Following my recent experience re-reading The Awakening, I was inspired to revisit some other pieces I loved in high school but haven't picked up since...Our Town, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace....
But Wharton's novella, Ethan Frome, was at the top of my "To Be Read Again List" because when I read it for the first time, I was totally caught up in the romance between Ethan and Mattie Silver...I desperately wanted them to run away together...and I was totally crushed by the ending. I wondered if, this time, I would feel differently. How would 15 years and a host of life experiences change my perspective on the story...the characters? Would I see Ethan as weak and selfish now? Abandoning his wife and his duty. Would I turn on him the way I turned on Edna?
I entered in to reading in a curious frame of mind...as if I was conducting an experiment. I tried to be completely objective and open-minded...letting the story unfold...waiting to see how I might respond. If anything, I may have approached it a little cynically...
But it wasn't long before I was completely swept up again. Ethan is just such a good, honest, hard-working man. He gave up everything--college...his dreams for the future--to take care of his ailing parents and save the family farm. He married Zeena because he felt like it was the right thing to do...the practical thing. He tries to be a good husband, to give her what she needs to be comfortable and happy. He sacrifices over and over...to no avail. It's never enough. Ethan's life is bleak...it's impossible not to feel sorry for him. And Mattie Silver is the only thing that brings him happiness. She's young and fresh and beautiful. She's genuinely interested in him. She laughs at his jokes and makes him feel alive again...and hopeful. He is "too young, too strong, too full of the sap of living, to submit so easily to the destruction of his hopes". It's impossible not to want them to be together...to wish Zeena would just go away. And the fact that they resist slipping into an affair even when it would be so easy and so forgivable makes you want it to happen even more.
I never loved Ethan more than when he's headed to borrow money from Mr. Hale so he and Mattie can run away, and he stops dead in his tracks. It says, "For the first time...he saw what he was about to do. He was planning to take advantage of the Hales' sympathy to obtain money from them under false pretenses...the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he could only have done so by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him. He turned and walked slowly back to the farm."
Right there...that's when I wanted him to have Mattie the most. And as awful as I feel admitting it, that's when I wanted Zeena to die...she's already so sick...I guess...and so miserable...not really living at all. She should just succumb. Or maybe it could be an accident...an overdose...a stray spark...a loose wheel on the wagon...How horrible am I? How masterful is Edith Wharton?
She's got me right where she wants me...feeling how trapped Ethan really is. Feeling the futility of it all. There is literally nothing he can do because he is virtuous and good, and his circumstances are so hopeless and miserable.
And that's when it hit me...Ethan Frome isn't just a love story...it's ultimately a statement about social class. It's about how in many ways, money can buy happiness...or at least it doesn't hurt. It's about how so many people are limited by the lack of resources at their disposal...trapped in bad situations because they can't buy their way out. If only Ethan had been more comfortable financially...he could have left Zeena some money, and he and Mattie could have started a new life for themselves. They could have had a happy ending.
Ethan Frome is absolutely brilliant...vivid, captivating, subtle, nuanced...I'm so glad I read it again. I definitely appreciated it more this time around, and I look forward to experiencing some other old favorites again soon.