The review of “Ethan Frome” by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant has two different viewpoints on the book; both combat each other. Elizabeth, stating that the book is “terrible and supremely cruel,” and “she,” the other voice, stating that the book is a “tragic masterpiece” and “ a landmark in American literature.” I agree with Elizabeth. This, while at some points confusing book, was one of my favorite books to read this year.
The book “Ethan Frome” is told from many differing viewpoints, but mainly Ethan’s.
It starts with the narrator setting out to learn about the life of a mysterious townsperson, Ethan Frome, who had a tragic accident, twenty years earlier. After questioning various locals with little result, the narrator finally comes to learn the details of Ethan’s “smash-up” when a snowstorm forces the narrator into an overnight stay at the Frome household. Then the narration goes to Ethan’s perspective as he tells about what happened with his wife and Mattie his wife’s cousin.
The book’s main characters are Ethan Frome, Mattie Silver and Zeena, Ethan’s wife. Ethan is a very sensitive man – as well as one of the few who admires nature – and a roughly decent person, but he lacks emotional strength and so is controlled by what plays before him and thus plays him. It is predictable near the start of the book that his only bold decision in the entire novel is to commit suicide—a decision that Mattie persuades him to do and thus, in fact, has little to no courage.
Rather, his final, sled ride to death contains the ultimate expression of passivity: unable to face what he has done, or what he could do he decides to never make another decision. Mattie is the most important character in this book because all of the story’s events are set in motion by her presence in the Frome household. Yet we glimpse her, as we see Zeena, only through Ethan’s perspective, and his perception of her is derailed by his passion which presents bias. With her grace, beauty and vitality she embodies all the things that he feels Zeena has denied him and so becomes the focus of his aborted rebellion against his unhappy life. Mattie is shown most clearly through the red decoration she wears which symbolizes both passion and transgression. Until right at the very end, we can’t be certain that Mattie feels the same for Ethan. When, at the climax of the novel, Mattie’s true nature does show through, we see her as all young woman; an impulsive, melodramatic, more adolescent than adult, little girl. Finally we get to Zeena who when described by Wharton has physical descriptions that make her seem old and unfeminine. Her illness might make some of this crotchety behavior forgivable, but she so relishes her role as a sufferer that we, the reader, suspect her of being a hypochondria (“abnormal anxiety about one’s health, especially with an unwarranted fear that one has a serious disease”) or at least of exaggeration. Her only talent is caring for the sick which is ironic as she herself is sick, and at the end of the book she has to care for Mattie and Ethan, and the only time she displays any sense of purpose is when caring to them at the end of the novel. It is important to see, that all of Zeena’s faults are relayed from Ethan’s point of view, which, given his passion for Mattie, is near impossible to be unbiased. The reviewer writes that Wharton goes out of her way to show the ugly side of the setting and the characters. “I can never forget the glass by the bed, into which the wife dropped them [her false teeth] when she blew out the candle at night in the terrible grey, cold room.”
The unusual narration is needed because it allows the reader to suspect that the sledding will end in tragedy and that the nagging voice heard in the resolution would be Mattie’s. The reader knows what the characters don’t. Edith Wharton used the harsh winter in New England as a character, too. The scenery made the characters needy and isolated. The way the characters and the plot and the scenery intertwine leads to the theme of the story. It is probably the theme that the author voice dislikes the most; but the theme is one that Wharton repeats in stories. She views her mother as someone who left Wharton isolated and needy; Wharton thus builds into her stories the idea that those two items – isolation and neediness – join to make a person nasty; thus, it is easy to understand the “she” voice’s point of view. She writes, “ believe any strong passion is worth recording.” None of the characters get what they want; they all seem to want the same thing (companionship); they all get something different – illness. The final paragraphs of the critique emphasize that Wharton could have added some redemption for the characters in “Ethan Frome.” But Wharton chooses not to.
The passionate theme is emphasized with the intertwining of the other elements. That is why I am agreeing with the writer, “What a terrible book,” … “What a supremely cruel book.”