0016 | Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton

Read this in 42 installments from dailylit.com

REVIEW:
Took a while to get into but once Wharton sets up the conflict in this story, you can’t put it down. The evocative descriptions of the winter and the landscapes simply add to the bleakness of unconsumated love that this story relates. It’s a heartbreaking tale of the struggle between passion and duty; self and the other. If you’re after the feel-good factor though, look elsewhere. It’s a bleak as the winter snow.

OPENING LINE:
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.

WORDS:
bay: a horse of a moderate reddish-brown color
exanimate: lifeless: deprived of life
bole: the main stem of a tree.

CLOSING LINE:
I say, if she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.

RATING:
terrible > poor > mediocre> okay> good > very good > excellent > superb

FINISHED:
2007 – March

  • Dewey June 10, 2007, 1:31 am

    Yeah, that’s what bored me. It was probably a new concept at the time, but I’ve read FAR too many tales of “passion versus duty” and the people always choose duty. Which is boring. How is it doing anyone any favors to be dutiful towards them? No one wants to live with a soul-dead person who resents them for the rest of their life together.

    I realize that I may have felt differently if I hadn’t read it in the middle of this marathon, if I had read it in small chunks, with time between doing other things to ponder it. But it didn’t interest me enough to want to read it again that way later, so I doubt I’ll find out.

    Reply
  • Dewey June 10, 2007, 1:32 am

    Oh, and self versus the other? Mattie’s an other, too.

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  • Arukiyomi June 10, 2007, 8:30 am

    Don’t you mean that Mattie’s a self too?

    I’m truly sorry that you feel frustrated and bored by people being dutiful. I’ve thought about it and realised that if you equate duty with being “soul-dead” you’re coming from a very different cultural slant on duty than I am.

    The protagonists of the novels you mention always choose duty because they lived in an era where vows and commitment to another person meant more than satisfaction of and commitment to the self. Oh, how I wish we lived in such a time.

    Marriage is a covenant of interdependence. It is not two indiviudals remaining two individuals, it is two individuals combining themselves into one new being that takes shape over the years. But for this to work, there needs to be trust, honour, sacrifice and commitment. I sum this up in one word: duty. The commitment that duty is the fruit of does not depend on the behaviour of the beloved. It is unconditional. Duty is joy when you love someone. It is my joy to be dutiful to my wife; to do that which she has come to expect and rely on from me. When I fulfil my own desires at the expense of my duty, we both suffer.

    When I covenanted publically and before God at our wedding to be dutiful to my wife, I used words like love, cherish and forgive. These are my duty. Anyone who carries out duty without joy has forgotten how to love.

    If Ethan fails to honour his commitment to his wife, any further commitment to another lover will forever be in doubt, simply waiting to be shattered when a new passion arrives. Mattie didn’t know that. The question Wharton is asking is, “Do you?”

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  • Dewey June 12, 2007, 3:55 am

    No no, it’s not the duty that makes them soul-dead. It’s giving up on the one thing that matters most to them. Consider whatever matters most to you. If you gave that up out of duty, wouldn’t your soul die a little? I’m not necessarily saying that Mattie mattered most to Ethan. But I think that having a passionate connection to someone mattered most to him, and he was soul-dead because he failed to find and maintain that.

    And it’s not that people being dutiful bore me. What bores me is that this choice of duty versus passion is such a recurring theme, and that the characters almost invariably choose duty in the end, although they failed in earlier duties (which I’ll get to in a second). It’s inconsistent to me.

    I agree with all you say about marriage, but isn’t it ideal when your marriage is also your passion, not just your duty? I think you were actually saying that in some places, weren’t you?

