Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton

Posted 8 November, 2009 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 24 Comments

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Title: Ethan Frome
Author: Edith Wharton
Published: 1911 Pages: 181
Genre: Literary Fiction/Classic
Rating: 4.25/5

Set in the early twentieth century in a remote and wintry part of Massachusetts, Ethan Frome is a tragic and heartbreaking story of love and betrayal. At the beginning of Ethan Frome, the unnamed narrator encounters Frome and other townspeople who know Frome and the narrator pieces together the events described in the book. Frome, a quiet man, lives with his sickly wife, Zeena, who is several years his senior. Zeena’s cousin, Mattie, also lives with them and she is young and beautiful. Ethan takes quite a liking to Mattie and while Zeena leaves town to seek treatment for her ailment a quiet affair between Ethan and Mattie ensues.

Even though I hosted the Classics Challenge, I have been terrible at reading classics lately. This is the first I’ve read in months and reading it made me want to toss everything else aside and seek refuge in classics for the rest of the year. Wharton’s writing is spellbinding. The story is a simple one and even the writing is fairly simple, but the heartache is palatable in the book. Ethan is such a complicated character torn by his emotions for Mattie and his duty to Zeena. Even though this is such a short book, Wharton’s descriptions are so impactful. The sexual tension between Mattie and Ethan is on the one hand subtle and hardly existent, but the richness with which Wharton describes Ethan and Mattie’s encounters tore at my heart:

“The sudden heat of his tone made her colour mount again, not with a rush, but gradually, delicately, like the reflection of a thought stealing slowly across her heart. She sat silent, her hands clasped on her work, and it seemed to him that a warm current flowed toward him along the strip of stuff that still lay unrolled between them. Cautiously he slid his hand palm-downward along the table till his finger-times touched the end of the stuff. A faint vibration of her lashes seemed to show that she was aware of his gesture; and that it had sent a counter-current back to her; and she let her hands lie motionless on the other end of the strip” (95).

The above comes from a fairly long passage and I wish I could include it all, but I don’t want to give too much of the event away. But even as almost nothing happens in this passage there is still an electricity that can be felt through Wharton’s description. Love it. The only other book I’ve read by Wharton is The Age of Innocence and I don’t remember it having quite the same passion (all I remember really is that the ending ticked me off).

If you’re looking for a short and engaging classic, I would recommend Ethan Frome. I read this within a few hours, and because I read it for the readathon I’m sure I missed much of the depth, but it is one that I would love to go back to one day. And it certainly makes me eager to read more of Ms. Wharton’s works. Any classic that has me wanting more is definitely a good one in my book!

One more thing but since this contains spoilers, don’t read on if you haven’t read the book. When I closed the covers for Ethan Frome I was struck by how messy the book ended. It seems nowadays that everything needs to be wrapped up in a neat little bow, but I loved how tragically unhappy this book is. Doesn’t that sound strange! It almost killed me when Ethan and Mattie drove for that tree in order to be together, but for all three of them to end up in the same household together is almost unbearable. I’m not really sure what to make of any of this–I guess just an observation–but it isn’t often that such powerful endings are found in modern literature? Of course they’re there, but maybe just not as often? Ramble over.

What was a classic you’ve read that had you reaching for more?

Hope everyone’s having a good week so far!

**Edith Wharton is actually going to be on tour in January via the Classics Circuit! Be sure to check out the fun!

24 Responses to “Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton”

  1. Edith Wharton is coming up on the classics circuit and this is her one book that I’ve been meaning to read. I hope I will finally have the motivation to read it for that!

  2. I’ve been wanting to read something by Wharton but haven’t yet picked up anything by her. I’m still working on The Woman in White and although it is good, it is going slowly for me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. The Age of Innocence was my first Wharton also and though I liked it, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Then I read The House of Mirth and I was blown away. I read Ethan Frome soon after, and they’re tied as my Wharton favorites. They’re both so tragic, yet such beautiful stories. Are you aware of the Classics Circuit? Wharton will be the featured author in January.

  4. This has been on my shelf for quite a while and I’ve actually thought about it being my choice for the Classics Circuit this January (which you should clearly join). Thanks for the review.

  5. I haven’t read anything by Wharton and if this is a small book then I’ll pick it up .
    Nice review.

    I am little overwhelmed by all the clasics I finished in last few months. May be I ‘ll wait for a month or so to start this :)

  6. This is one of my all time favorite Edith Wharton books and classic books! It truly was heart stopping when Ethan went for the tree…. And the movie adaptation with Liam Neeson was very good….

  7. I read this in high school and was just sort of meh about it, and read House of Mirth last year and again just meh. I don’t think Edith Wharton’s my fav author, but I’d like ot give her another try. I think I’ll try reading Summer for the classics circuit.

