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Ethan Frome
Edith Wharton


THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES

It's hard to imagine a less likely author for Ethan Frome than Edith Wharton, for this story of a poverty-stricken, lonely farmer was written by a wealthy, middle-aged member of New York City's high society.

Edith Wharton probably never spent a day of her life inside the sort of poor New England farmhouse occupied by Ethan, his wife Zeena, and their boarder Mattie Silver. It's a world she visited only in her imagination. Even so, she draws a realistic picture of the dark, cramped, cheerless rooms of the Fromes' living quarters. And her portrayal of poor farm people has the ring of truth.

Soon after Ethan Frome was published, a friend of Wharton's reported that she and the author had once driven around the Berkshire hills. They had paused briefly near a run-down farm. Wharton looked at the battered, unpainted house and littered yard and said she intended to write a story about a place like that. Moreover, Wharton claimed to have spent "an hour" at a Lenox, Massachusetts meetinghouse observing the speech and manner of the local citizens, and trying to imagine what their lives must be like. But whether Edith Wharton ever spoke with them, shared a meal with them, or visited them in their homes is not known. It's not very probable because the social gap was just too wide.

Wharton was accustomed to life on New York's fashionable Fifth Avenue. At least that's where she was born Edith Jones on January 24, 1862. To avoid the turmoil of the Civil War, her parents- George and Lucretia Jones took their family to Europe, where life was safer. Before she was ten, Wharton had lived in Rome and Paris. She had toured Spain and Germany and wintered on the French Riviera.

The Jones family returned to New York in 1872 and settled into their East Side brownstone. Instead of going to school, Wharton had tutors. Instead of a circle of friends her own age, Wharton had her family. And instead of the usual toys and amusements of most children, Wharton had her father's ample library, where she read hungrily.

In the 1870s girls of Wharton's social class generally did what their parents told them to do. What filled her parents' lives filled Edith's too: Parisian fashions, planning dinner parties and balls, the problems with maids and butlers, where to spend the holidays- the rituals of a plush red-velvet life.

One thing that set Wharton apart from other society girls was her love of writing. She made up stories and wrote poetry. Offered the choice of an evening with books and writing paper or going to a party, Wharton would probably have stayed home. She felt shy and uncomfortable with strangers and grew bored with dinner-table and drawing-room conversation. Books and learning delighted her more than the social whirl.

Soon after her society debut Wharton's father fell ill. Hoping to regain his health in a milder climate, he took the family to southern Europe. Wharton's time on the continent opened her eyes to the world. She met cultured Europeans who talked about art, books, and ideas. With them, Wharton felt at home and soon built a reputation as an intelligent and witty young woman.

At twenty-three Wharton met and married Edward "Teddy" Wharton, a friend of her brother. It's hard to imagine a more mismatched couple. He loved the out-of-doors and the life of a sportsman, while she cared for books, European culture, and scholarship. Do opposites attract? Perhaps they do, but in this case the attraction wore off quickly. The marriage was a failure, but divorce was out of the question- too scandalous for people of the Whartons' stature. Instead, Edith and Teddy lived in misery for the better part of thirty years. At last in 1913, Edith overcame her sense of duty to her husband. She cast aside fears of being considered a "divorced woman," and ended her marriage.

Except for a few fanciful romances, Wharton's early works spring chiefly from her experience and thought. Many readers have also noted the influence of the American writer Henry James (1843-1916) on both the form and content of Wharton's works. Some of Wharton's writing is set in Europe, where she and Teddy lived for months each year. They concern the artist's place in society and contrast European and American culture. Others are tales of cheating husbands, marital conflict, and, in The House of Mirth (1905), an ambitious woman's struggle to achieve wealth and position in New York society. With The House of Mirth Wharton became a celebrity. Within two months of publication the novel broke sales records, and Wharton was assured of a permanent place among the best American authors.

