Monday, 30 July 2012

Ethan Frome

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. 


Macheath said...

A fine post!

I agree - it's a gem and a startlingly powerful piece of writing; it's one of the few books that literally made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up the first time I read it.

The film is well worth watching - though it misses some of the more subtle detail, it captures the atmosphere and the tension between the characters in a low-key style that perfectly suits the tone of the book - and Liam Neeson turns in a near pitch-perfect performance as Ethan.

I've always felt that 'Ethan Frome' captures the sense of being trapped by failure far better than Hardy's 'Jude the Obscure', which is unbearably heavy-handed by comparison.

A K Haart said...

Mac - thanks, I'll probably give the film a try. You are right about Jude. Although I like Hardy, Jude is just too heavy-handed for me.

I haven't read much of Edith Wharton's writing, but I've enjoyed her work so far. I'll be going back to Zola soon though!

Macheath said...

While we're on the subject of books, may I say how much I enjoyed 'the Pillbox'? I read it on my new Kindle this week and could hardly bear to put it down from start to finish.

A reviewer who once said of John Wyndham that his books were a compliment to the reader's intelligence; I would say the same about this one of yours.

Congratulations on a fine piece of work!

A K Haart said...

Mac - crikey - thanks!

In terms of downloads, Pillbox is the most popular, but friends and relatives who have read my stuff give surprisingly different views.

The Kindle is great for the classics because a writer's entire output is often available very cheaply.

Be wary though - some have a huge number of typos from OCR scanning of printed text. Still readable but annoying. My copy of Jules Verne is pretty bad.

James Higham said...

Why was it a soured marriage? Her fault or his?

A K Haart said...

James - hers - hypochondria.