On the interesting layers to Edith Wharton’s winter tale.
I’m not exactly sure why so many high school students (including this AmericanStudier) read Ethan Frome (1911), but I have a few guesses: it’s technically a novel but is pretty short and reads very quickly; it’s by a canonical author who looks good on a reading list but is significantly less complex than many of her works; it features a doomed love triangle and a climactic sledding (!) scene; it was made into a film starring Liam Neeson, Joan Allen, and Patricia Arquette. Lots there for high school students to grab onto, no doubt about it. But I’ll admit that on both my original reading of the novel and in initially considering it for this post, I had thought of it as pretty slight, as significantly less worth attention and analysis than most of Wharton’s novels.
I haven’t re-read it, and maybe if I did I’d still feel that way. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the novel’s frame story—in which the narrator, an unnamed traveler, is trapped by a New England snowstorm and forced to stay in Ethan’s house and thus learn about his tragic past—adds some very interesting layers to that more slight plot. For one thing, the narrator’s situation eerily parallels that of Ethan as well as the novel’s other two main characters, Zeena and Mattie: all three are likewise trapped in this house, for different reasons but all related to the snowstorm in which Ethan and Mattie met their tragic sled-induced fate. And for another, given that we assume (or at least I do) that the first-person narrator is the one who writes the novel’s third-person middle section, in which Ethan’s story is told as an extended flashback, the question of memory and accuracy, of truth and fiction, becomes more complex than it otherwise would. Are we reading the version of the story that the narrator learned? If so, is he only imagining the characters’ perspectives? If not, who is narrating this section, and to what end?
All of those layers made Ethan Frome more interesting within its pages. But they also, I would argue, allow us to consider more explicitly the novel itself, and its place in Wharton’s career. Apparently Wharton based the novel, or at least the climactic sledding scene, on real events from Lenox, Massachusetts; events that she, like her narrator, learned about after the fact from one of the participants (in this case a girl named Kate Spencer who worked with Wharton for a time at the Lenox Library). That helps explain why Wharton wrote the novel at all, given how different it is in setting and world from virtually every other of her works. But it might also indicate that the novel served for Wharton as a kind of reflection on story-telling, on the role of a writer in relationship to the places where she travels—since Wharton was a lifelong New Yorker before she moved to Lenox and built her estate there—and the people she both meets and constructs there. Wharton stayed in Lenox far longer than her narrator seems like too in the fictional town of Starkfield, but as a writer, she was perhaps never entirely at home. Neither was Ethan, for that matter.
Next wintry post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Cultural images of winter you’d highlight?
11/27 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two pioneering, talented, and influential 20th century American writers, Charles Beard and James Agee.
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