Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on May 19, 2013

Ethan FromeIn an article titled “Some Notes on the Novella” written for The New Yorker, author Ian McEwan has the following to say about the art form of novella:

 “I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days). And this child is the means by which many first know our greatest writers. Readers come to Thomas Mann by way of “Death in Venice,” Henry James by “The Turn of the Screw,” Kafka by “Metamorphosis,” Joseph Conrad by “Heart of Darkness,” Albert Camus by L’Etranger.” I could go on: Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn. And Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon. And Melville, Lawrence, Munro. The tradition is long and glorious”

 It is this article that led me to Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

Set in the imaginary village of Starkfield in the state of Massachusetts and told as a third person narrative, Ethan Frome is the constantly indigent and eponymous hero of the novella who is caught between his querulous sick wife Zenobia and her orphan and helpless destitute cousin Mattie Silver who comes to Ethan’s house to support Zenobia. In Mattie’s attraction and love for him, Ethan sees a way out of his drudgery and cheerless dull life. However, marital jealousy makes Zenobia insist that Mattie leave the farm of Ethan. It is on this journey to the railway station that Ethan and Mattie, in a desperate, reckless and suicidal moment of abandon meet with a serious accident which forces Mattie to revert to the farm with life scarring injuries. There is a strange role reversal where Zenobia becomes the nurse and Mattie the nursed. Thrown together and nowhere to go, the three end up in a sad reclusive life shunning any public contact. The poignancy of the lives is hard to digest. This is brilliantly articulated by Mrs. Hale, the landlady of the narrator when she says:

 “….There was one day, about a week after the accident, when they all thought Mattie couldn’t live. Well, I say it is a pity she did…… And I say, if she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived: and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet and the women have go to hold their tongues”

 What makes this novella a memorable read is Wharton’s ability to capture the stark bleakness of the Massachusetts weather and the despair and emptiness of the lives of the characters against this backdrop. It is full of pathos and moving. Wharton gets under the skin of her characters and captures every small nuance with a command and clarity that is brilliant and impressive. This is more so because Wharton comes from a well to do and prosperous background where exposure to such life situations is rare and the associated sensitivities to depict them rarer still. Julian Barnes in an interview given to Paris Review magazine has the following to say about depicting opposite sex:

 Writers of either gender ought to be able to do the opposite sex—that’s one basic test of competence, after all. Russian male writers—think of Turgenev, Chekhov—seem exceptionally good at women

This competence is amply evident in Wharton’s writing. What really impressed me while reading the book was Wharton’s ability to see things from a male perspective. The dreariness of a hopeless life and the longing for escape to something more joyful and fulfilling is the desperate need of the male protagonist and Wharton captures this wonderfully well despite being a female writer

Overall, a fantastic reading experience

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