Friday, June 2, 2017

"If she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived"

The year this movie came out, I went through a Edith Wharton phase. I read through my hometown library’s scant collection of her works, but then moved on, I’m sure, to read whatever Winona Ryder starred in next.  

When perusing a list of authors for this week’s challenge (read a book published between 1900 and 1950), Wharton’s name popped up.  I downloaded Ethan Frome to my Kindle and…stalled.

When I finally forced myself to read it through to the end, I realized it’s probably a good thing I didn’t read this one as a teenager.  Bleak in setting, a rural midwinter, and theme, the misery of unrequited desire in a loveless marriage, this novel doesn’t lift the spirits.  

Ethan has fallen helplessly in love with Mattie, a girl he and his wife have taken in after she was left with only “the fifty dollars obtained from the sale of her piano.” Mooning over Mattie, even the glimpse of a gravestone inspires this reverie: “We’ll always go on living here together, and some day she’ll lie her beside me.”

Frome’s wife, Zeena, who suffers not from “troubles” but from the much more serious
“complications,” casts a pall over the household. When she decides to take an overnight trip to visit a specialist, Ethan revels in the opportunity to enjoy Mattie’s company. He steals a kiss; the two plot their escape. When Zeena’s prized pickle plate breaks into pieces, they realize the futility of their plan. Not only do they fear her reaction, they realize they lack the funds to replace the plate, much less flee to the West.    

In this simple story, Wharton has crafted a cautionary tale. Furthermore, framing the narrative as a tale told from a newcomer to Ethan’s village gives the story a chilling sense of foreboding. I think I'll skip the movie. 

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