Read With Me: Ethan Frome


I always have this love/hate relationship with Edith Wharton: I love that she makes me love her characters and I love her writing; but I hate how she always gives them such horrible fates. Dicken's gives many of his characters unfortunate fates as well, so does Shakespeare, but with both of them I always feel very decidedly that the fate was inevitable- it's tragic, but there is something beautiful in it as well, something cosmic and natural all at once. So, I can be at peace with such endings, even if they make me cry. But with Wharton, I admit it, I usually just feel repulsed, and I resent it in a way. I resent how she lures me in and makes me think things will be one way, and then she gives me such a decidedly dark twist on all of it that I just feel sick in the pit of my stomach- which, I suppose you could say, means that she is a great write, because she is showing me something that I don't want to see.

Ethan Frome was another re-read for me. I read the book in college as part of a course on American Women Writers and I remember that I loved everything about the book except the ending. Of course, that was about ten years ago, so I didn't remember the ending too specifically only that it made me dislike the rest of the book. Reading it again, I had largely the same reactions to it, although if anything differed I suppose that it was my reaction to the ending, that it was fiercer this time. I've already said that I love Wharton's style of writing, and I do still- I love her descriptions and her characterizations and I felt, also perhaps more intensely this time around, a deep sense of connection with, and compassion for, Ethan. Being older now and more knocked about than ten years ago, I felt more sympathy for Ethan and his troubles, and I understood his desire for freedom and happiness more than I think I was capable of then. It's one of the strange things about getting older that you start looking at your life in the way that he has, especially when it doesn't go as planned, and the part of me that has had similar struggles wanted to see him happy at the end, just as the another part of me wanted to see Mattie saved from unnecessary suffering and poverty.

What always gets me with this book is that it seems that just as the characters are on the verge of discovering something great, or of being free, it all collapses around them- and not just in some sort of tragic way that you can sigh over. No. It's Edith Wharton. So, of course the characters can't run away together, nor can they crash into the tree and die, oh no- instead they have to live and either get what they hated most, wanted most, or become what they most despised. It's.... disturbing for me, however accurate it may be in relation to the real world. So, I felt betrayed by the confusion of characters in the end, the way Mattie replaces Zeena as the dark shadow in the house, the way Zeena finds sustenance in caring for her, the way Ethan is perhaps unhappier in the end than he was in the beginning- it makes me feel little hope in humanity, little faith in our lives, it makes me feel that we are doomed to fail and to fall apart because of our own weaknesses and because of our own desires. Tess was a decidedly dark book, but it was also a tragic book- at the end, I felt like Hardy was handing me something and saying, "do you see, now? We can be better than this...." but with Ethan Frome, I was just sad- I didn't feel anything more but this- sadness and disgust and dislike for the character that I thought I loved- because they weren't what I really thought they were to begin with.

Yet, for all of this, I didn't hate the book and I still have other Edith Wharton books on my shelves. I did enjoy the process of re-reading Ethan Frome, but it's not a book that I think I will pick up a third time. Give me a good tragedy in the classical sense any day, but I'm just not a terrible fan of this kind, no matter how beautifully it is clothed.

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