Donovan Roberts Witmer '97
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Pulitzer Prize–winning author Edith Wharton gained prominence at the turn of the 20th century, a “gilded age” characterized in her literature through depictions of the pampered upper class and their social scandals. It should come as no surprise, then, that critics have often called Wharton’s 1911 novella Ethan Frome something of an incongruity within the author’s oeuvre. Set in the rural New England town of Starkfield, the story occurs far from the metropolitan New York City in which the author situates her popular The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920). Rather than focusing on Wharton’s typical subjects of heiresses and social climbers, the novella is populated by poverty-stricken farmers and millers.
However, in keeping with the majority of Wharton’s fiction, Ethan Frome is a tragedy: a tale of unspoken passion and scarring consequence. Set amidst a brutal winter, Ethan Frome focuses on the title character, his unhappy marriage to the manipulative Zenobia, and his infatuation with her youthful cousin, Mattie. The novel pulses with the murmurs of forbidden passion and challenges the piety of a moralistic society. But far from elevating infidelity and condemning an ethical lifestyle, the novel highlights the conflict between desire and convention—creating a complex stage on which the narrative plays out.
Although Wharton never quotes from the Bible or specifically mentions Christian ethics, honesty and selflessness nevertheless play critical roles in determining the fate of Ethan Frome and his beloved Mattie. Prepared to abscond to the Western frontier and start a new life with his mistress, Ethan is reined in by a moment of moral clarity:
He saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he could have done so only by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him.
Ethan’s conscience dictates against his passions. He makes a desperate decision—one that ultimately scars him and Mattie forever.
I wouldn’t recommend putting Wharton’s grim narrative at the top of your “beach reading” list. The book’s complex morality and dark commentary on fate is better read on a cold winter’s night in front of the fire. But, the author’s crisp storytelling style and lyrical prose are mesmerizing, and the mystery of Ethan Frome’s fate alone is worth the price of the novel.
||—Devin Thomas'09 is an English major.