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For some time now, Ethan Frome has been on my reading list. My love of classic literature and Edith Wharton’s reputation as one of the greatest American authors of all-time are a couple reasons. But, something else has kept this particular novel in the back of my mind for several years now; my husband has an unwarranted dislike for the book.  He read it as a high school student, and ever since, has insisted it is the worst book ever written.  Since Wharton is highly praised in the literary community, I delved into the novel excited to see what my husband found exceedingly boring and inexcusable about the text.

Almost immediately I realized how an inexperienced reader might mistake intentional literary devices the author utilizes in order to describe plot, setting, and most importantly character traits, for tedious or uninspiring storylines and details.  The tale is told in retrospect by a narrator visiting the village of Starkfield, Massachusetts. The information about Ethan’s life and how he developed into a bleak, quiet, and crippled man is told to the narrator by outsiders.  The first line of the novel sets the tone and pace, indicating not only the mystery of Frome’s existence, but warning the reader confusion may ensue:  “I heard the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”  The author indicates that Frome has suffered by stating there is a story to be told. She also portrays him as suffering from something which occurred in the past that no one wants to discuss.  Along with the wagon Frome drives, the pace of the prose and even the dialogue move sluggishly.  This is necessary to accurately portray Frome as an individual, his emotions, and experiences.  All of these aspects are synchronized from start to finish, as Wharton weaves and then unwinds the fabric of her design to show her readers the many facets of her protagonist’s existence.

The novel is meant to tell the tale of a sad and simple-minded soul, Ethan Frome, who lives in a New England village, isolated by weather, circumstance, and the choices he has made. As the story progresses and Ethan’s past is revealed, the reader begins to comprehend the reasons for his current broken-down condition.  In his earlier days, Frome represented the hope of youth. He aspired to study at a technological college and fall in love. Yet, when his father became ill, Ethan assumed new responsibilities. His cousin, Zenobia, came to help care for his father, and Ethan fell into a relationship of convenience and what he felt was obligation to her for her support.  Although some circumstances, such as family illness cannot be controlled, other things in life are the result of errors in judgment.  The longer Ethan lives with Zeena, the more he realizes, his life with her is incomplete.  When Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver, comes to live with the Fromes to help care for Zeena’s constant ailments, Ethan finds love too late.  He is now trapped in an unhappy marriage; the only way he can have what he wants is to betray his wife.

There is a fascinating and significant arrangement Wharton employs in order to illustrate the complexities faced by the Fromes and Mattie as they attempt to live together.  More importantly, the novel expands over a longer period of time to examine how Frome’s life choices and situations he cannot control combine to contribute not only to the climax of the story, but the every-day happiness and sadness he experiences. Wharton writes creatively and purposefully to create a tale which is unique, yet also reminds a reader-good or bad-of their own life.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

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Film (1993)