In spite of general discord, Wharton and her husband enjoyed a few periods of harmony. In 1901 they decided to design and build a wonderful country house in Lenox, Massachusetts. They called it "The Mount," and lived in the house on and off for several years. Wharton portrayed the Lenox area when she wrote Ethan Frome, published in 1911. Starkfield, the small farming village in the novel, is much like any of numerous little towns that dot the New England countryside. Although much of Ethan's story takes place in winter, the Whartons never spent a winter at The Mount. Wharton never knew firsthand the harrowing cold and bleak landscape, which weigh so heavily on Ethan and the other characters.

But Wharton knew much too well the frustration of a failed marriage- such as Ethan and Zeena's. Teddy Wharton was thirteen years older than his wife and a totally unsuitable mate for her. She bored him, and he scoffed at her literary and intellectual pursuits. Meanwhile, she found Teddy shallow, about as exciting as a kitchen stool.

When Teddy's health began to fail, the marriage became still more strained. He crabbed and complained much of the time. In fits of temper he verbally abused his wife. Twice he suffered nervous breakdowns. For the record Edith Wharton told the story of her marriage in various writings, including her literary autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934). Since Teddy didn't write, we don't know his side of the story. If Edith's version is accurate, though, she wins our sympathy as the wronged partner in the marriage, just as most readers sympathize with Ethan Frome for being stuck with Zeena, his sickly, ill-tempered wife. But Ethan's is also a one-sided story. We can only guess what Zeena thinks about him by reading between the lines.

It seems certain, however, that Ethan Frome is a product of Edith Wharton's long and serious contemplation of the mutual obligations of marriage partners. Ethan chose to die rather than stay with his spouse. That wasn't a satisfactory solution for Wharton, though. In 1913, two years after Ethan Frome was published, she filed for divorce.

Ethan Frome surprised Edith Wharton's fans because it differed from all her previous books. Its heartbreaking story gripped the reading public, and the book became very popular. However, some critics didn't like it. Many thought that Wharton shouldn't have strayed from her themes of New York society. Ethan, they claimed, was not a New Englander, and Starkfield was not the New England they knew. Snow in New England is not somber; it is vibrant and bright and makes your cheeks rosy. They felt that the forlorn landscape of the novel belonged somewhere else.

Nevertheless, Ethan's powerful tragedy has attracted readers from that day to the present. The book continues to be widely read and reread. It also marked a crossroads in Edith Wharton's writing career, for she discovered that she could write books which were different from the novels of manners that had made her famous.

In The Custom of the Country (1913) Wharton took her readers to the Midwest, to New York, and to France, intending to poke fun at wealthy but coarse people. Perhaps she had her ex-husband in mind. She spent most of the World War I years in Paris, giving generously of her time and money to care for French children displaced by the war. Out of this experience came a book describing her relief work, Fighting France, From Dunkerque to Belfort (1915), and two novels, The Marne (1918) and A Son at the Front (1923).

Edith Wharton remained abroad after the war and rarely stopped writing. She completed dozens of additional novels before her death in 1937 in France. One of them, The Age of Innocence, has achieved the status of an American classic. Published in 1920, the book won the Pulitzer Prize. Here Wharton returned to the world she knew best, the loftiest circle of New York society in the 1870s. Rather than presenting life in old New York sentimentally, however, she points out its faults. Despite its setting, The Age of Innocence is not an old-fashioned novel. People continue to read it. Like Ethan Frome it contains a story that Edith Wharton prepared to write during much of her life.

Critics generally agree that the novels Wharton wrote during the last part of her career fall short of excellence. Perhaps she couldn't adapt her craft to the modern American scene. At the same time, however, she produced some first-rate short stories. A collection of Edith Wharton's complete works fills several library shelves. While browsing among those books, you'll surely find some of the best American literature of the twentieth century.

THE NOVEL


ECC [Ethan Frome Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]
[Metaphors by Berkshire Authors - Edith Wharton]
© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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