Friday, October 19, 2012
Forgotten Book Friday: ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton
Today is Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book day over at Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinsase Don't forget to check out all the other book mavens talking about forgotten books today. Lots of good recommendations.
I know that ETHAN FROME is not the first book you think of when you think of Edith Wharton's work - the woman wrote several classics of early 20th century literature - but it's the only one I remember reading in high school - thanks to Miss Eisenberg, my wonderful English teacher. I've since re-read it many times, it remains one of those books hard to define but intriguing as hell. It's a kind of grim romantic tragedy that is also, because of its ending, a horror story. At least in my view.
I have a feeling it was one of Miss Eisenberg's favorites as well since she was/is a big fan of allegory and symbolism. And let me tell you, ETHAN FROME is a symbolist's dream.
Part of our lesson plan was to highlight and interpret the various symbols Wharton used in the book, for instance, 'the sled'. Let me tell you we had some great discussions in class.
The story is set (mostly in winter) in a bleak New England village, imaginatively enough called Starkville, by the author. Frome is a tall, silent, physical 'ruin of a man' when we first meet him. He is an enigma to the narrator who, an outsider, is in Starkville on some sort of company business never much elaborated on because it isn't important.
"I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.
If you know Starkfield, Massachusetts, you know the post-office. If you know the post-office you must have seen Ethan Frome drive up to it, drop the reins on his hollow-backed bay and drag himself across the brick pavement to the white colonnade: and you must have asked who he was."
Note the specific use of the word, 'drag' in describing Frome's approach to the post office door. The narrator then goes on to describe him in detail, making a powerful picture in our minds before we're much into the story.
Many people are put off by the idea that the story is not told from the point of view of any of the protagonists but from that of a sophisticated humanist, someone who has no stake in the outcome except assuaging his curiosity.
But we enter the story twenty four years after the main events and as Wharton herself puts it in an Author's Introduction, she gave the mechanics of story-telling a great deal of thought:
"The problem before me, as I saw in the first flash, was this: I had to deal with a subject of which the dramatic climax, or rather the anti-climax, occurs a generation later than the first acts of the tragedy. This enforced lapse of time would seem to anyone persuaded - as I have always been - that every subject (in the novelist's sense of the term) implicitly contains its own form and dimensions - to mark Ethan Frome as the subject for a novel. But I never thought this for a moment, for I had felt, at the same time, that the theme of my tale was not one on which many variations could be played. It must be treated as starkly and summarily as life had always presented itself to my protagonists; any attempt to elaborate and complicate their sentiments would necessarily have falsified the whole. They were, in truth, these figures, my granite outcroppings; but half-emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate."
In his late twenties, From is married to a needy and unpleasant woman, a bitter hypochondriac who's joy in life is to complain. His character dictates that he make the best of the situation; he is silent and stoic and accepting of life's harsh vicissitudes.
Until his wife's young, vivacious and impoverished cousin comes to stay on the farm.
The inevitable ending - inevitable because of the time and place and who these people are - has a garish horror to it which transcends even the general bleakness of the story.
Everytime I re-read ETHAN FROME, I get caught up and hope for a different outcome. It never happens.
The book was turned into a movie a few years ago starring Liam Neesom as Ethan Frome (he was wonderful in the part) and Patricia Arquette. It wasn't bad. But read the book first.