Topics: class, love, duty
Review by Patti of Tale of Three Cities:
If I wanted to be super-cynical, I could summarise reading Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton as follows: Ethan is an unlucky man, misses out on his opportunity to fulfill his potential, marries out of obligation, meets Mattie and is infatuated with her, has deliberate accident, which leaves Mattie paralysed. Poor Ethan now has to continue his miserable life looking out for both his sickly wife and for Mattie. Of course there is more to the novel, but I found I could connect to none of the characters, and reading was just a nuisance. Finishing was actually a relief but also a puzzle, as I had not understood what the point of the story was.
The story begins with a narrator who comes to Starkfield, wanting to find out about one of the local characters, Ethan Frome, who had a tragic accident about 20 years earlier. The story then goes back to that point in time, and narrates Ethan's life in a secluded, run-down farm. It goes on to describe the triangle between Ethan and his wife Zeena on the one hand, a woman who tried to nurse Ethan's sickly mother, only to become one herself shortly afterwards. She has been "oppressing" Ethan ever since their marriage, and while sickly, it's clear she dominates the household.
Things could start to look rosier when Zeena's cousin, Mattie, the third person in this triangle, arrives to help with the household. Ethan sees in her the spark of youth and unselfishness. He falls helplessly in love with her, but he cannot escape being mastered by the social and moral constraints. On the one night they find themselves alone, they do... nothing! They cannot ever bring themselves to express their affection to one another, and on top of everything else, Zeena's favourite pickle dish is shattered to pieces...
When Zeena announces that she will replace Mattie with a more efficient girl, Ethan's world falls apart. He considers eloping with Mattie but almost immediately realises there's no way society will let him escape his destiny... Ethan decides to bring Mattie himself to the train station - on the way there, they stop at the crest of the village in order to have a sledding adventure - Mattie sees no exit strategy in their situation but a deadly encounter with the elm tree at the end of the hill. The result is not what they wished for. Fast forward twenty years to present day, and the narrator lodges with a Mrs. Hale, together with whom he mourns the state of "cursed" Ethan Frome, caring for these two women.
The story could provide so much material for ups and downs in the narration. And yet, I could feel no tension while reading, which I would have expected given the miserable circumstances - in fact, I could see no action taking place at all! It was this sense of "inactivity" throughout the book that most probably unnerved me. What is more, the characters of Zeena and Mattie are only partially developed, as Mattie is simply described through the eyes of Ethan and Zeena is just the unsympathetic copy of Ethan's mother. Only Ethan is properly described in depth, and I could see his thoughts, his initial ambitions, the missed opportunities that could have led to a different outcome...
But then, the overall justification for his inactivity is attributed, apart from society's imposed moral conduct, also to the harsh weather conditions, and their effect on the human psyche (Ethan is described as having "been to Starkfield too many winters") - something I cannot agree with (plus, I doubt that Wharton had any experience on the subject and this actually shows in her story-telling). I could see how a sensitive person like Ethan could be overwhelmed by the elements, but I had real difficulty explaining his whole life solely from this fact... All in all, I felt it was not a well narrated story, it left nothing to yearn for and I'm afraid in a few months' time it will have been removed from my memory.
I had read a lot about Edith Wharton, and had long wanted to read her work. I'm afraid though that reading Ethan Frome as a first novel may not have been the best choice. It's not often that I feel so uneasy about a book I've read and I hope it does not happen often...