tonight!!

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  2. I just checked my post on EF, and agree that there’s a possibility EW was working through some of her own personal relationship turmoil in it – though the gender of the main antagonists seems the reverse of hers. Summer provides a less bleak experience.

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    • *smacks forehead* I spent all day writing this review, (because after all, what can I say that’s new or different?) and I meant to mention that it was your posts about the Whartons you’ve recently read that inspired me to pick this up when I saw it on display at the library!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m familiar with that task of trying to find something new to say…In the end I find it’s best to write what I thought about a book. The perks of being a blogger, not a reviewer. I’m glad you found my Wharton posts inspired you to seek out more of her fiction. I must find a biography- most of what I know about her is from Edel’s biographies of HJames, and the introductory material to editions of her works.

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    • Hermione Lee has written a biography of her, which I think is pretty well respected though it’s a while since I’ve heard about it.

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      • She was of course highly respected in France for her work during the war (at least, if I remember correctly)

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      • I had at a look at the Edith Wharton Society’s website, expecting them to recommend a bio, or have a list of what’s available, but surprisingly, they didn’t…

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    • Yes, you’re right, and it’s what I try to do, but I won’t pretend I don’t feel the pressure when it’s a well-known book!

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  4. I saw the film before I read the book, and therefore can now only ever picture Ethan Frome in my mind’s eye as Liam Neeson. I enjoyed both – if enjoyed is the right word – but it was the pathos that lingered with me, rather than anything larger. I’ve read Hermione Lee’s biography of Wharton and must have enjoyed it because I made it to the end but it had so little impact on me that I remember almost none of it. This is possibly more of a reflection on my shallowness, rather than on the quality of Wharton’s or Lee’s writing!

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    • LOL ‘shallowness’ is not a word I associate with you!
      Yes, the pathos is there, but so well-managed, it’s never sentimental.
      And the snow… it seemed so pervasive to me that when I looked for a quotation to use, I was surprised to find that there were scenes without it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Like Michelle Scott Tucker, I saw the movie before reading the book (very unusual for me). But the movie drew me to the book, and after experiencing both, I was so sad about the narrowness of the world, the constraints. I’ve not (yet) read any more of Edith Wharton’s work.

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    • I’m just tidying up my review of Summer, and with the summary at 1001 Books as the catalyst and a bit of research at Wikipedia, I’ve come to a different conclusion about the world she depicts. Watch this space!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Wharton edition that I’ve just read contains both Ethan Frome (which I’ve reviewed here) and Summer.  Summer fits nicely into Novellas in November and I’ll be adding it to my […]

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