Ethan Frome
by Edith Wharton

Review by Edward Tanguay
September 24, 1995

The descriptions in this book are one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story. The walk that Ethan and Mattie take in the snow at night is beautiful and if you have ever experienced a night walk on a country road with stars and the moon lighting the way, reading the description of this one will bring memories of it back:

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.

Here is another example of Wharton's precision of description. It is the scene in which Ethan watches Mattie and Eady from a distance, not knowing if she will go with him in his vehicle:

By this time they had passed beyond Frome's earshot and he could only follow the shadowy pantomime of their silhouettes as they continued to move along the crest of the slope above him. He saw Eady, after a moment, jump from the cutter and go toward the girl with the reins over one arm. The other he tried to slip through hers; but she eluded him nimbly, and Frome's heart, which had swung out over a black void, trembled back to safety.

The contrast between Zeena and Mattie is most extreme! Zeena is fully undesirable and Mattie is a veritable angel:

He and Zeena had not exchanged a word after the door of their room had closed on them. She had measured out some drops from a medicine-bottle on a chair by the bed and, after swallowing them, and wrapping her head in a piece of yellow flannel, had lain down with her face turned away. Ethan undressed hurriedly and blew out the light so that he should not see her when he took his place at her side. As he lay there he could hear Mattie moving about in her room, and her candle, sending its small ray across the landing, drew a scarcely perceptible line of light under his door. He kept his eyes fixed on the light till it vanished. Then the room grew perfectly black, and not a sound was audible but Zeena's asthmatic breathing.

It was also clever of Wharton to have both Zeena and Mattie receive Froma at the front door, first Zeena, then Mattie. The way they perform this act is totally different and sheds light on their characters.

Edward Tanguay

*** Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton
*** Notes on the second half
*** by Edward Tanguay
*** October 5, 1995

The writing in this book is fantastic. The love of Ethan Frome is crystal clear. Ethan and Mattie are both believably in love and Ethan's desperation grips the reader. Zeena, I think, is the most well described of them all. She is reality itself--beyond love, beyond fate, and it is she who outlasts them all. Although I think I fell in love with both Mattie and Ethan in this story and was feeling that instense love and pain of impending separation in their last moments together, the realist in me loved the ending! Zeena, the old witch, the nagging and cunning negative hag, is the one who is the rock in the moving stream. It's so 20th century. There is something black about the ending that you have to like.

I like the way Zeena's image keeps popping up for Ethan:

Zeena's empty rocking-chair stood facing him. Mattie rose obediently, and seated herself in it. As her young brown head detached itself against the patch-work cushion that habitually framed his wife's gaunt countenance, Ethan had a momentary shock. It was almost as if the other face, the face of the superseded woman, had obliterated that of the intruder.

And as he's trying to enter into eternity with his beloved . . .

But suddenly his wife's face, with twisted monstrous lineaments, thrust itself between him and his goal, and he made an instinctive movement to brush it aside.

Here are some example of the accurate description that I love in this story:

Through the obscurity which hid their faces their thoughts seemed to dart at each other like serpents shooting venom. Ethan was seized with horror of the scene and shame at his own share in it. It was as senseless and savage as a physical fight between two enemies in the darkness.

All the long misery of his baffled past, of his youth of failure, hardship and vain effort, rose up in his soul in bitterness and seemed to take shape before him in the woman who at every turn had barred his way. She had taken everything else from him; and now she meant to take the one thing that made up for all the others. For a moment such a flame of hate rose in him that it ran down his arm and clenched his fist against her. He took a wild step forward and then stopped. Ethan's long strides grew more rapid with the accelerated beat of his thoughts . . . It seemed to Ethan that his heart was bound with cords which an unseen hand was tightening with every tick of the clock.

This is an untypical story of Wharton's and the material with which it deals is out of her range of experience as an author. In an introduction to this story in my book, Mary Gordon gives credit to Edith Wharton in this respect:

The reader should marvel--and I mean marvel literally, as in a response to a genuine mystery--at the fact that a woman who spent all her life among the rich and powerful knew to the marrow of her writerly bones how a young man who had had one year at a technical college felt when he was cold, and what it was like at a country dance for New England farmers.

It's a penetrating story. One I will not forget.

Edward Tanguay

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