    My feeling about Ethan and his wife and Mattie is not that Ethan should have chosen Mattie over his wife. It’s that Ethan (and Zenobia) should have worked on the issues in their marriage (this too is a duty, isn’t it?) so that the temptation of Mattie wouldn’t have arisen. I believe that Ethan and Zenobia failed in both their duty and their passion early on by failing to maintain their marriage. This is the same story you’ll see in other duty vs passion stories, like the movie Spanglish (which I love in spite of the same frustrations). I see Ethan’s feelings for Mattie, and any unfaithfulness, really, as a symptom that there are problems in the marriage that are going unaddressed. If Ethan failed so in this earlier, joyful as you say, duty, why would he choose such unhappy duty later?

    I think you’re right that Ethan thought he had passion for Zenobia, and it died, and that his passion for Mattie could also have died in the same way. Maybe Ethan’s just one of those people who find the unattainable the most attractive. That’s boring to me, because it’s a cliched romantic theme.

    And again, I might have loved this book if I hadn’t been reading it during that crazy weekend.

    As far as Mattie being a self or an other, I guess she’s both. She’s choosing self over other when she develops feelings for a married man. But for Ethan, Mattie and Zenobia are both others. He’s married to Zenobia, but he encouraged Mattie in her feelings for him, which means he now has some sort of duty towards her, doesn’t he? As you say, not the duties of a covenant, but I think that in encouraging her even in a small way, he again neglected a duty, which is his duty towards his housemate and relative.

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  • Dewey June 12, 2007, 3:57 am

    Two more things: I think your wife is a very lucky woman to have such a committed partner (and as I have one of those myself, I know just what a gift it is). And Spanglish is, of course, a more modern example, so don’t lose all hope for our times!

    Reply
  • Dewey June 12, 2007, 3:59 am

    Another thing! I worded this sentence very badly: How is it doing anyone any favors to be dutiful towards them? What I meant there was to do empty duty towards them after having failed in your more important duties. I don’t think I would want a man who was so miserable with me as Ethan was with Zenobia to stick around. I’d want to let him be free of me if I made him so unhappy.

    Reply
  • Arukiyomi June 12, 2007, 5:32 am

    No no, it’s not the duty that makes them soul-dead. It’s giving up on the one thing that matters most to them. Consider whatever matters most to you. If you gave that up out of duty, wouldn’t your soul die a little? I’m not necessarily saying that Mattie mattered most to Ethan. But I think that having a passionate connection to someone mattered most to him, and he was soul-dead because he failed to find and maintain that.
    I see your point here. However, when I consider what matters most to me, it is inconceivable that I would give that up. It’s not that my soul would die a little, it’s that I would die completely. For me, there’d be no point in living if I gave that up. I live for, as we all do I guess, what matters most to me. You’re right that he failed to maintain that though.

    And it’s not that people being dutiful bore me. What bores me is that this choice of duty versus passion is such a recurring theme, and that the characters almost invariably choose duty
    Oh okay. I get the same feeling about many US movies – they always end happily. Being the true Brit I am, I love an ending which surprises me with misery. Hamlet rocks! But then, I guess that’s even cliched now too.

    I agree with all you say about marriage, but isn’t it ideal when your marriage is also your passion, not just your duty? I think you were actually saying that in some places, weren’t you?
    Yes, in an idea world. But to maintain passion for my wife, I have to be dutiful to her even if I don’t feel that passion. And I don’t feel passion every day at points because I’m human. Those are critical moments and that’s when I need duty most. Duty is the bedrock and foundation of passion. Passion waxes and wanes. Duty, by definition, remains constant. I’m actually very passionate about a lot of things; very intense. I know my wife loves that passion in me…. sometimes. Other times, it exhausts her. For her, to know that when my passion runs out, when I’m stressed and tired etc that I’ll still be there is very reassuring. That’s the value of duty for us. Ethan failed in this with Zenobia. And having failed there, Mattie should have realised that he would eventually fail with her too. There’s no one so delightful we don’t get bored at some point.

    My feeling about Ethan and his wife and Mattie is not that Ethan should have chosen Mattie over his wife. It’s that Ethan (and Zenobia) should have worked on the issues in their marriage (this too is a duty, isn’t it?) so that the temptation of Mattie wouldn’t have arisen.
    Absolutely!

