Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Length: 128 pgs.
My Rating: 4 Stars
This is only the second title I’ve read by Edith Wharton. The other one I’ve read is The House of Mirth which I read with the lovely Cleo at Classical Carousel who hosted a wonderful read-along for it back in 2019. (You can see her first post for the read-along HERE.) I have read that Ethan Frome is different in both theme and tone than Wharton’s other works. But I have to disagree to some extent. I think this novella definitely has a similar feel to it as The House of Mirth in that both are definitely sad. Although, from what I remember, The House of Mirth felt like it had more upbeat parts to it than this novella. This short work is pretty melancholic and quite gloomy.
The main character of the book is indeed the title name – Ethan Frome. As the novella begins, Ethan is giving a person a ride in his sleigh. We immediately get the impression that Ethan is not one for a lot of talking. He seems like a quiet individual. And we don’t know if it’s a quietness due to nature or due to life experiences or both.
“Ethan Frome drove in silence, the reins loosely held in his left hand, his brown seamed profile, under the helmet-like peak of the cap, relieved against the banks of snow like the bronze image of a hero. He never turned his face to mine, or answered, except in monosyllables, the questions I put, or such slight pleasantries as I ventured. He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.“
The individual riding in Frome’s sleigh ends up taking us back in time and recounts Ethan’s story. We learn what has happened in his life and why he is where he is. It is a story of unfilled dreams; the struggle to eke out an existence when wrestling with loveless duty and forbidden emotions.
Despite the melancholic, gloomy tone, I felt this story was well-written and I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened. Truly, Wharton’s prose in Ethan Frome is magnificent. Here’s just a sample of the beautiful descriptive writing Wharton pens in this novella:
“Day by day, after the December snows were over, a blazing blue sky poured down torrents of light and air on the white landscape, which gave them back in an intenser glitter.“
“The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.”
This story is somber, bleak, and heartbreaking. However, when I finished the last page I didn’t feel that sense of wishing I hadn’t read it. Quite the opposite actually. I knew I wanted to read it again. I read the last words and marveled at Wharton’s skillful writing. How well Wharton captured Frome’s life and his struggles. How brilliantly and effectively she wrote about the characters and the wintry New England landscape.
I think there’s more to glean from this novella that only can be derived from multiple readings. I felt the same with The House of Mirth. So I definitely have plans to read both of these again at some point. I also think this fits well as a seasonal read for the darker, colder days of the winter season.