I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. If you know Starkfield Massachusetts, you know the post-office. If you know the post-office you must have seen Ethan Frome drive up to it, drop the reins on his hollow-backed bay and drag himself across the brick pavement to the white colonnade and you must have asked who he was.
Edith Wharton - Ethan Frome 1911
The first few lines of Edith Wharton's novella, Ethan Frome. Though short, to my mind it's a little gem. Set against a harshly beautiful rural New England winter at the end of the nineteenth century, Wharton's light touch depicts a doomed ménage à trois centred on Ethan Frome, an unsuccessful farmer and sawmill owner.
Trapped in a soured marriage, Frome falls in love with Mattie, a young cousin of his hypochondriac wife Zeena. Mattie has fallen on hard times so Ethan and Zeena take her in as a kind of unpaid domestic and carer for Zeena and her imaginary ailments.
There is nothing particularly remarkable about the plot, but the spare writing with its delicate touches of atmosphere and character, it's pervading atmosphere of people trapped in webs of their own making, all demonstrate what extraordinary subtleties a fine writer may weave into ordinary materials.
Ethan Frome's is a failed life, even his education falling well short of his hopes and expectations. Worse than the failure itself is the fact that he knows it.
Four or five years earlier he had taken a year's course at a technical college at Worcester, and dabbled in the laboratory with a friendly professor of physics; and the images supplied by that experience still cropped up, at unexpected moments, through the totally different associations of thought in which he had since been living. His father's death, and the misfortunes following it, had put a premature end to Ethan's studies; but though they had not gone far enough to be of much practical use they had fed his fancy and made him aware of huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things.
Yes it's dour, but as finely woven as a piece of old lace. It was made into a film in 1993. What the film is like I've no idea - angst in the snow probably. I doubt if it captures the subtleties of Wharton's writing.