“He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe…” – Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

I had abandoned Mikhail Bulgakov’s rather unfriendly goliath, The Master and Margarita, and looked to my shelves to keep me company. It was Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton, that I picked up idly. I had intended to just dip in, to sample. But then I sank into my bed, and read it to the end, after which I flipped the book to read the first chapter all over again.

People have said that this was good, but my goodness, augh. So so so very good, so very beautiful. I went away gobsmacked. Ethan Frome made my heart hurt in so many different ways, and it was wonderful.

Oh, what good’ll writing do? I want to put my hand out and touch you. I want to do for you and care for you. I want to be there when you’re sick and when you’re lonesome.

Yes, I am gushing. And I will continue to gush. I will embarrass myself, no doubt about that, and this’ll be a long one. Y’all are free to leave me in my dorkus delirium — Here, some notes:

* * *

♦ Unnamed narrator in Starkfield, sees old Ethan Frome, a “ruin of a man.” The questions: What could have prevented a man from leaving a place like Starksfield? Or, perhaps more importantly, What could have made him stay?

He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface.

♦ The story — Our narrator tells us it’s culled from different sources, but, curiously enough, not from Ethan and all involved ones — Extended flashback. Ah, the conceit — it’s a short fiction technique. Then again, this clocks in at just over a hundred pages.

♦ Young Ethan Frome! Mattie Silver! Love! Infidelity! Intrigue!

She had an eye to see and an ear to hear: he could show her things and tell her things, and taste the bliss of feeling that all he imparted left long reverberations and echoes he could wake at will.

♦ Mattie Silver, as a reminder of hope. I am swooning:

…through his tingling veins and tired brain only one sensation throbbed: the warmth of Mattie’s shoulder against his. Why had he not kissed her when he held her there? A few hours earlier he would not have asked himself the question. Even a few minutes earlier, when they stood alone outside the house, he would not have dared to think of kissing her. But since she had seen her lips in the lamplight he felt that they were his.

♦ Ah, the contrast. Zeena Frome, easily labeled as a horrid harridan. How judgmental of me. Good job, Wharton. And Mattie, the enchanting young and destitute cousin.

♦ Zeena leaves to consult with a doctor, and you’d expect some hanky-panky. But this is all about the tension, and at the same time, that heart-wrenching quiet intimacy you feel with a person you’re not supposed to feel that about.

And he pictured what it would be like that evening, when he and Mattie were there after supper. For the first time they would be alone together indoors, and they would sit there, one on each side of the stove, like a married couple, he in his stockinged feet and smoking his pipe, she laughing and talking in that funny way she had, which was always new to him as if he had never heard her before.

♦ Exclamation point! He doesn’t have that image with his wife. — Why Zeena? He took care of him, his parents. And she proved efficient, capable. But:

After the funeral, when he saw her preparing to go away, he was seized with an unspeakable dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he knew what he was doing, he had asked her to stay there with him. He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter.

♦ Note the significance of the winter image thingy. Real time, and this extended flashback. This thing with Zeena. And very early on in the novel, Harmon commenting, “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters.” Whoa. I am dorkeh.

♦ On Zeena. Ethan on their marriage, a paltry paragraph. Ooh, bias! Awesome. Asking myself that perhaps this isn’t entirely Zeena’s fault, her sickness, her disposition. Up to now, I hadn’t looked at Zeena as the poor, martyred wife. Ethan’s feelings for Mattie overshadowed that. But now, but now. This is so freaking cool — Later, perhaps Zeena is taking things into her own hands — deliberately? Man, I am beginning to like her. I have long begun to overthink this too.

All the long misery of his baffled past, of his youth of failure, hardship and vain effort, rose up in his soul in bitterness and seemed to take shape before him in the woman who at every turn had barred his way. She had taken everything else from him; and now she meant to take the one thing that made up for all the others.

♦ Augh. You’d think this was predictable, that you can see what’s going to happen. And yeah, they do, but not the way I’d assumed. That is, see, the revelations and events just felt inevitable — and isn’t that what finely crafted fiction is?

♦ That ending! I need to talk to someone about it, haha.

31 thoughts on ““He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe…” – Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

  1. Sasha,
    You might find that Bulgakov’s The White Guard is more to your tastes than The Master and Margarita. I liked them both, but the former pulled me in more. Plus, I think you will find The White Guard more like Wharton’s Ethan Frome in its intimacy, charm, finely rendered family scenes, and emotional impact.

    But, what about Ethan Frome which is only one of the best, if not the best, novella ever written (at least, that I have ever read). I really enjoyed your post and those quotes and being reminded of that wonderfully heart-rending world.

