“I Felt Like I’d Never Be Cheerful Again,” Or: Reading “Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton

Years ago, I took a Victorian poetry class with a professor who looked like Satan dressed up as Colonel Sanders. He was elfishly tiny and wore an ecru linen suit, complete with black string tie. His neatly trimmed beard created a perfect “V” from his laugh lines to his chin. Among these distinctive features were two more: his southern drawl and his assertion that “There is no such thing as American literature.”

As it happens, I was, at that same time and university, enrolled in a course in post-Civil War American literature. While I didn’t exactly agree with Colonel Satan, I could see why one might wish to renounce American literature, at least of that period. My goodness, it’s an endless parade of horrors with no relief (as Dickens uses humor, for example): Maggie, a Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane, The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic, the dreadful McTeague by Frank Norris. Reading these resolutely hopeless novels made me wonder how American earned her reputation for optimism. I can’t see it having been through her literature.

I was thinking about all of this when I saw Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome on the Gilmore Girls reading challenge, which we’re doing over at Books, Ink. The gorgeously written short novel about repressed passion and its ensuing tragedy was published in 1911, a bit later than the titles above. But it features similar bleakness. Though I suppose there’s a little humor, if you find bitter, tragic irony humorous.

The eponymous Ethan Frome falls for his sickly wife Zeena’s pretty young cousin, the orphaned and displaced Mattie, who hails from Stamford, Conn. Mattie moves into the couple’s Massachusetts home to help care for Zeena, whose pastimes include curling up by the fire to read books about the digestive system, traveling around Massachusetts to visit medical specialists, leveling acidic barbs at Ethan and Mattie, and plotting to make everyone around her as miserable as she is.

During a bleak New England winter in the town of Starkfield that provides copious opportunities to reflect mood through descriptions of the weather, Ethan and Mattie’s mutual attraction grows, like a plant in a too-small pot. With nowhere to go and no hope of being consummated, their love implodes. The ending is ironic tragedy times a million billions.

The novel is ripe for discussion—about morality in turn of the (20th) century America, about the nature of tragedy, about literary flair, and about that darn ending.

Edith Wharton with tiny dogs: Is it just me, or do those dog look enraged?
Edith Wharton with tiny dogs: Is it just me, or do they look enraged?

*Who caught my Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban reference in the title? 😉

2 Replies to ““I Felt Like I’d Never Be Cheerful Again,” Or: Reading “Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton”

  1. I read this book when I was in high school or middle school – I don’t think it was on the curriculum, though. Although I usually remember at least one scene or big idea or concept or exceptionally lovely sentence or description from most books I read, every time I think about “Ethan Frome”, I draw a total blank and feel very cold. That’s what stays with me: “cold”. From what you’ve written here, I guess that’s not really far off the mark.

    And thanks for including the photo at the end, for two reasons: 1. Your comment about the dogs made me laugh out loud, and provided a great ending to this piece. and 2. In high school, a boy in a class that WAS reading “Ethan Frome” allegedly made fun of me by telling people that I looked like the photo of Wharton that was on the back of the book. I’m still not sure why that would be insulting. And I certainly would have DRESSED like her, had I had the means. But the photo you have here shows she and I clearly have no physical resemblance, and anyway, if I were having a picture taken, I would have a cat on my lap, not dogs (who look enraged – cracking up again).

    1. Ah, I’m so glad I made you laugh. I feel strongly that one needs a good laugh after reading Wharton! I totally hear you about remembering nothing except feeling cold – that is exactly why I associate reading her with a dementor attack! What’s amazing is that she’s such a beautiful writer and yet so very depressing…

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