Habitual Mood

Ethan Frome (Wharton)

Habitual Mood

Ethan Frome is often studied in American high schools, which means it is one of the most hated books on the planet. A sample of the many vengeful, spittle-flecked one star reviews on Goodreads:

"Bleak fiction for bleak fiction’s sake about a miserable man in an inescapable, loveless marriage and his desire for another woman. Hollow and myopic, easily one of the most disappointing experiences I’ve ever had with a supposed classic."

"If you are like me, avoid this book. It is depressing, sentimental and maudlin."

"grueling, boring, god why did big elbow make us read this shit."

Big elbow aside, I do understand. I too was young, and I too hated some of the stuff I had to read for school - some of it I hated so much that I didn't bother reading it at all. I can readily imagine teenage Tim affecting the haughtiest disdain towards Ethan Frome, moaning on and on about it being "depressing" and "pointless". Teenage Tim was always moaning about something. It wasn't an appealing character trait, but thankfully Goodreads didn't exist at that time, so at least the world at large was spared my endless griping.

Anyway, of what does this torturous literary abomination consist? Ethan Frome is a modest novella of some 120 pages that tells a straightforward story using clear, unaffected language, the only quaint note being a slightly awkward framing narrative. I didn't find it sentimental or maudlin; it's certainly bleak, but that's tragedy for you.

The scene is the well-named, perpetually snowbound Massachusetts town of Starkfield. Our frame narrator, visiting the area on business, encounters the eponymous Frome, and is intrigued by the taciturn man, evidently broken in body and soul since his - as the local euphemism has it - "smash-up" some twenty-four years ago. The townsfolk are unwilling to flesh out this tantalising bit of intelligence, but ultimately the narrator gets the lowdown from the man himself.

Decades earlier, the young Ethan had tripped off to college, full of dreams of intellectual adventure, only to be called back to run the farm on the death of his father. This cruelly truncated exposure to the wider world created in him an understandable resentment towards his lot, which only increased with the death of his mother, and an ill-made marriage to his mother's nurse, Zenobia. The new Mrs Frome turned out to be a controlling, embittered hypochondriac, the marriage loveless, and Frome unspeakably lonely.

Into this circumscribed world comes Zenobia's pink-cheeked ray-of-sunshine cousin, Mattie, and Ethan, quite naturally, is smitten. They begin a secret courtship of surreptitious glances and the chaste linking of arms on snowy evening walks. Does Zenobia suspect them? In any case, one day she declares that it's time for Mattie to find work and lodging elsewhere. Calamity! With Zenobia out of town consulting an eminent quack, Ethan and Mattie's barely-suppressed emotions come to the surface, and they are stricken with destructive panic.

I won't say what happens next, in case you wish to find out for yourself. I was actually surprised: I knew about the "smash-up" but not its ironic consequences. In the online chatter about Ethan Frome, there's a lot of criticism of Ethan and Mattie's allegedly "unrealistic" actions. Leaving aside whether thoroughgoing "realism" is necessary for the proper functioning of tragedy (is Hamlet "realistic"?), I thought their actions realistic, or at least understandable. These are socially constrained, emotionally immature people, giving way to perhaps the first strong emotions they have ever felt. In context their sudden amour fou seems credible.

So yes, Ethan Frome is bleak and "depressing", but it's also infused with an irony that stops just short of Flaubertian scorn. (One touch among many: Ethan's mother served out her years under the Christian name Endurance.) I'm not sure Wharton especially likes her country folk, but she doesn't actively despise them. As a picture of everyday life as a prison - the way one's background, financial situation, personality, and the inertia of relationships can create an unendurable sense of suffocation - the book feels shockingly true.

Starkfield and its surrounds are depicted as a wintry wasteland, with the occasional bursts of clear weather - ideal for sledding! - serving only to underline the cold trudge of everyday life. This is my first Wharton, and I think I was expecting serpentine sentences in the style of Henry James. But she writes clearly and vividly, her figurative language evocative and graspable. (A hill's "icy slope, scored by innumerable runners, looked like a mirror scratched by travellers at an inn.") As I mentioned, the frame story is somewhat awkwardly handled, but it mostly works when you look at the story as a whole.

Before I sign off, I should note that there is a film adaptation starring Liam Neeson as Ethan "The Blizzard" Frome, a former hitman who will stop at nothing to get revenge on the sinister cabal of sleds that kidnapped his pet ferret - played with De Niro-esque immersion by Patricia Arquette.

Next on the Commonplace Classics carousel: On the Beach by Nevil Shute.

#books #commonplace classics