Tuesday, February 22, 2011

991. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Genre: Tragic romance
Rating: 5. Top 10 contender
Read before: New read
Written: 1800s
Edition: Penguin Classics 2005

Ethan Frome starts with the arrival of the narrator, whose name we never learn, who introduces us to the crippled Ethan Frome. The narrator is intrigued by Frome, but it’s not until Frome is hired by the narrator and he meets the people inside Frome’s home that his questions (and ours) are answered.

First chapter:
The questions that occurred to me as I was reading Chapter 1 are:
• What was the smash-up that led to Ethan’s physical state? (p2)
• Why won’t people talk about what happened? (p5)
• What more is there that contributes to Ethan’s "… look that more than poverty and ill health must contribute"? (p5)
• Who is the woman whose voice is heard "... droning querulously"? (p12)

I loved this book and I think it’ll rank in the top ten of the books I read for 2011. There is so much in this book. It cuts through the idea that our possibilities are endless. Ultimately this isn't the truth: our opportunities and choices are limited to the landscape we inhabit, to the forces at work in our life and our own limitations. And Ethan Frome displays this so effectively through the three main characters: Ethan Frome, his wife Zenobia (Zeena) and his wife's cousin Mattie Silver.

The story isn't complicated or long. It’s only approximately 100 pages and a quick read that unfolds simply and gently. But don’t be misled by its simplicity. I thought I understood exactly where I was but it wasn't until I finished the story that I understood what a multi-layered story it was:
• the political and social landscape of the characters;
• Wharton's use of symbolism to add pathos and understanding;
• the emotions of the players: guilt, anger, fear, passion, jealousy and joy.

Layer 1: Social and political landscape
There’s so much about the landscape of the time but it’s more about creating the backdrop than actually exploring the landscape.

Of great important to the story is the impact of improved farming techniques and increased yields, and not because Frome’s life is better because of them but because he doesn’t have the money to invest in the improvements. Instead, he’s caught in a downward spiral of worsening poverty in a town many have left. The name of the town Sparkfield says it all.

Of great resonance to me is the back story of women’s opportunities during that time. Respectable women had few opportunities and these applied in Ethan Frome. Marriage was the ultimate career but there was no guarantee of success or happiness. And there was little else available that paid well or offer status: some had skill in nursing others but there was little paid work or status in nursing the sick, unwanted poor female relations could work for family for board and little more (which happened to Mattie), or they could take paid labour in a shop. Mattie worked in a shop before she arrived with the Frome’s so the thought of returning must have filled Mattie with horror.

Layer 2: Symbolism
There was also a lot of symbolism in the novel, including using symbolic names: I love the idea of Ethan's name means "strong, long lived" while Zenobia's name is rooted from Zeus, the Greek God-almighty, all willing, yet merciless. Mattie's name means "gift from God". It took me a while but was Mattie Zeena's gift to Ethan which she mercilessly withdrew?

My favourite symbolism is the references to red, and it’s easy and obvious to link red to harlotry (eg Hester in The Scarlett Woman by Nathaniel Hawthorne). But red is so much more: the red could be Mattie’s obvious energy and enthusiasm, and equally likely it could describe the colour and movement Mattie brings to Ethan’s life as he watches Mattie dance in her "... cherry-coloured scarf". (p15) Red's not only linked specifically to Mattie but is used in other ways: to describe Mattie and Ethan watching “… the cold red on sunset behind winter hills ...”. (p17) Is the cold red perhaps a reference to an untapped passion?

The cat, which appears at crucial times clearly symbolises Zeena, and in turn Ethan and Mattie’s awareness of her. The cat insinuates itself several times during Zeena's absence, with it critically breaking Zeena’s beloved pickle dish. Further symbolism can be extracted from the broken pickle dish as a metaphor for the final straw for Ethan and Zeena's marriage, with Ethan not having time to mend the dish before Zeena returns.

Layer 3: The character's
This is my favourite part of the story; how the guilt, anger, passion, jealousy and joy of the characters act and interact together to channel the story to its conclusion. One thing I should mention is that Wharton cleverly gives the reader access to Ethan’s thoughts as the story unfolds. But accepting Ethan's views of people and events is dangerous; Frome has his own strengths and weaknesses, and it's important to overlay these on to how he sees events or you run the risk of accepting everything Frome relates as the “truth”.

Ethan Frome
Who is Ethan Frome? An honest man, a conventional man, a man of pride and prudence. It's also important to remember he's a man who admired "recklessness and gaiety in others and was warmed to the marrow by friendly human intercourse". It seems clear from this why he married Zeena because she represented relief from being alone after Frome’s mother died, and why Mattie represented such a lifeline to him when Zeena clearly never met his needs.