    Isn’t the ending the absolute best, ever? Wharton sets you up with the expectation of Zeena as the hag, or maybe the unfairly treated woman who is doing her best to cope. But, Zeena is the complainer. Until, until,….life serves quite the curveball to lovely Mattie and stoic Ethan. I love how the reader just knows the whiner at the very beginning is Zeena and the true lovers have chosen to bear it, but it is Mattie who was crushed by Ethan (basically). In other words, Ethan has managed with two impulsive decisions to ruin two women’s lives. And he really meant well both times. If it hadn’t been winter, maybe he wouldn’t have invited Zeena to stay. If it hadn’t been winter, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten the crazy idea to smash himself and Mattie into a tree. Oh, Ethan and his winters. It breaks one’s heart.

    The symmetry and recurring motifs of these brilliant work are stunning. I almost get choked up just remembering the damn thing. It is so emotionally compelling, but not in a cloying, contrived way. I could just go on and on and on. Great, great book. Glad you thoroughly enjoyed it.

    1. Hi, Kerry. Thanks for the rec re The White Guard. I have been liking The Master and Margarita, but it demanded too much of my attention. That’s not a bad thing, but I don’t want to go into a book, feeling that I wouldn’t be able to give it the time, and respect, it deserved. I’ve already put The White Guard on my list, will definitely check it out. The Ethan Frome comparison wouldn’t fail. And yeah, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Though I had to check and double-check it’s actual form, the label on it — novel, novella? Usually, novella, given the length — but it’s been labelled as novel in so many places. But that’s neither here nor there.


      Love that ending, loved it so much. It just ties everything together so well, in ways that made perfect sense even though I couldn’t have seen them coming. Of course Wharton wouldn’t have made Zeena a carton-villain, that harridan. Wharton gave us clues. That one paragraph where Ethan thinks about how Zeena wasn’t always this way — there’s this hint that Ethan had some failings of his own as a husband: He never outright said it, perhaps, but Zeena must have always felt that he married her only because of those damn winters. So many winters have defined Ethan, it’s heartbreaking. Yes, him and his winters — Oh, Ethan. When I realy think about it, I don’t know whether I ought to hug him, or hit him. He’s as flawed as the rest of them.

      The symmetry and recurring motifs of these brilliant work are stunning. I almost get choked up just remembering the damn thing. It is so emotionally compelling, but not in a cloying, contrived way.

      Yes, yes, I wholeheartedly agree. I could reread it over and over, I could attack it with my minor in Literature and dissect the hell out of it, but I know it’s going to be extremely beautiful, still. Man. This was a earth-shaking read, it really was. Moreso because I really had initially thought it would be all about the landscape and this grumpy old man, haha.

  2. I had intended to just dip in, to sample. But then I sank into my bed, and read it to the end, after which I flipped the book to read the first chapter all over again.

    Oh gosh, story of my life this summer. My poor copy of East of Eden must be so fed up with my inconstancy.

    Your enthusiasm for this book is infectious! Will add book to list.

    1. All I could do was gasp. As in, “Whoa. I should’ve seen that one coming. What just happened?” Also, as in, “Oh my.” I found it so sad and beautiful. It fit the narrative in ways that made perfect sense, but, of course, I couldn’t have foreseen. I loved the ending! I’m with Kevin up there — I, perhaps, have odd fantasies of crashing headlong into a tree in the name of love.

      Then again, I was screaming at the book: “No, no, no, dammit, go back, turn around, she’s — not — worth — it! Augh.”

  3. Lovely, post and book. And timely, too. As in I’m reading it, organizing my thoughts, and now have to change course slightly! A compliment, that. As for Jane Doe’s belly laugh, perhaps she’s never suffered love/tresspass on a sleigh ride. Gorgeous. Cheers, K

    1. Thank you, Kevin. :] Can’t wait for your thoughts — I know I went overboard with the gushing and the shameless cyber-sighing, but some books deserve just that, don’t they? I know Ethan Frome‘s one of them, so I’m not too embarrassed.

  4. Hi Sasha, I’m easily confused by certain terms of literary criticism and hope you can help me out. You write, “Extended flashback. Ah, the conceit — it’s a short fiction technique.” What’s a literary conceit? When is an extended flashback / framing device a literary conceit? Lastly is there a difference between a literary conceit and an extended metaphor? Cheers, Kevin

    1. I think I picked the terms up from workshops and drunken professors [not necessarily at the same time.] This is how I understand the terms, and I know I made some deviations to the accepted definitions, hence your confusion. :]

      Hm. Let me see. So flashbacks are common techniques to reveal something about the character, about the plot. Say, Ethan Frome recalling how he and Zeena met. That’s your usual flashback.Now, the form of the entire novel is one whole flashback — an extended flashback. In the beginning, we have this narrator at the present time. And then, the extended flashback in the middle, which is a chunk of Ethan Frome’s life, and his story. That’s where most of the novel lies, where the story is. And then, at the end, we’re back to present time, to broken ol’ Ethan and his girls. It’s basically a novel that’s one long flashback, and although the present can’t be discounted, the more important narrative is often in that flashback.

