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Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton

2010/09/23

Whoever thinks that classic literature is boring ought to read more Edith Wharton. This particular novel is short (my Penguin Classics copy was only 99 pages) but packs quite a punch.

The anonymous narrator first hears about Ethan from the people of the town of Starkfield, one of those New England town where everyone knows everything. He becomes acquainted with Ethan after hiring his horse for transportation, and becomes drawn into his story one evening being stranded due to weather. When Ethan was in his twenties, his invalid wife’s orphaned cousin, Mattie Silver, came to live with them and help with the housework. Mattie is “quick to learn, but forgetful and dreamy, and not disposed to take the matter seriously.” Ethan’s wife, Zeena, gripes about Mattie’s lack of domestic skills, but Ethan finds himself defending Mattie, helping her with the household chores, and looking for opportunities to spend time with her. The matter comes to a head when Zeena finally decides that Mattie must leave the household, and Ethan begins plotting ways that he and Mattie can stay together.

It’s amazing that this novel was first published almost a hundred years ago, and yet the plot is still readable and relevant today. Ethan’s struggle with his attraction to Mattie and his detachment from Zeena is similar to the stories related in many modern films and teenage romance novels, though the restraint showed by the couple may baffled contemporary readers. This is a quick read but one that will resonate with the reader long after finishing the novel.

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