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."

The plot:

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.


  1. One of the truly great books I have read.

  2. One of my favorites and will need to read again soon. Edith Wharton's writing has always resonated with me.

  3. I just read it for the first time last week as our book group is discussing it in Nov. What a great book. I really enjoyed it and you're right about the ending. Pam

  4. Yvette, I'm currently reading THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, my first classic by Wharton, and after reading your review of ETHAN FROME, I get the feeling that Wharton was a bold writer who didn't let the social mores of her time bother her too much while touching upon the romantic aspect, sensuality actually, in her novels. I take time reading classics and Wharton more so, not exactly an easy read but I like her writing style.

  5. Yvette,

    Actually, "Ethan Frome" is the first work I think of when I consider Wharton's works. I've read at least 7 of her novels and numerous shorter works, and this is the one that stands out.

    And I also place it in the horror category because of the ending. Those three people are in hell!

  6. It's on my Top Ten Books list, Natalie. It always has been. :)

  7. Oh, a newbie! What is your book group saying about it, Pam? Are they positive about it? Sounds like you liked it. Good. :)

    I miss my book group.

  8. Prashant, I think that ETHAN FROME is more of a novella than a full fledged novel. Not sure though. I should look it up. In truth, I've never cared. For me, it's just a great book.

    I've never read THE HOUSE OF MIRTH or really, any other Wharton that I can remember. I always meant to.

    I'm going to tackle her friend Henry James soon.

  9. Fred, it seems I'm going to have to read more Wharton one of these days.

    Hell on earth is right. He should have gotten on the train with her. But really, where could they go? What could they do? They were trapped by circumstance, I suppose.

  10. Never heard of this author or this book but it sound fascinating as I love books where the past always seems to set a shadow on the present. Thanks for highlighting this.

    And that emphasis on the word DRAG, that was so class-room teaching.:)It reminded me of the literature classes that I have attended.:)

  11. Dear Yvette,
    Have you read the Custom of the Country? My favorite Wharton of all time!!!! So good. I heard they are finally making a movie of it. Period drama is suddenly chic! Which reminds me. I could really use your help getting the word out about the NEED for Georgette Heyer's novels to be turned into films! Please please post this petition if you agree.


  12. I wish I could forget it! I read it ages ago, and hated it. :<)

  13. Oh Nan, you're the one naysayer in the bunch.

    I love this book.

    But I suppose if we ALL loved the SAME books, it would be a pretty boring world. :)

  14. We read this book in junior English in high school, but I can't for the life of me remember anything about it. Of course that was way back in 1973! I think it is time for a reread. I think I still have my high school copy!


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