    If Ethan failed so in this earlier, joyful as you say, duty, why would he choose such unhappy duty later?
    To choose to remain with Zenobia was indeed the “right” choice. But very often, we fail to understand why we should make the right choices morally that we feel compelled by cultural values to make. That’s when we get miserable. In this day of moral relativism, many people don’t have consistent beliefs to make firm moral decisions on. If you do, then choosing something that seems sacrificial can be extremely joyful and fulfilling because of the motivation and conviction in your soul. What Ethan should have done was not simply change his behaviour into a pastiche of duty, but change his attitude. He repented in action but not in heart and this, rightly so, invalidates his choice really.

    Maybe Ethan’s just one of those people who find the unattainable the most attractive.
    Ah.. do you mean the “forbidden the most attractive” perhaps? If so, that would simply make him human which I think Wharton does very well actually.

    which means he now has some sort of duty towards her, doesn’t he? As you say, not the duties of a covenant, but I think that in encouraging her even in a small way, he again neglected a duty, which is his duty towards his housemate and relative.
    Yes absolutely, and this is what for me makes the novel work at a very deep level. Ethan failed to maintain commitments to everyone but you are left wondering whether he truly understands that by the time you get to the end.

    Great discussion by the way… it’s not often I get to talk novels so deeply with anyone!

    Reply
  • Dewey June 12, 2007, 10:55 am

    Yes, I enjoy discussing novels in depth too, and I have been looking forward to coming back and seeing your answers.

    Reading your answers, I think that we mostly agree, and that our main difference of opinion was over differing definitions of duty. To me, duty meant that Ethan (and now that I keep thinking of it, Spanglish seems to me like an updated version of Ethan Frome ) would be stoic and unhappy and suffering in staying with Zenobia and continuing to view her in such a negative light. It sounds like to you duty is more that he would remain with Zenobia and work on the problems there.

    One thing I haven’t brought up but that I discussed with my husband while I was reading this is Zenobia’s illness. She is vaguely portrayed as a hypochondriac. Ethan surely resents her illness and the money she spends on it. It’s always fascinating to me in older books when someone is an “invalid” because of course there are so many diseases and so forth that we know of these days that weren’t even identified back then. For all we know, Zenobia is suffering from extremely painful bone cancer or something. And she seems almost certainly addicted to the morphine “patent medicines” that so many people were scammed with back then. These days, she’d surely receive better care. Possibly, Ethan could still resent her illness, and possibly she really was a hypochondriac (plus morphine addict). But I wonder how much of Zenobia’s behavior would stem from resentment of Ethan’s resentment of her illness. I have a chronic illness myself, and I can’t even imagine how it would be to live with my husband resenting the money it costs for my treatment rather than supporting me to his fullest ability. I felt that Wharton was portraying Zenobia as a despicable character (which the wife in Spanglish also is, though with some redeeming qualities). Do you think that’s supposed to help us feel that it’s romantically tragic? I just found myself less able to look at Ethan sympathetically because of his attitude toward her.

    I’m actually very passionate about a lot of things; very intense. I know my wife loves that passion in me…. sometimes. Other times, it exhausts her.

    Ha ha, I understand that completely. I have spent my life exhausting the people I love.

    Reply
  • Arukiyomi June 12, 2007, 8:23 pm

    You know, I’ve never heard of Spanglish before but I’ll look out for it.

    I agree that Zenobia is painted very badly and she’s definitely not a character you warm to.

    Reply
  • dew June 13, 2007, 10:33 am

    John, do you mind if I mention our discussion here in my review of Ethan Frome? I’m not going to quote you or portray you in anything but a positive light.

    Reply
  • Arukiyomi June 13, 2007, 5:41 pm

    by all means 😉 quoted or otherwise.

    Reply

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