he was but the ruin of a man

Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

I read Ethan Frome on my kindle, and finished it on a sunny day. Part of it I read while walking down the street. It was dazzlingly bright and warm, hot even. I meant to buy a bottle of water on my way to the station, and suddenly realised I’d walked past the shop. Looking up I was momentarily surprised to find it wasn’t dark, wasn’t cold. That’s a cliché, but it’s still true.

My first Edith Wharton was Age of Innocence, and I absolutely recommend that as a first novel to try by her. It’s an incredible book. It naturally formed my image of her writing, and my impression is that it’s not too false an image – a novelist of blighted and frustrated lives choked by propriety and convention; of the constraints of the upper middle classes of late 19th Century New England and New York.

In a sense all that is true of Ethan Frome, save the class element (the characters here are mostly the rural poor). This though is a more gothic tale, eschewing strict realism for a mood of fear, horror, even loathing. As I read it I found it created a near overwhelming sense of dread, and all without a single supernatural element. The ingredients here are ice, isolation, long-held secrets, disfigurement, ruin and death.

The story comes with a framing device, where an unnamed narrator takes an interest in a poor farmer by name Ethan Frome. Frome is a solitary, lame figure crippled by some terrible accident. He is tacit, private, and people prefer not to speak of his misfortune. The narrator though is invited to Frome’s home to shelter from a storm, and from there is able to piece together Frome’s history.

“That’s my place,” said Frome, with a sideway jerk of his lame elbow; and in the distress and oppression of the scene I did not know what to answer. The snow had ceased, and a flash of watery sunlight exposed the house on the slope above us in all its plaintive ugliness. The black wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped from the porch, and the thin wooden walls, under their worn coat of paint, seemed to shiver in the wind that had risen with the ceasing of the snow.

Years before Ethan Frome was a young man married to an invalid wife, Zenobia. Zenobia had nursed Frome’s mother as that woman lay dying, and upon their marriage had promptly fallen ill herself. Ethan and Zenobia had little money but even so had taken responsibility for a destitute cousin of Zenobia’s, who now helps out around the home. Zenobia, “though doubtful of the girl’s efficiency, was tempted by the freedom to find fault without much risk of losing her”. 

The cousin is Mattie, a pretty girl full of all the life that Zenobia is lacking. Frome’s marriage is a pitiful thing, dogged by poverty and his wife’s constant complaints regarding ailments which appear more psychological than real. Mattie comes into this wasteland like a blaze of colour, red scarfed, red ribboned, and of course red lipped and cheeked.  She laughs, and her laughter is a miracle in Ethan’s life long burdened by illness and care.

Starkfield, Ethan’s home town, spends six months a year surrounded by snow and winter. It is a hard place with a puritan past. Red then is the colour of life, but it’s also in this context the colour of shame, perhaps even of adultery. Mattie’s life stands in vivid contrast to Starkfield itself, where the barren silence of Ethan’s home is echoed in the bleak landscape surrounding him, penetrating him. Ethan is frozen, early ambitions for education and escape long since abandoned. Mattie though gives hope of life.

They walked on in silence through the blackness of the hemlock-shaded lane, where Ethan’s saw-mill gloomed through the night, and out again into the comparative clearness of the fields. On the farther side of the hemlock belt the open country rolled away before them grey and lonely under the stars. Sometimes their way led them under the shade of an overhanging bank or through the thin obscurity of a clump of leafless trees. Here and there a farm-house stood far back among the fields, mute and cold as a grave-stone. The night was so still that they heard the frozen snow crackle under their feet. The crash of a loaded branch falling far off in the woods reverberated like a musket-shot, and once a fox barked, and Mattie shrank closer to Ethan, and quickened her steps.

I won’t reveal what happens, though this isn’t really a novel capable of spoilers (it opens with Ethan long crippled, and it’s swiftly obvious too what kind of accident crippled him). The key here is mood, description, the unfolding of a grim inevitability. The writing is absolutely beautiful. So much so that at times it’s almost a difficult read: wintry and steeped in despair. It’s that writing though which makes this so persuasive a book. The plot is arguably a little too neat, a little too deterministic (though Greek tragedies are deterministic and neat in that sense, which doesn’t diminish them any), but the writing makes it true.

The winter morning was as clear as crystal. The sunrise burned red in a pure sky, the shadows on the rim of the wood-lot were darkly blue, and beyond the white and scintillating fields patches of far-off forest hung like smoke.

