Ethan Frome is a poor man working an unrelenting farm. He feels trapped in a loveless marriage to Zeena who is constantly ill and in an ill mood. After a death in the family, Zeena’s cousin Mattie moves in. To Ethan she is like a breath of fresh air and brings with her happiness that he has not known for some time.
Wharton provides wonderfully descriptive scenes of the snowy, unrelenting country side and the New England farm in which Ethan lives. I could feel the cold air and snow brush past me in this tragic, almost excruciating love story-it is haunting. The setting complements the atmosphere in Ethan’s home and the coldness of his relationship with his wife. I didn’t know what to expect in this interplay between these three. The plot is tightly woven and no word is wasted. The looks and exchanges between Mattie and Ethan are intense, like the fire that they sit near at night, exactly opposite of the situation between he and his wife.
What I found most interesting about Ethan’s story is that he struggles with society’s perceptions of his marriage with his wife. Keeping up social appearances becomes more important than his happiness and governs his actions to the point of destruction. I read a lot of books by and about women, and I usually find that women are placed in this position, or are at least depicted in this way. It shows that men are just as susceptible to social conventions.
Earlier this month I read Roman Fever, a short story written by Edith Wharton that appeared in the the Persephone Biannually. I have some other Ethan Wharton books on the shelf that I’m looking forward to reading.