A Classic Novella I Feel Guilty for Loving–Ethan Frome
I love Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome so much I’m almost afraid to admit it sometimes. The novella is a crisp, frozen fairy tale of New England unhappiness. The tragedy hedging in the characters is so pronounced as to make them cardboard cutouts. And not the good kind either with holes for faces so that you and your friends can take pictures of yourselves in the body of Ethan or Zenobia, Wharton’s reticent Adam and Eve who chop wood and sit sternly in cold houses, hating each other.
I don’t care about the inflated tragedy or the puffed up tricks with modernism. I love this novella.
I love the way it captures the paradox of the as-told-to narrative strategy. Wharton’s narrator, like Emily Bronte’s Lockwood in Wuthering Heights–Don’t even get me started on Wuthering Heights!– Wharton’s narrator functions as an inspector of personality. He is an outsider who want to know things. In this regard, he is the perfect stand-in for the reader.
He inevitably also becomes an emblem for the new kind of community that the twentieth century requires—one where sympathy is mediated by alienation, prurient spectacle, and schadenfreude, where class difference is recast as a fantasy of impermeable systems of fixity and entropic death.
Whatever else all the world’s tragedy can be, it is foremost a story for vaguely indifferent loafers to piece together. Such loafers demonstrate their privilege in the process.
In the emotional alchemy of the novel, social misery is transformed into a social value. If the life of Ethan Frome is broken, its brokenness is yet redeemable. It can have prurient value as an object of reflection for the distant but curious reader.
In this novel, as in so many others, the reader is a class interloper. He is an accidental slummer, a professional who momentarily tarries in the social margins to stare hard at hard lives.
The narrative ultimately manages all of the moral guilt that its affecting story might inspire–of psychic desolation among the rural poor. The story has an oddly cozening message for privileged readers. You don’t have to do anything in particular to save these poor people, for, according to the novel’s grim determinism, no one can save them.
In part, the appeal of the novel is its ability to aestheticize what is really a social and historical problem. Ethan Frome implies that complex social problems are best dealt with through storytelling and feeling rather than intervention or political action.
The novella thus ensures that we maintain safe distance from the self-regarding objects of consciousness that the narrator—like us—must conjure up before his mind’s eye. We have made up Ethan Frome. And we built him from the start to suffer for us. He is an unwilling Christ in a disorganized orthodoxy of social instability. He suffers for our pleasure.
Whatever aesthetic satisfactions we gain by the end of the story are irrelevant compared to the effect of the tale’s compression—its formatted ability to be read in a single sitting, told as a story around the fire of aching loneliness, curtailed choices, and the undeniable budding within this howling wilderness of something vital and human—a spark of longing amidst the most oppressive conditions imaginable.
There is much about this story that smacks of New England to me. Perhaps it’s the historical resonance with Puritan New Englanders desperately trying to imagine themselves as pilgrims of god’s divine election, sent on a divine errand into the wilderness to create a city on a hill, while trying so very hard to assimilate all the hardships, the native massacres, the scenes of captivity and cannibalism, of slavery and corporeal punishment, of intense communal surveillance and self-probing to root out every verdant trace of sin. What is Ethan Frome, then, if not another iteration of that motto: vox clamantis in deserto?