Edith Wharton was a brilliant writer whose work remains relevant today.
House of Mirth explored the constraints of economic and social structures in her own branch of New York high society in a believable and intriguing way.
However, to tell it like it is, she had a tendency to put her characters through arguably unnecessary shit.
Of course, you can’t really hurt someone who’s fictional any more than you can hurt someone who’s dead. And when Wharton wrote Ethan Frome, a story of love gone obscenely wrong that will ruin the joys of winter sledding for you forever, it might not have seemed so depressing to her, because she started writing it in French. If you’ve ever tried listening to the news in français, you’ll know what I mean. Bad things just don’t sound so bad.
Perhaps, when Wharton started writing Ethan Frome, it felt to her like a sunny stroll along the Côte d’Azur.
Perhaps, when she translated it back into English, she thought, “Well, that’s unfortunate, but I’ve spent all
morning this time working on it, so I guess I’ll try to publish it anyway.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you not to read it.
It just so happens that if you do read it, it will likely be one of the most depressing stories you’ll ever experience.
“Spoilers” (giant air quotes) ahead.
1. Ethan Frome takes place in a fictional town called Starkfield (‘murica), where it apparently just snows all the time.
You can pretty much infer the rest of the story from these details. The tragedy of Frome’s life is narrated by a man who’s staying in Starkfield for the winter and happens to meet Ethan many years after the main drama has taken place.
The story of how Ethan fell in love with his wife’s sister, Mattie, and how that whole situation ultimately ended with Ethan limping around taking care of both women, is told as an extended flashback.
All of this is narrated against the background of snow, snow and more snow, and we know from the start that we’re about to hear a tale of something horrible. We hope that it at least might be interesting, but oh, we hope wrong.
2. Ethan’s main claims to glory are a) attending a technical college for one year and b) walking his wife’s sister home from church dances.
With this magical combination, Wharton hit on the perfect formula that makes Ethan Frome one of the most tedious characters in the history of fiction.
Obviously, this is not as bad as it gets. Ethan could have been stuck in a narrative that was depressing in a more obvious, clear-cut way and that offered little hope. Attending a technical college but not being able to finish and falling in love with your wife’s sister are events that in themselves imply a certain level of “privilege.” Because hey, at least you got to go to college. At least you have a wife, who has a sister you can sneak around with.
These circumstances are, however, exceedingly dull, and the idea that they might be the most interesting and eventually defining facts of someone’s entire life is just, well…horrible.
3. Part of the plot that determines the lovers’ fate hinges on a broken pickle dish.
I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say there’s a moment involving a secret special dinner and a cat. This could be forgiven if it were presented with even a glimmer of humor, but I detect no such intentional humor.
Plus, it’s like, come on, we’re gonna blame this one on the cat?
4. When things don’t work out, they try to commit suicide by crashing into a tree on a sled.
Who does this? I get that they have no money and few options. But no one is so poor that the best way they can think to off themselves is by slamming into a tree. Granted, I’m sure Starkfield is true to its name and there are no heights high enough to jump off of that render an effective means of death. But sledding isn’t an effective means of death either!
Ethan could afford to buy glue for the pickle dish. Couldn’t he buy some poison so he and Mattie could Romeo-and-Juliet themselves, at least? He only had one year at a technical college, true. But having made it through even that one year, you’d think he’d have slightly more sense about gravity and objects in motion and so forth.
5. Everything goes wrong, but no one dies.
After all that, we’re supposed to believe that the reason Mattie and Ethan end up horribly injured rather than dead is because he tries to move the sled out of the path of the tree at the last moment.
This might be plausible, but we’ve moved into the realm of advanced physics now, far too advanced for a man with only one year at a technical college and certainly too advanced for me.
In any case, we end up almost being forced to feel sorry for Mattie and Ethan because of the scope of their tragedy while at the same time resenting them for being so stupid.
The real takeaway here seems to be that they’re not allowed to die, because death might make them slightly less pathetic. Instead, they have to live out the rest of their lives in a seething hate triangle with Ethan’s wife.
Incidentally, this American “gray” story may still be sexier than the other book mentioned in the title, but God knows no one’s forcing you to find out.