Frome’s life was an emotional roller coaster: with love, passion and joy with Mattie and dread and fear from Zeena at the other. Frome’s love for Mattie is clear as his joy at being with her. She was the highlight of his day: he clearly liked her from the minute she arrived, she added human warmth to his day and fulfilled his need to explore the ideas he had and his enjoyment of the natural world. He even went so far to shave each day for her and do the housework Mattie didn’t do (but I’m not sure if Mattie didn’t do the work deliberately or because she wasn’t physically up to it?)

Frome’s love for Mattie was definitely overshadowed by his fear and dread of Zeena: fear that Zeena knew about his feelings for Mattie, fear of what she might say to him and fear Zeena would spend money he didn't have. Over and over again Ethan retreats into the happiness he derives from his dream life with Mattie and doesn’t stand up for himself: Zeena wants to see the new doctor and nothing is said, Zeena tells him Mattie must go the next day and no argument ensures, Zeena claims the new doctor says she must have paid help around the house and a paid servant is hired. The story is littered with these examples.

What’s interesting is that despite these Frome was a sympathetic character I liked. The worst he ever did was contemplate an adulterous affair and consider leaving Zeena for Mattie. His adulterous affair never went beyond a few embraces and kisses, and these only happened at the point Mattie looked likely to leave Frome’s life forever. Likewise, his thoughts of leaving Zeena came to nothing because he couldn’t bring himself to abandon her to her own fate while he went on to live happily ever after. And when you contrast what he intended to do with what Zeena actually did …

But this lack of action is my frustration with Frome. He might have been trapped in a conflict between passion and social convention but he was also basically passive. He desperately wanted to break free of Zeena and be with Mattie but what did he actually do to make this happen, whether by standing up to Zeena and insisting she stay or by leaving with Mattie?

It seems hardly surprising then that the passive, dreamer's only bold act is to attempt suicide—urged on him by Mattie and ultimately an act that contained little courage. Instead that mad sled ride to disaster is the ultimate expression of passivity. Unable to face the consequences of any decision, Mattie decides his fate.

Is the moral of this story that we are all responsible for our own happiness?

Zenobia (Zeena) Pierce Frome:
While the novel doesn’t have a “villain”, Zeena’s personality emerges so clearly that she feels like the villain. And it's not just Frome’s fear of her that leads us to dislike her: the physical descriptions of her, especially the comparisons with Mattie, make Zeena seem old and unfeminine. But this isn't entirely fair when Zeena's the victim of Ethan’s plans to commit adultery and to leave with Mattie. And, as I mentioned earlier, it was hard to see Zeena as the victim when I sympathised with Frome wanting to leave such an unhappy marriage.

But it’s not really fair to accept Frome's one dimensional vision of a manipulative and hypochondriac wife because Frome’s view of Zeena includes his prejudices and frustrations. Zeena must have her own reasons for why she did things, and these must surely include her early interest in moving to a bigger town (but not so large that she becomes insignificant), which clearly never eventuates. It also seems likely that she doesn’t retreat into ill health and her sly, manipulative way with Ethan because he ignores her until about a year after they’re marriage when it’s clear they’ll be on the farm forever. Dealing with a silent, passive husband can’t have been easy when both parties had made plans for a different life. But there was no separation and divorce for a mismatched 19th century couple, and it must have been difficult to be trapped as Zeena was.

None of this excuses Zeena’s reaction to Ethan's obvious love for Mattie, when it was her ill health that inadvertently created the circumstances that led to Mattie's arrival. Her sly, manipulative method of dealing with the situation by preying on both Ethan and Mattie’s fear of her can never show her in a good light. It's also hard to understand and condone her dismissal of Mattie to heaven only knows what fate.

Mattie Silver
We see Mattie, as we glimpse Zeena, mostly through Ethan’s eyes, and his perception of her is skewed by his passion. With her grace, beauty, and vitality, she obviously embodies everything that he feels Zeena has denied him, and she becomes the focus of his aborted rebellion against his unhappy life.

I think there are two events in the novel about Mattie that stand out: the first is her vivacity at the beginning of the story when Frome walks into town to pick her up. She’s joyful, she embraces life but she's impulsive (letting Dennis Eady think she'll ride with him and then telling him she won't (p22)) and boastful in her claims she's not afraid. However, it’s not until the end of the story that the seeds of her impulsiveness show her to be reckless as well through her convincing Frome that the way to be together is to suicide by sledding into a tree.

Even at the end of the novel I couldn't be sure whether the suicide Mattie's ways of being Frome or because she felt she had nowhere else to go. There were plenty of examples of her dread of Zeena and her fear of being turned away ... I'd like to think she loved Frome and her sobbing "I can't go ..." (p90) was a heartfelt plea at leaving Frome, and not despair at where her life was heading. But I guess I'll never really know.

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