In Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, the narrator, a newcomer to the small New England town of Starkfield, becomes fascinated by Ethan Frome. Ethan shuns the company of the townspeople. He looks beaten down and world weary. The locals make reference to 'an accident' and avoid his isolated farm.
One stormy winter day, the narrator finds himself in the home of Ethan and puts together the pieces of his story...
When Ethan was a young man, he was married to Zeena, a difficult and cantankerous woman. She invites her poor relation Mattie to live with them as housekeeper. Ethan becomes infatuated by the girl which can only end in tragedy.
Supposedly Ethan Frome is the most auto-biographical of all Wharton's novels, if that's true, her life must have been unbearably sad. She identifies herself with Ethan, a man torn between duty and love with disastrous results. There is a definite stifling quality to the writing. Ethan's unsolvable dilemma is a tremendous burden. It reminds me of a book I had to read in high school: The Mountain and the Valley, in which a man wishes to leave his small town but never can. A book I did not appreciate at all. However, I was drawn in by the story of Ethan Frome. He is a truly sympathetic character even though his choices are always wrong. Is this his fault or that of fate?
Wharton reveals a little of the story at a time, answering questions I had as I read. Why did he marry Zeena? Does Mattie love him too? What exactly did happen? The ending took me totally by surprise. I did not expect that!
The story is told in an interesting way. In the first chapter, the narrator speaks in first person, telling the reader of his impressions of Ethan until he enters the farm house. Then the narration switches to third person and tells Ethan's story as he experienced it. It's a short 170 pages but the writing packs a wallop. Every word has a purpose. Even winter plays a major part in this story. The locals agree that Ethan has spent too many winters at that farm house.
Okay, so it's not the most uplifting story but I'm still thinking of Ethan a week after I finished reading it. It's a haunting story.
Thanks to the Girlebooks for the free download.