Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome

Summary: A poor New England man, his ailing wife and her orphaned cousin are trapped together.

This is a short book, the paperback is around 100 pages and the audiobook was less than four hours,and about 20 or 30 minutes of that was a quick biography of Wharton.

In spite of the shortness, I had to struggle to keep listening to it.  It is exceedingly dull and drawn out.

Ethan Frome is a tragic romance of a different era.  An era where honor and duty conflicted with love (maybe desire or lust) in a very different balance than today.

Ethan Frome is a poor young man that had prospects.  But his mother was sick and he came home from school to care for her.  He eventually married her nurse, Zeena, in large part because of her devotion to his mother. But his Zenna is herself sick and ends up being a horrible mean woman.

Frome is incapable of doing anything.  His honor and duty resulted in a loveless marriage.  And then this domineering wife has resulted in a beat down man.  His wife’s cousin came to live with them to care for the wife because she was an orphan and had no where else to go. (Think of a Cinderella-type slave.)

Of course, Ethan and Mattie fall in love.  But they never do anything about it.  It is not until Zenna decides that Mattie is incapable of caring properly for her and hires another woman to be her nurse that things come to a head.

I am going to spoil the end of the book because it is over 100 years old now.  Ethan wants to run away with Mattie, but realizes that he is too poor to run away.  He cannot afford to even take Mattie away, let alone leave enough money behind to care for Zeena.  So Mattie proposes a joint suicide so that they will not have to live apart.  Ethan is initially repulsed by the idea, but decides to carry through with it even after Mattie is not quite sure she wants to.  So they decide to sled down a hill into a tree.  Which has to be the stupidest suicide idea I have ever heard of.

Of course neither die, but Mattie is left permanently injured and Ethan has a life long limp*.  Zeena (who we are never really sure if she is aware of the potential affair or not) brings Mattie back into the house and becomes Mattie’s nurse.  And all three of them live miserably ever after..

No one visits them, they live in shame, everyone avoids them because they are such quiet and horrible people.

The story is told mostly through a flash back from an unnamed visitor to the community and the conclusion is told to him by his landlady.

Again, I ask, why is this supposed to be a great piece of literature? And why do all of the classics I read suck!!??!??!  It is not that the writing is bad, it is fine descriptive writing.  It is that the characters are unlikable. I can’t understand why no one does anything.  The overwhelming sense of all the characters being trapped seems to be the point, but it is not tragic, it is just hopeless.

*According to my reading the sled accident is based on an accident of a friend of hers where four girls died.

Ethan Frome by Edith Warton Purchase Links: Paperback ($1.50), Kindle Edition (Free), Unabridged Audiobook ($0.95)


Which just goes to prove, I guess, that “great” literature is a distinct genre from GOOD literature. I prefer reading/listening to GOOD books – books that tell the truth. And the truth is that in this world, redemption is possible and available.

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