Edith Wharton is a beautiful writer. It’s easy here to pull apart the elements, tear open the symbolism (images of death, a watchful cat, a red pickle dish which was given as wedding gift but never used, the book is crammed with symbolic elements), but in doing so you’d kill it in the way academic examinations of books can so easily kill them. This is a classic school text, and I’m glad I didn’t read it in school because sitting in a room with thirty other kids crawling between words and discussing layers of meaning suffocates a book. It’s useful, it’s how I learned myself to analyse literature and that’s a skill I value, but the price one pays for that skill is the ruin of the books one learns it with.

Ethan Frome is a slighter affair than The Age of Innocence, but it’s absolutely still worth reading. There’s an old debate about what makes fiction count as literary fiction, as opposed to some other kind. The answer of course is the prose. Few authors write even nearly as well as Edith Wharton.

“Now!” he cried. The sled started with a bound, and they flew on through the dusk, gathering smoothness and speed as they went, with the hollow night opening out below them and the air singing by like an organ.

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24 Comments

Filed under 19th Century Literature, New England, Novellas, Wharton, Edith

24 responses to “he was but the ruin of a man

  1. If onlu HP Lovecraft could have learnt from her prose. If only she could have learnt from the strength of his plots.

  2. Little to offer other than wholehearted agreement and thanks for an excellent review. It doesn’t get much better than Wharton, although re-reading offers a curious problem: I’m incessantly shaking my head and muttering and distractedly chuckling at her brilliance.

  3. I loved this one – it was so… nasty.

  4. I like Lovecraft’s prose, generally. Anyway Steve, that would definitely have been a mashup that man was not meant to know.

    Lee, thanks, she is brilliant. Just an absolutely stellar author. Have you stopped blogging? I was looking forward to your thoughts on Cosmopolis, and Prometheus, both of which I saw recently.

    Tony, definitely.

  5. Wharton and Lovecraft are both public domain – someone justhas to write the mashup. Notoriety awaits. The Custon of the C’thulu.

    That debate you mention at the end is not all that old.

  6. To be fair, dark elder secrets would fit neatly into Ethan Frome, possibly they’d provide some welcome relief.

    Fascinating link Tom, thanks for that. It isn’t a very useful term I admit, I tend to take it as meaning fiction that is about prose, but then that immediately knocks this highly plot driven story out of the category.

    Come to think of it my last para is wrong, because literary fiction is an essentially negative category (non-genre) and this is a genre novel. It’s just the genre in question, gothic, isn’t really with us much nowadays.

    Ethan Frome is well written anyway, whatever else it may be.

  7. Not my favourite Wharton but possibly the one that disturbs me the most… Have you seen the film version?

  8. I doubt it’ll be my favourite either. I haven’t, is it any good?

  9. Thinking about it, it’s an odd one to film in a way. It’s the writing that makes it work, not the story.

  10. I will offer up thoughts on both (which I have seen) as soon as I can…did you like them, or either?

  11. I thought Cosmopolis flawed, but interesting. I thought Prometheus deeply flawed, but pretty. Also, where did they hire those scientists? Worst. Biologist. Ever.

  12. Ethan Frome is not my favorite Wharton either, but it is an exceptional work nonetheless as your review points out. If nothing else, it illustrates the exceptional breadth of a first-rate author — but I confess to preferriing her “society” novels.

  13. I found this amazing but too bleak. Like you i stated with the Age of Innocence. A good starting point, I agree.
    What I liked best in your post was this
    “There’s an old debate about what makes fiction count as literary fiction, as opposed to some other kind. The answer of course is the prose.”
    You say “of course” but in some recent debates, I was the only one to insist that the writing makes it literary and hardly anything else. Some said that people in literaray fiction were less ordinary… Mrs Dalloway is ordinary and if it wasn’t for the writing she could be a character in a genre novel. there are numerous examples.
    I’d like to read another of her novels soon. The House of Mirth maybe.

  14. leroyhunter

    Interesting that you class it as Gothic Max. I hadn’t thought of that, but there’s something in it. Hmm. Not convinced.

    It’s wonderfully done by Wharton, but you can see the things that make it school-text-able as well, and I was slightly conscious of being given an object lesson some of the time. The growing sense of doom (in the sense of fate) is palpable though. From the two I’ve read (this and Mirth) it’s interesting to see how Wharton is concerned with different types of control and restraint: who exerts it, how it affects those subject to it, what happens when escape is attempted.

    Custom of the Country is next for me. I’m having to force myself to space her books out though.

