As I write this I’m listening to Nine Inch Nails — The Day The World Went Away. It fits the mood I was in when I picked up Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome, and the song’s constrained brutality fits the mood of the book.
I was in a “whole world went away” kind of mood when I rummaged through the stacks of books at the local protestant church’s used book pile (paperbacks for a dollar!). I’d just finished Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, still haunted by that resonating line of hers: Why can I never set my heart on a possible thing? I was desperate for another book, one that had some words and meaning that would give me something (what “thing” I couldn’t say). On a shelf full of plays I found a few dozen classics. I sifted through them, and I chose Edith Wharton’s book for only one reason. It was short. Right now I can’t sit through anything longer than 300 pages, and this paperback version was about 100.
All I knew of Edith Wharton was that she was a highly regarded American writer from the turn of the last century, that she was rich, and that she wrote books about rich people. I expected Ethan Frome to be a novel about boring rich people and their fussy manners.
I was wrong.
It’s about poor people and their fussy manners. And their inability to set their hearts on a possible thing.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved Ethan Frome. It’s a big story in a little book. It’s a focused narrative that mines deep emotions. It is restrained yet revealing.
The book is about the title character’s doomed, aborted love affair. Wharton does something interesting craft-wise. She opens with an unnamed narrator (who totally doesn’t matter) describing an older Ethan as a crippled man, both physically and emotionally. Eventually the narrator learns how Ethan became so wounded. Years earlier, Ethan, trapped in a loveless marriage with the shrewish Zeena, falls for her cousin Mattie, who is boarding with the Fromes to help Zeena, who is more or less a hypochondriac. Ethan falls in love with Mattie. Zeena, who only seems to love her mysterious malady, plans on sending Mattie away. Ethan grows desperate.
And then the trouble begins.
I won’t reveal what happened, but I was totally caught up in the story. Everyone is trapped in lives and a society that offer no escape. Their choices are severely constrained. Hope is hard to come by.
It fit my mood perfectly.
Ethan Frome is a book to wallow in. I don’t thing Edith Wharton thought highly of marriage, and she had no clue about struggling working class folk. but none of that mattered. She burrowed deep into the hearts of her characters. She churned a whirlpool of tension until the final shocking moments when she revealed exactly how Ethan’s body and spirit were broken.
Next in my literary challenge, another dark and stormy classic.