Despite my trepidation at seeming less than enthusiastic about what has been listed as classic literature, I’ve got some issues with Edith Wharton’s novel.
One thing that I’ve mentioned here already is the inability to rouse my sympathies for Ethan Frome in his dilemma of an old (gee, at 7 years his senior she’s all of 35!) and mostly hypochondriacally invalid wife, Zeena, and his strong feelings for her young cousin, Mattie. And again, it is not the betrayal of infidelity that bothers me; I’m a believer of the notion that there are tremendously worse sins that people commit against each other daily that are clearly not in the name of love.
Now the fault may be mine, in that I’m married now, and older; no longer the cute, young and fancy free chickie I used to be. But I don’t believe that that’s it. I believe, in fact, that the fault lies in Wharton’s story. In reading constantly and consistently good novels of late, I may be more aware of writing techniques and more wary of believing the author so readily. (Except Paz’s My Life With the Wave, or anything Marquez tells me really happened, for me, really happened.) But with the beginning of Ethan’s story, where he is watching young Mattie secretly at a dance, there is an established lovestruckness that doesn’t tell me why, or give much justification for his dislike of his own wife. So right there, I’m poised to argue.
But this, I believe is the real problem:
Wharton on Mattie, the girlfriend: She held the light at the same level, and it drew out with the same distinctness her slim young throat and the brown wrist no bigger than a child’s. Then, striking upward, it threw a lustrous fleck on her lips, edged her eyes with velvet shade, and laid a milky whiteness above the black curve of her brow. (p. 81)
or: She seemed to melt against him in her terror, and he caught her in his arms, held her fast there, felt her lashes beat his cheek like netted butterflies. (p. 120)
Wharton on Zeena (the wife): Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast, the other held a lamp. The light, on a level with her chin, drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wrist of the hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face under its ring of crimping-pins. (p. 53)
While it is well within the author’s right to offer description, there is almost of sense of hatred towards the wife in his many descriptions of her. I picked up on an authorly bias that immediately had me playing devil’s advocate.
It also had me mistrusting the narrator.
The ending was a strange twist, and a bit melodramatic leading up to it, wherein Mattie convinces Ethan to hop on a sled and ride into a tree in a grand suicide attempt meant to keep them together forever. The twist is pure Alfred Hitchcock material. This sledding suicide attempt is when Ethan incurred his crippling injuries, and evidently, Mattie came out pretty bad as well. The first person narrator of the introduction now comes back to us to let us in on the secret, as Zeena prepares a meal, Mattie sits crippled in a chair, grumpy and mean as Zeena had ever been, and poor Ethan is resigned to his life now with two sickly old ladies.
Decent writing, of course. Descriptive and full of imagery of the setting and characters. But still, not one of the intricate or powerful stories I’m getting used to reading. In doing my after-reading research, I’ve noticed attempts at finding symbolism, such as the red scarf and red ribbon that Mattie wears. I barely took note of that, knowing that of course, red is a symbol of passion, and life. Out of a box of hair ribbons any woman would have selected the red to dress up and attract a beau.
Good then, but not great.