Tale of a Tragic Love: Ethan Frome

Ethan FromeIn order to play a bit of catch-up, I picked up another novella. Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome met the bill as it is fairly short and I managed to get through it in essentially one sitting. I have not read Wharton before and I’m not sure that I plan to in the future after this one. The novella, published in 1911, is one of her more popular works and helped to establish her career when it first emerged. It concerns an unnamed narrator who becomes stuck in Starkfield, Massachusetts, a small New England town, over the winter. While there, he is intrigued by Ethan Frome, a quiet crippled man who comes into town once daily. The bulk of the novella is his piecing together of Frome’s story – who he is, what he does, and why he is crippled.

After reading it, I felt like the story itelf was slight, or, perhaps, passe. Frome rushes into a marriage to Zenobia after caring for first his father and then his mother’s final illnesses. Zenobia, who had come to help with his mother, soon becomes ill and Frome feels shackled in his marriage. This all changes when Mattie Silver, Zenobia’s abandoned cousin, comes to help with the housework which Zenobia cannot do when she is ill. Frome and Mattie are attracted to each other and things happen. This narrative in itself was not that appealling to me as I found the relationship overwritten and overwrought. The sense of fate or doom hanging over Ethan was too trite for my liking, and his unending passivity was grating. Of course, this is a 21st century reader speaking, so the question of how he could get out of a lifeless marriage no longer has the same kind of emotional charge that it did in the early 20th century.

The story really got interesting, for me, when I glanced at some of the criticism included in the Norton edition of Ethan Frome that I had borrowed from the library. It alerted me to the importance of the frame narrative. In my first reading, I had taken Ethan’s narrative as simple fact, but one critic, Cynthia Griffen Wolff, points out how Ethan’s tale may not actually be true. The frame narrative does not condone the narrator’s interpretation, so that what we read is only his “vision of the story” (12). In hindsight, I had totally missed this kind of narrative complexity. I found myself mulling over the events of the story and wondering why the narrator feels compelled to read Frome’s tragedy as a grand tragedy. From this vantage point, the novella is much more interesting.

At the same time, the frame narrative is not enough to make this a great read. It is clear to me that narratives of tragic love are not my thing. They do not interest me as they often have very flat characters and narrative arcs. Ethan always felt like a beaten-down man who has no luck, Zenobia feels like a controlling wife, and Mattie comes across as a naive dolt. At the least, reading this novella reminded me that romances are really not my thing.

I would not recommend this novella to readers. It felt dated and somewhat tired. I have read narratives like this before (no fault of Wharton’s to be sure). Perhaps if you enjoyed Victorian literature, you might enjoy this. No guarantees though.

Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. 1911. Eds. Kristin O. Lauer and Cynthia Griffin Wolff. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995. Print.


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