Ethan Frome / Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome, first published in 1911, ranks among one of Wharton’s best known novels. One reason for that, I suspect, is that the book is more a novella than a novel. It is a book that high school teachers can feel confident in assigning, since younger readers will appreciate its short length. But the story itself quickly draws in any reader, be they young or old. The elegance of Wharton’s deceptively simple prose presents a tragic tale that instantly captivates.

Set in the bleak, bitterly cold winter of a New England landscape, Wharton tells the story of Ethan Frome, a simple man tied to the harsh realities of a hardscrabble farm. To make matters worse, he is married to a sickly, demanding wife in a loveless marriage. His only ray of light is his star-crossed love for his wife’s younger cousin, Mattie Silver. She has come to live on the farm and assist with the daily chores that his wife in her ill health is unable to carry out.

Amid the isolation and poverty of its rural landscape, Wharton vividly presents a story that any reader can identify with. Zeena, Ethan’s wife, is set up as the “fall guy” of the story. The author stacks the deck against her by presenting only the viewpoints of Ethan and Mattie. Not being given a voice to speak for herself, she is meant to be someone the reader instantly dislikes, and Wharton succeeds in portraying her as a person without any redeeming qualities.

I did have a problem with the construction of the story. The device that Wharton uses to frame the tale, told through the eyes of a visitor to this remote New England community, struck me as mechanical. While not detracting from the emotions the story evokes, it does seem an unnecessary add-on.

Despite this, the novel’s central story captures the realism of a life and landscape in all its tragic glory. It is a work that is sure to continue to engage future generations with its bleak simplicity and the chilling sense of rural isolation so vividly captured on the page. A century later, Ethan Frome remains a timeless classic that is guaranteed to tug at the reader’s heartstrings.

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