      As for the conceit part, this is the technical definition. As you can see, that’s not exactly how I meant it, haha. I deviated, and meant that the novel took up a form more suited to [or rather, more commonly used in] short stories. And in this, Wharton was mindful of the elaborateness of the task, and the form. And had the capabilities to pull off, and sustain, the form throughout the novel.

      See, when my friends [who are mostly poets, which sucks for the girl who writes fiction] toss around “literary conceit,” I usually take it to mean, “Writer’s got guts.” [In this case, acquiring a technique more commonly used in short stories than novels.] “And she knew she was succeeding.” [I tend to use terms for poetry to fiction. Which is bad, I know. But this is the danger of hanging out with people who write and teach and critique poems.]

      Let’s see. An extended metaphor is a kind of conceit. When we’re comparing something, and elevating the comparison than just mere simile. Kind of like when, say, the winters and Ethan’s burdens. It’s an extended metaphor [I think!] not only because it’s an image that goes on and is sustained for the entire novel. I took it to mean that Wharton fully adapted the winter motif into Ethan’s life, what with the crucial events that take place in the winters of Ethan’s life, and how, eventually, those winters came to define them.

      Did I make sense? I’m sorry if my skewed definitions in the blog post confused you, and more apologies if my rambling worsened it, haha.

      1. Hi Sasha, thank you. I get flashbacks, I get extended metaphors, I get framing devices. But damn me to hell I don’t get literary conceits in novels. Even when no less an authority than the great Ape muses on failed literary conceits, I scratch my head a bit, dazed and confused, until he stipulatively defines it, that is. Thank you very much. Happy reading—and writing. Cheers.

        1. Kevin, hope you didn’t mind that I got all lecture-y up there. I got carried away, trying to explain myself, haha. And thanks so much for the discussion.

          Good luck with Ethan Frome! I eagerly await your thoughts. :]

  5. How judgmental of me. Good job, Wharton.

    She is good, isn’t she? And so, so bad. (To her characters, I mean.) Anyway, I don’t have much to add, because I just completely share all your gushy thoughts on this one.

    1. A part of me was thinking, “Oh, I should’ve seen this coming!” But Wharton paints such a hateable picture of Zeena, it’s easy to let it swallow you. And in the end, well, is anyone really redeemed? We’ve changed our opinion of Zeena, of course, but what good does that do? Augh. Wharton’s awesome.

  6. It is wide open to interpretation, isn’t it? It seemed to me that Zeena needed something dire to shake her out of her lethargy (we know that she was also sick before she nursed Ethan’s mother) but you might too suspect that she isn’t so much martyred as revelling in martyrdomship. There might be a very bitter satisfaction to be had in nursing Mattie and watching Ethan slowly lose her.

    Have I fallen inextricably into Wharton’s trap?!

    1. It’s Zeena that’s the biggest mystery, despite the fact we readers easily labelled her as an ol’ grumpy and bitter harridan. But of course Wharton wouldn’t let her remain just a cliche, right? I still don’t know what Zeena’s motivations are, what she felt. All I know is Wharton threw me a curveball, and Zeena is as puzzling as ever.

  7. I have this book and was going to read it for a novella challenge when I started blogging- but never got to it. I have yet to read anything by Edith Wharton actually, although I think I would like to. Your enthusiasm makes me more enthusiastic to read this!

    1. This was an addictive read. It’s only over a hundred pages, and even as your savoring, the pages fly by. Edith Frome was one of the more awesome discoveries of my reading life. I hope you get to read it!

  8. I haven’t read this since high school, and then I got into a Wharton phase long after reading this. So I don’t really remember it and never re-read it during the Wharton binge because “I had already read it.” Maybe it deserves a re-read?

    I remember feeling the same way as you after I read her “Summer” but then I re-read it a couple years ago and it didn’t have the same affect. Sad.

    1. I guess that’s the danger: Maybe if I reread it soon, I won’t be as fascinated? But, well, since you can’t remember how you felt about it, maybe it’s time to give it another go?

      That said, I’m scared to try any of Wharton’s works. On one hand, I’m afraid I won’t like them as much as this novella, and it would hurt, haha. Then again, I could always let the book get cozy inside me so it’ll be intractable whether or not I like the others or not.

    1. I think — I dare say, haha — that you’ll like this, Claire. It’s just really quiet and intense and heartfelt and heartbreaking. Good luck with the hunt for a copy!

  9. Pingback: Mattie S Silver
  10. Hello, Sasha.
    This blog entry is the reason why I bought my copy of Ethan Frome (I got it at BookSale for 25 pesos!). I am currently on page 88 and I cannot wait to finish this book. It is lovely and I was really surprised to find myself enjoying such a classic novel. For some reason, I always feel bludgeoned by the language used in classics that I always find myslef abandoning such books. But this, this Ethan Frome changed all of that.


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