Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ethan Frome - Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

So the other day I was going through my Western Canon list, lovingly looking at all the crossed off books, fondly rereading or attempting to read my notes in my almost indecipherably small handwriting (which I use to compensate for my abysmal spelling) when I came across a blank spot...how had I managed to not actually read Ethan Frome? So I grabbed a copy from the library and sat down to what would be an anticipated horrible time.

I guess I have avoided Ethan Frome because the spoiler is bandied about by just about everyone. Why would I want to read a book about a botched suicide that takes place in the silent snowdrifts of New England? Well I wouldn't really, but it's on the list so here it goes.

This book, as expected, was my least favorite of Wharton's novels, although her novels tend to be depressing, fraught with the societal restrictions and conventions that must always keep her heroes and heroines struggling against insurmountable odds,  impoverished and hopelessly misunderstood...this novel or "nouvelle" as she called it was her attempt to teach herself French...and that is sort of the vibe you get while reading it. Something that begins as an exercise in French with a simplistic plot line that lends itself to easy translation into a foreign language doesn't bode well.

I was rereading my review of the Custom of the Country  and found this little gem: " I even found myself whispering under my breath "please Edith Wharton....just make a huge rock fall out of the sky and land on her...not killing her but leaving her horribly maimed and crippled and yet alive enough to live out her endless years in the anguish of being truly hideous..." That is basically the plot of Ethan From...minus the rock...so what's not to love?"

1) The story of  Ethan Frome is pieced together by a young engineer, temporarily trapped first by a strike and then by inclement weather in a small town in western Massachusetts.  The engineer after noticing this strange crippled man shuffling about his business one day finds himself sitting next to him in Frome's wagon hearing his life story. Plot lines like this always feel forced, although Isak Dinesen could pull off the story within a story trope pretty well...Wharton tends to need 300 pages to warm up...so shrinking everything down to 140 pages and having an unnamed Engineer do most of the work seems slightly  unjust and unsatisfying...

2) Most Wharton characters are established individuals, very rarely did I come across a Dickensian type characterture bumbling through the story line...but one of the things I like least about this book is the way Zeenia's character is treated. First she's the buxom cousin that has come to help Ethan tend to his dying mother...and then in a nanosecond she's a toothless hag of a women, constantly sucking her false teeth and clutching around in her least attractive garb, a histrionic personality that suffers constant aches and pains that can never be cured or even identified...  But because she is so grotesque and horrible...does it justify Ethan's actions? Being caught between an aging wife that isn't what she used to be and a younger more beautiful cousin Mattie  isn't really an interesting story it feels more like a painful rom-com that centers around justifiable infidelity.

3) The big idea is that they are going to sled themselves into a tree (Ethan and Mattie) rather than face being apart, which is being imminently forced on them by evil heinous Zeenia...hitting the tree is supposed to kill them instantly while they leave this world held in a perpetual embrace...and yet they botch it. It's not really they're fault though...sledding into a tree is probably the least quantitatively effective way of dying. I have sled into many a tree and street lamp for that matter...and while there where moments when I wish I had died as I crawled home praying there would be no residual scarring or injuries and that my legs would continue to grow at an even rate...I never even came close to the euphoric death scene they have pictured...which makes me wonder if Wharton had ever been sledding herself or if this was just one of those things somewhat unruly people did for fun somewhere west of Massachusetts...

As a treatise on the stunted lives filled with flaccid hope and perpetual regret that the people of small impoverished towns must face and attempt to absolve in their day to day lives, Ethan Frome does create a world where there is no escape, where one is forced into one life altering course after another, there is no individual power to rise above the elements of fate. Like most Wharton characters Ethan is caught between what he sees as a potential future of happiness and the perpetually bleak reality of his life, tantalizingly close enough to foster hope and yet always just slightly beyond reach.  The desire for change and freedom are constantly undermined as the gravestones around his house seem mockingly to say "we never got away - how should you..."

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