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Ethan Frome ~ A Capsule Book Review

Ethan Frome ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

American author Edith Wharton (1862-1937) gained fame for her novels about wealthy New Yorkers during America’s Gilded Age, such as House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. Her 1911 novel, Ethan Frome, is not about high society but is instead about a poor farmer in a bleak New England village, set at some unidentified time in the late eighteenth century.

Ethan Frome has a wife named Zenobia (“Zeena”) that he doesn’t like very much, and who can blame him? He married her out of convenience (inertia) in a weak moment when she came to help him take care of his sick mother. Zeena is older than Ethan and is a bundle of complaints and physical ailments. There is no warmth or kind feelings between Ethan and Zeena.

Zeena has a “poor relation” (even more poor than Ethan and Zeena) named Mattie Silver. Mattie comes and lives in the Frome household to help Zeena with the farm work. Mattie is the opposite of Zeena. She is young, pretty and sunny. Zeena doesn’t like Mattie very much and is always quick to find fault with her.

Ethan is naturally drawn to Mattie Silver. He knows it’s wrong to have “feelings” for her, right in the house under Zeena’s nose, but Mattie makes him feel good, maybe for the first time in his life. Zeena is such a whiny old thing, so sick all the time. Why doesn’t she just die and leave Ethan and Mattie alone in their little love nest? Hah! No such luck!

This ménage a trois can’t end well. Ethan dreams of running away with Mattie, but they are desperately poor, and where would they go and how would they get there? Is he really the kind of man to leave his life for a younger, prettier woman? Has he no decency? Well, yes, he has.

A new doctor advises Zeena to bring in a “hired girl,” meaning somebody who is more competent than Mattie. That means Mattie Silver is going to be tossed out of the Frome household on her ear. On the day that Mattie is supposed to go, Ethan’s hand is forced. Is he just going to keep his mouth shut and let Mattie Silver go out of his life forever without even letting her know how he feels about her? When he discovers that the feelings he has for her are reciprocated, will that make a difference, or will it just lead to an ill-advised action on his part?

Ethan Frome is an American classic about a love affair that is doomed from the start, set in a snowy Massachusetts landscape. It’s a simple story about loneliness, alienation and hidden feelings. When Ethan married Zeena, he missed his chance of ever meeting a woman like Mattie Silver who might have made him happy. He missed the boat and then he paid the price, as so many people do.

Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp

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