  15. I tend to concur with your assessment, then. As I’m sure most do. I’m still staggered that anyone dared put such dialogue in a film (Cosmopolis – dialogue that I enjoyed in the DeLillo book but which seemed problematic cinema-wise to say the least). And some of the casting in Prometheus…anyway…Wharton’s great…

  16. Kevin,

    The genre elements (and I’ll return to that Leroy) I think weaken it slightly by making it perhaps overly plot driven. There’s a definite sense of the characters as puppets moving to their preordained positions.

    Even so, the writing shows just what she’s capabe of. Still, if I don’t prefer The Custom of the Country I’ll be very surprised.

    Caroline, if anything I tend to find characters in literary fiction more ordinary. Perhaps because it takes greater skill to show the truth that ordinary people are interesting, that a person needn’t be extraordinary, incredible, unique, to be worthy of interest. Almost anyone can show how impossibly brilliant people have grand emotions, showing the grand emotions of a frustrated fiftysomething accountant with a vaguely dissatisfying marriage though requires a far more nuanced level of writing.

    I do think too if literary fiction means anything (and that’s an open question), it can only be quality of writing. Any other criteria is far too easy to refute by example.

  17. Leroy,

    On my first cut of this review I wrote “almost gothic”, caveating myself. On reflection though I thought, why fence straddle? It’s more interesting if I take a view capable of being disagreed with.

    My argument for gothic would be that gothic is in a sense a shopping list of classic ingredients and an atmosphere, both of which are present here. Long hidden secrets. Isolation. Ruined structures inhabited by ruined people (not a castle here I grant, but isolated by snow and ice and hiding something terrible). Disfigurement and death. It really is only the supernatural element that’s lacking, and I’m not sure that’s essential (does The Monk have supernatural elements? I genuinely don’t know).

    In terms of mood it is very much dread, despair, a fate prewritten and unavoidable. The growing sense of doom (and fate).

    Gothic now is seen as potboiler stuff, but it wasn’t always and I’m not sure use of the term denigrates the book (save that the book’s failings for me arise out of its overuse of gothic elements).

    That said, I wouldn’t die in a ditch over the point. It’s just how it struck me, and a handy shorthand to describe the book’s mood. It did prompt me to pick up a copy of Dracula again though…

    It is a bit object-lessony. It’s incredibly well suited to school study given all the symbolism that lies so near the surface, but I do think one risks losing the forest in the course of examing the trees here too closely.

    Control and constraint are definitely her core themes.

  18. Lee, I’ll look forward to your review and comment there. I miss your blog!

  19. Max: I found the film worth watching but then I have a film ifxation anyway.

  20. leroyhunter

    Your “genre shopping list” is a nice idea Max, and I agree all the elements you mention are there. I tend to think Gothic is more…sensational, melodramatic I suppose – murder! virgins deflowered! unholy rites! – that kind of thing. Although I suppose the book is towards the end somewhat melodramatic, and can seem fairy-tale like rather then strictly realistic.

  21. I have this one on the shelf, thanks for this enticing review. It makes me want to pick it right away. (I still have to read Olmi when I’m ready for a bleak session, though)

    I loved The Custom of the Country, I highly recommend it. It’s more than excellent.

    ” This is a classic school text, and I’m glad I didn’t read it in school because sitting in a room with thirty other kids crawling between words and discussing layers of meaning suffocates a book. It’s useful, it’s how I learned myself to analyse literature and that’s a skill I value, but the price one pays for that skill is the ruin of the books one learns it with.” I can only agree with that. That’s why I enjoy reading reviews of French classics by foreigners. You have a fresh look at them and you help me change my perspective. It’s very rewarding.

    “Red then is the colour of life, but it’s also in this context the colour of shame, perhaps even of adultery.” I haven’t read it but isn’t The Scarlet Letter about adultery? (I tried to read it in English, once, but I didn’t manage to read past the introduction, I need a French copy)

  22. PS/ Looking forward to your review of In The Absence of Men.

  23. Hi there,

    Replies will be a bit slow this week I’m afraid as I’m on holiday in Madrid. I’ll reply properly when I’m back next week, and will write up In the Absence of Men then, as well as a collection of 18th Century Chinese supernatural tales I finished way before I expected to (I hadn’t realised there was a glossary, bibliography and other materials at the end and thought I had another hundred pages or so to go – careless of me).

  24. Pingback: a good passionate fit of crying. | Pechorin's Journal

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