Video Book Chat: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Published 1911


Oh, Edith Wharton. Why do you vex us so?


For the many who have read Edith Wharton such as Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence in high school and beyond, you may notice a few similarities among many of her books:

  • Life sucks. Sometimes, you’ll get a brief glimpse of light, and then it suuuuuuucks even worse forever after.
  • Marriage is an albatross.
  • True love is not real. Nor is it meant to be.
  • Your economic class can make you immobile.
  • Our supposed loved ones are manipulative.
  • Wharton’s men like to make a lot of excuses about why they can’t be fully present for the women in their lives.
    • Edith Wharton’s fictional literary world is rife with heartache and melancholy. It’s the reason I often finish her books with an emphatic, “Damn you, Edith Wharton!” whilst shaking my fist at the heavens.

Ethan Frome is no exception.

Succinct summary:

Alert: this is a spoiler-ridden discussion. If you don’t want the story to be ruined, go away, read the book, then come back.

Ethan Frome is the story of an unhappy man named Ethan in an unhappy marriage with Zeena, his sickly, harpy wife. Zeena’s cousin Mattie, is staying with them to help care (badly) for Zeena. But instead, Mattie and Ethan fall madly in love with each other.

Zeena, no dummy, decides to send Mattie away, splitting up the star crossed lovers. Ethan wants to run away with Mattie, but decides he can’t afford it. Ethan and Mattie decide to run their sled into a tree and kill themselves, but are badly maimed instead. Flash forward twenty-something years, and Ethan now lives with two people: his caretaker wife Zeena, and a sickly, harpy Mattie.

A case for Zeena:

One note – I strongly believe that Zeena, the harpy wife who seems to be such an albatross for Ethan, is poorly misunderstood and underestimated. In my opinion, she’s the true victim of the story. She quickly realizes she married a man who only wed her out of loneliness and obligation for the care she had given his mother.

At the point we spy into their lives, she seems quietly resigned to being no more in Ethan’s eyes than a companion and housemaid, and a poor one at that due to her (real or perceived) health problems. Ethan never gives her affection, and while he resents Zeena for not being more talkative, we never see him actually try to engage her.

She must silently watch her husband make googly eyes at her cousin, the cousin Zeena graciously took in after the rest of the family wanted nothing to do with Mattie. When Zeena tries to wrest some semblance of control back over her household, it backfires badly and she is stuck being the caretaker to the two petulant people who betrayed her.

#$&^%#% Ethan Frome. This isn’t his tragedy. It’s Zeena’s.

Authorial intent:

Differing methods of literary criticism can yield differing interpretations when factoring in the author’s intent.

Some argue, as Roland Barthe did, for the metaphorical “death of the author.” An author gloms experiences, plots, imaginings, and all other pieces of the book from the world at large, Barthe argues. Once the book’s publish date signals its release back into that world from whence it came and the author’s involvement abruptly ends.

With Barthe’s method, all interpretation should be left only to the reader. I argued in favor of it in last week’s review for Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall.

This week, I’m taking the opposite approach. Sigmund Freud coined the term “psychoanalytic criticism,” representing the opposite of the death of the author. Freud argues that the author’s experiences, socioeconomic standing, political beliefs, gender, age, and other personal factors are integral to the text and must be considered heavily in its interpretation.

Edith Wharton’s life lends itself heavily to her books, and I can’t help but see pieces of her in the plot lines. She was, herself, trapped in an unhappy marriage to an unhappy, deeply depressed man for longer than 20 years. She and her husband both engaged in passionate extramarital affairs. Born into a life of wealth, she felt the weight of her economic status.

Class as a character

It’s an interesting exercise to compare Ethan Frome and Wharton’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book, The Age of Innocence. They come from opposite ends of the economic scale, but have remarkably similar plots. Man is committed to one woman, finds what he thinks is true love with another, but feels as if he can’t make a move because he’s stuck by bonds of his economic status. Alas, it’s never meant to be.

Wharton includes economic class as the axis in much of her writing. One could argue that class is an additional main character: the antagonist.

A misunderstood antagonist, at that.

Wharton may have felt stymied by her economic standing (or maybe not – I can’t know for sure). But her characters seem to use their standings in life as the great white whale they can’t defeat. I’d run off with Mattie if only I could afford it… I’d run off with Countess Olenska if only it wouldn’t ruin our status… Class is the evil antagonist, holding them back from achieving their dreams.

Really, it’s just an excuse for inaction. It’s easy to blame an external factor when the real culprit is one’s own fear and impotence.

Seems I have some strong opinions on Ethan Frome. Read the book, scratch your head over it a few times, then let me know what you think. There are certainly several different ways to interpret it.

Many thanks to Robert Sheard at Barter Hoardes for hosting a read along of Ethan Frome. Check out these links for more in the greats he’s revisiting and jump in to the conversation.

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