A Classic Love Triangle, and a Sled – “Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel, “Ethan Frome,” was a far departure for an author known for writing about the upper-class. Unlike the wealthy heroes of such works as “The Age of Innocence,” and “The House of Mirth,” the characters in “Ethan Frome” are hard-working, poor, rural folk suffering through unhappy lives. Ms. Wharton was a child of society, so her work on this particular novel was acclaimed for the deep understanding of the people and places she wrote about, considering it must have been outside her comfort zone.
Care to read the original 1911 New York Times Review?
Ethan Frome, our protagonist, has a sickly wife named Zeena. Zeena’s cousin Mattie lives in the house to take care of the household chores that Zeena is unable to do. Zeena is cold and constantly complaining – though her illness is never mentioned by name – and prone to consulting new doctors for new cures. Meanwhile, Mattie is younger and vibrant and Ethan falls in love with her. This love triangle simmers silently for a while, until Zeena decides she needs a new housegirl to do chores (since Mattie isn’t particularly good at housework) and Ethan and Mattie are driven into each others arms. Knowing Mattie will have to leave, she and Ethan finally do something they’ve been vowing to do forever: go sledding down a dangerous hill. Mattie, distraught, suggests they simply sled off the cliff – a suicide pact. At the last second, Ethan changes his mind and swerves. He survives, but Mattie is paralyzed. After the hospital, Ethan and Mattie return home, where Zeena must now care for them. The unhappy trio remain together.
The book is short, but haunting. Wharton writes in wonderful strokes of text, adding detail when it’s necessary but often covering large quantities of time in a sentence or two. While we get the most insight into Ethan’s thoughts and feelings, Mattie and Zeena are also written with delicate care. It would be easy to despise Zeena, as she’s the obvious “bad guy” in all this – but instead she remains sympathetic. Mattie, ready to burst free at any moment, is a heroine easy to relate to and to understand.
I doubt I’ll ever forget the final chapters – the sledding scene in particular. There’s a reason certain books live forever – and it’s incredibly simple to see why this one has endured 100 years.
(Note: “Ethan Frome” was made into a 1993 movie starring Liam Neeson, Patricia Arquette, and Joan Allen. I’m totally there.)