08 December 2014

Ethan Frome’s winter of discontent

Fascinated as I am by the writing career of Edith Wharton, when The Austin Chronicle announced that her novel, Ethan Frome, was to be its book club’s December pick, it seemed an ideal opportunity to read it. This short essay records some of my first impressions.

Ethan Frome is a sad tale;1 and yet, if we read ‘to know that we are not alone’, we finish the novel with a deeper awareness of life’s sublime vicissitudes and are grateful its troubles belong to another. From the beginning, the ‘starkness’ of Ethan’s existence is laid bare.

I had come in the degenerate day of trolley, bicycle and rural delivery, when communication was easy between the scattered mountain villages, and the bigger towns in the valleys, such as Bettsbridge and Shadd’s Falls, had libraries, theatres and Y.M.C.A. halls to which the youth of the hills could descend for recreation. But when winter shut down on Starkfield, and the village lay under a sheet of snow perpetually renewed from the pale skies, I began to see what life there—or rather its negation—must have been in Ethan Frome’s young manhood (7-8).

The frigid landscape of Ethan Frome is far more than a backdrop against which events unfold. It is a major player in its own right; harsh, daunting, unforgiving — and compelling. ‘Why now?’ asks The Austen Chronicle about taking up Ethan Frome. ‘Because the recent cold snap got us thinking about our favorite freezing-temp love stories.’

But unlike the world of Nancy Mitford, love does not thrive in the cold climate of Starkfield for the Frome clan.2 Indeed, if their frustrated emotional lives were to be represented by any season of the year, it is winter at its worst, when it portrays life’s termination in death — especially when that death is the loss of hope. The desolateness of winter pervades Ethan Frome.

Day by day, after the December snows were over, a blazing blue sky poured down torrents of light and air on the white landscape, which gave them back in an intenser glitter. One would have supposed that such an atmosphere must quicken the emotions as well as the blood; but it seemed to produce no change except that of retarding still more the sluggish pulse of Starkfield. When I had been there a little longer, and had seen this phase of crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the devoted village, and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter. Twenty years earlier the means of resistance must have been far fewer, and the enemy in command of almost all the lines of access between the beleaguered villages; and, considering these things, I felt the sinister force of [the] phrase: “Most of the smart ones get away.” But if that were the case, how could any combination of obstacles have hindered the flight of a man like Ethan Frome? (8-9)

For Ethan’s obstacles were many, a legion of soul-destroying disappointments: a promising engineering career cut short by a father’s sickness; unrelenting duties on an unprepossessing farm and mill; a mother’s lingering dementia and an unhappy marriage, thusly ill-contracted.

After the funeral, when he saw her preparing to go away, he was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay there with him. He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter… (70)

Even the prospect of abandoning Starkfield for a modicum of contentment comes to naught by his wife Zeena’s social inadequacies, as ‘Ethan learned the impossibility of transplanting her. She chose to look down on Starkfield, but she could not have lived in a place which looked down on her.’ The outside world, too, conspires against him. ‘Even Bettsbridge or Shadd’s Falls would not have been sufficiently aware of her, and in the greater cities which attracted Ethan she would have suffered a complete loss of identity (71-72).’

Only the arrival of his wife’s destitute cousin, Mattie Silver, sent to Starkfield to aid Zeena in her perpetual discomfort — ‘[w]hen she came to take care of his mother she had seemed to Ethan like the very genius of health, but he soon saw that her skill as a nurse had been acquired by the absorbed observation of her own symptoms (72)’ — offers him moments of respite, ‘a “feel” of spring in the air (149)’, that fleetingly relieves his sadness, then heightens it, and with a stroke makes it permanent.

The climax of the story is swift; its repercussions, like most bad ends, plays out for decades. His usually self-absorbed wife, newly curious of an unsuspecting-Ethan’s attentions elsewhere, pronounces the cousin’s care inadequate; she hires a new girl to tend to the household and turns an ill-prepared Mattie out to fend for herself. In a fit of desperation Ethan and Mattie, both facing unpalatable futures, opt for a careening sled and a well-placed elm to bring them lasting rest, but fate has other plans: they survive the ‘smash-up’ — she an invalid, he badly crippled — with the cruel irony that Zeena must now serve as nurse-maid to both.

It is in these vicissitudes where Ethan Frome is as immemorial as human nature and the four seasons; sadly, Ethan and his family know only one. Edith Wharton believed that at its heart was a bare, uncompromising moral as timeless as the bedrock upon which the village sat. In an introduction written for a 1922 edition, she explained:

the theme of my tale was not one on which many variations could be played. It must be treated as starkly and summarily as life had always presented itself to my protagonists; any attempt to elaborate and complicate their sentiments would necessarily have falsified the whole. They were, in truth, these figures, my granite outcroppings; but half-emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate (ii).

Unlike the momentarily victorious House of York, for Ethan Frome there is no hope that ‘now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer’.3 His winter lasts year-round; his disappointments are continuous, cemented by the attempted ‘escape’ that fateful February night, which not only ensnared him in its perpetual gloom, but his wife and her cousin, too — misfortune and grief compounded. Only death, on its own terms and in its own time, will bring relief.

They turned in at the gate and passed under the shaded knoll where, enclosed in a low fence, the Frome grave-stones slanted at crazy angles through the snow. Ethan looked at them curiously. For years that quiet company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom. “We never got away—how should you?” seemed to be written on every headstone; and whenever he went in or out of his gate he thought with a shiver: “I shall just go on living here till I join them (50-51).”

For me, Ethan Frome is a novel of winter to be read in winter, when the nearness of freezing cold and blanketing snow makes the reality of Starkfield more emphatic. Even the rare occasions when love does break the surface (to acknowledge The Austin Chronicle’s enthusiasm), it must flail against the chill of broken humanity which, in the end, masters it. For me, Ethan Frome will always remind of a place where ‘[a] mournful peace hung on the fields, as though they felt the relaxing grasp of the cold and stretched themselves in their long winter sleep (79).’

ENDNOTES

1. Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome [1911] (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922). All quotations in the essay are taken from this edition.

2. An allusion to Love in a Cold Climate.

3. See Shakespeare’s Richard III, I.i.1-2.