Sunday, 13 February 2011

Penguin no. 173: Ethan Frome
by Edith Wharton

"All the dwellers in Starkfield, as in more notable communities, had had troubles enough of their own to make them comparatively indifferent to those of their neighbours; and though all conceded that Ethan Frome's had been beyond the common measure, no one gave me an explanation of the look in this face which, as I persisted in thinking, neither poverty nor physical suffering could have put there. Nevertheless, I might have contented myself with the story pieced together from these hints had it not been for the provocation of Mrs Hale's silence, and - a little later - for the accident of personal contact with the man."

It is clear from the beginning that this will be a sad and tragic tale. The tone of the book is gentle but sombre. The New England town in which the story is set is presented as a graveyard for the living; a place you must escape from while you are young. The name of the town, Starkfield, emphasises this and so does the description of the poverty of the town folk and the farming life, the bitterness of the harsh winter weather, and the lack of anything joyful; it is existence rather than life. Ethan Frome is introduced as a man completely trapped, not just by the town of Starkville, but within the physical ruin of his lame and twisted body. However, there is a powerful quality about him that distinguishes him from the other locals, and intrigues the unnamed narrator.

And so we know the conclusion from the start. Twenty years before he had been a young man with ambition and talent and ideas; he had a way out  from this dismal New England life. And yet it trapped him, and the remainder of the story tells the sad but compelling tale of how he ended up the way he did.

I am sure there are many ways to read this story in order to take some meaning from it. It may have been a comment on society at the time and the burden it placed on individual lives, and how the life of someone strong and vibrant can be dissipated or wasted by the demands of the weak. But this can be true of any life and of any time. The things people most value and crave, such as home, family, children can also be the things that trap them most. But Ethan Frome was also trapped by his starting point in life, the expectations of those he lived amongst, and his caring nature. This was his fate. And this brings the sense of a Greek tragedy, of people as playthings of the Gods. By trying to escape his fate, Ethan Frome was inadvertently the agent of his own demise.

But I also sensed something else: a lesson about not judging an individual's worth or innate potential from observed outcomes. It reminded me of the lines from Ecclesiastes 9:11,
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Whether it was fate preordained by the Gods, or chance in the form of a random cluster of misfortunes, the course of his life was beyond his control. And he accepts it with a stoicism and dignity which makes the story even more tragic.


  1. This is the book that started me on my Wharton kick many years ago now. I've read many of her books - but still have a few to go. You never forget the tone of this one. Great read, and lovely review. Many of her books are very much about the impact of society on people but as I recollect and as you say this one had a different sense to it and could be read otherwise.

  2. It is many years since I read this book, but it has stayed with me. SD



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