Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is a very short novel, the classic story of conformity and consequences. In some ways it doesn’t explore different themes from most of Wharton’s novels but this one is set outside New York City society, which is why I wanted to read it.
I’ve always enjoyed Wharton’s novels but I never knew why. Was it because I enjoyed reading about turn-of-the-century Manhattan or her writing technique? I can’t say that this novel necessarily resolved this question for me. Told as a frame story, a technique that I rarely truly like, it takes place in a small town during winter. The narrator, an engineer who has been sent to the town to do some work for them, sees a man limping along and his curiosity about the man is piqued. The novel then shifts into what one can presume is the story behind the crippled man, Ethan Frome. However, there is an ambiguity in how the story is framed and it leaves the reader to wonder just how reliable the story is.
The story itself is interesting. You know a tragedy is coming and that Ethan will be hurt somehow. You know that, although he always desired to get away from the small village, he never will. Knowing these things, one is still left curious. How will Ethan be hurt? Frankly, I thought I saw the final tragedy coming before it did but I was not fully prepared for it. If I suspected I knew how he would be crippled into staying in his miserable life, I could not anticipate the full brutality of it.
For me the ultimate question is whether or not Ethan Frome creates his own misery or if it is truly forced upon him. He conforms to community expectations when his family needs him, giving up a potentially promising future. He then marries a woman who becomes increasingly sicker. Does she become sick because this is Ethan’s self-identity as a long-suffering martyr? By the novella’s end, it is all the more complicated. I can easily imagine feminist interpretation of this novel. Heck, I could write it. But it’s probably already been written and I am simply too lazy to find an article that analyzes Wharton’s writing at the moment.