  8. This is a classic I’ve never ever heard of. I’m not even familiar with the author! Have you read anything else by Wharton?

  9. I read this in college. I think they made us read this one of hers because we could read it quickly to get a taste of her. I remember thinking this couldn’t be why she was a famous author. I’ll have to remember to reach for some of her others again soon.

  10. *Lola – Ethan Frome is such a short book that it’d be a great choice for the Classics Circuit!

    *Samantha – Well I don’t like Wharton as much as Collins but they are both very different. Can’t wait to see what you think of Woman in White!

    *KarenLibrarian – I hope to read House of Mirth next–probably for the classics circuit in January! Glad to hear you had a similar reaction to that one as Ethan Frome.

    *Trisha – LOL–yes, I’ll be joining. I’ve been reading all of the CC emails in anticipation! This is a short and good choice for January.

    *Shona – LOL–I know what you mean about being overwhelmed by classics. I’m kind of the opposite lately, though. I’ve been neglecting them!

    *Suzanne – I didn’t know there was a movie with Liam Neeson! I bet he did a fabulous job as Ethan. I had a similar reaction with the sleding scene as well.

    *Amanda – I don’t know much about Summer–the only other book I’ve read by Wharton is Age of Innocence which was kind of “meh” for me. Her writing is a little more subtle than others and I had actually attemped to read Ethan Frome once before and it took me about five years to pick it back up again.

    *Jeane – I read Age of Innocence about two years ago–probably her more well known work (think she won the Pultizer for it?). Several of her books have been adapted to movies with fairly well-known actors.

    *Amused – As some of the others mention, there will be a classics circuit for Wharton in January. You should check it out and see if you can be a stop on the tour!

  11. I’ll add this book to my list. It’s been some years, but I recall enjoying The House of Mirth when I read it during college.

  12. This is one of my favorite books from high school. I haven’t read it since, but I remember loving it.

    The movie with Liam Neeson is pretty good too.

  13. I love Wharton – she is one of my favorte authors. I am very excited that she has been selected for The Classics Circuit.

    Truthfully, I read The Age of Innocence as a teen and felt so-so about it. I read it again while in my 20’s and loved it. The House of Mirth and Custom of the Country are my two favorite Wharton novels. I’ve read quite a few, but still have some left that I need to get to one of these days. Truthfully, I liked Ethan Frome, but thought it was a weaker novel than my top three (House of Mirth, Custom of the Country, and Age of Innocence). I think it’s because the trio I love were written about the society she knew only two well while Ethan Frome (and Summer) are not in her element.

    Great review!!

  14. Right, so this will be my first Edith Wharton then :P Actually, my favourite professor at university taught this novel, but sadly I couldn’t take the class in which he did – something I’ve always regretted. Time to make up for the lost time, I guess.

    I’m surprisingly having a good reading year when it comes to classics. Wilkie Collins got me hooked on Victorians sensation – I’ve just finished Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and it was SO good.

  15. Oh, what a beautiful review! To answer your blog’s question, I loved so Little Dorrit by Dickens so much that I immediately read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Then, since that one was so short, I took up Bleak House! I’m not purposely on a Dickens kick right now, but I must admit that it is very satisfying.

    About Ethan Frome, I really think that the film adaptation is one of the best adaptations I’ve seen in American lit. Liam Neeson, Joan Allen, and Patricia Arquette are all amazing in it. I like it just as much as the book.

  16. I think that many people who read Jane Austen for the first time have this same reaction–they have to read everything else by her! And then all the fan fiction…
    It’s those loose ends that allow for so much fan fiction. Maybe Wharton has some, or soon will have!

  17. I really loved this book as well Trish. It’s one I can definitely see myself reading again. I agree on the ending. To be honest I had to pick up my jaw when they drove into the tree and then ended up with them all having to live together-just the irony of it all. It’s amazing how much Wharton packed into that tiny little book.

    I’ve been horrible with the classics as well. These last months with the family troubles really put a damper into all my challenges. I think I’ll just start over next year.

  18. Love Wharton! Even in a short book, she can paint such a vivid picture of both the setting and the characters.

  19. I also only read The Age of Innocence but I actually quite liked it. If this one is even better then i can’t wait to get my hands on it.

  20. Hello Trish–

    A quick note to let you know I find your tenacity inspiring, and I’m looking forward to the Classics challenge! I’ve got it linked in my sidebar. :)

    All the best,
    Corra McFeydon

  21. I came over here frm the Classics Circuit.

    This is the only Edith Wharton book I read, but I loved all of it.

    And you are right about the ending, it’s so messy, and so miserable, but it also had a lot of meaning…I loved the fact of how people can change when circumstances do. So true and so honest.

    Your review is great !