To celebrate the end of a long winter, I’m going to tackle Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton. Our narrator (who rudely neglects to tell us his name) is a gossipmonger whose sole job is to share with us the goings-on of a little town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. His favorite subject is a man by the name of Ethan Frome – a tired, scarred, cranky 52 year-old-man who’s looked like a geezer since he was 28 years old.
Our narrator is fairly new to town, commuting a long way to work and renting a room from the widow known as Mrs. Ned Hale. One day, when the narrator’s carpool buddy is home sick, someone suggests he catch a ride to work with Ethan, who could use an extra dollar a day. Over the next few weeks, Ethan is a decent taxi driver, though he barely says more than a word or two on the awkward ride to and from work. At one point, when the narrator accidentally leaves his biochemistry book on the seat, Ethan returns it the next day and expresses some interest in the topic. The narrator hopes this means Ethan will read it and they’ll have a conversation about it, but no such luck.
Ethan is as reliable as a postman, even driving the narrator to work during a snowstorm. It gets so bad that they have to take a detour, and as Ethan takes them past his own house, he suddenly seems to have plenty to say about the ugly little thing. On the way home from work, the storm is worse, and they have to stay at Ethan’s house for the night. This, of course, provides the perfect excuse for Ethan to relate his sordid personal history (though I’m not entirely sure why, as the narrator hasn’t done anything to make himself seem especially trustworthy).
As it turns out, young Ethan Frome was just as stalkery as our narrator is now, peeking into the windows of the church to watch young men and women dance. In particular, he likes watching a dark haired woman called Mattie Silver. He also likes to ignore the fact that she’s dancing with Denis Eady, the son of the Irish grocer.
Mattie, as it turns out, is a young cousin of Ethan’s sickly wife, Zenobia (often called Zeena. I happen to love the name). She has been living with the couple for a year, and Ethan is rather attached to her, by which I mean entirely smitten – he shaves every day and everything now. Zeena, of course, notices this, and tries to draw attention to Mattie’s lack of domestic talents. Ethan usually ends up helping Mattie with her chores, lighting the fire and scrubbing the floor. Whenever his wife catches him, she reminds him that they’ll need a hired girl when Mattie gets married. He doesn’t like the thought of that, so he willfully assumes it’s not going to happen any time soon.
Ethan waits for her after the dance, lurking in the shadows like a creeper while Denis offers her a ride home. She teases Denis by almost letting him take her home, but as soon as he’s in his sleigh, she runs off. Ethan finally emerges from the shadows and walks her home, wishing that he could rub his head on her red scarf. (Not weird at all.) They pass by an icy hill and make plans to sled down it sometime, despite the fact that Ned Hale and his fiancée almost hit a big elm and nearly died in the process when they last tried it. What could possibly go wrong?
Ethan tries to find out how serious Mattie is about Denis by asking if she plans to leave soon – probably the wrong thing to do, as she suddenly gets insecure and thinks that they’re planning on firing her. It turns out, to his delight, that she has no plans of getting married just now. They continue on their walk, past the Frome gravestones (which are presumably placed by the side of the road as a pleasant reminder of one’s mortality) and Ethan dreams of the day he and Mattie are buried next to each other in a way that is totally not creepy . When she stumbles over absolutely nothing, he puts his arm around her and she doesn’t run away, so he takes this as a sign to mean he should confess his love on the front porch. Of course, the mood is spoiled when they get to the house and he discovers the key isn’t under the mat by the kitchen door.
As they fumble around looking for it, Zeena appears at the door, with her hair in pins and her outline a bit skeletal. (One can’t help but imagine green face cream and cucumbers). It turns out she didn’t forget to leave the key out – she just couldn’t sleep so she waited up for them. Now, she heads off to bed. He doesn’t want to follow after her and give Mattie the impression that he actually sleeps in the same room with Zeena (honestly, do you think she hasn’t figured that out?) so he makes the excuse of going over mill accounts. Zeena sees right through him and tells him to hurry up and stop being a baby.
That night, as he listens to Zeena’s asthmatic breathing and imagines her dentures in a cup beside the bed (I realize she’s ill, but honestly, she’s still only 35), Ethan wonders why he didn’t kiss Mattie. In the morning, he watches her and notes how nicely her complexion is warming up, compared to how she looked when she first arrived after the death of her parents and her failure at making her own living in the world (apparently bookkeeping was too strenuous for her health. I’m going to assume it runs in the family and that Wharton isn’t saying all women are incapable of standing upright for more than an hour at a time).
Ethan comes home from work to find Zeena in her best dress, getting ready to visit her Aunt Martha in the city because her shooting pains are terrible, and presumably a bumpy carriage ride will help with that. He usually dreads the thought of her going to the city because she always comes home with expensive new “remedies,” but he’s excited this time because it means he’ll be alone with Mattie. He makes a dumb excuse for why he can’t drive her over himself, but fortunately Zeena’s not really paying attention.
As Ethan carries on with his work, he fantasizes about eating supper alone with Mattie like a married couple, which of course reminds him of how his current marriage started. He recollects the death of his father and fatal illness of his mother, and the fact that his cousin Zeena had come to tend her. After his mother died and Zeena was preparing to leave, he had begged her to stay with him so he wasn’t left alone on the farm. They had intended to sell the farm and move to a large town, but he could never find any buyers and Zeena soon developed an illness. She grew quieter and he started to wonder if she was turning out like his mother. (I’m not sure if he means the illness or the notion of slowly dying of boredom on a decaying farm.)
As he walks the streets now, he sees Denis in his sleigh heading in the general direction Frome farm and is immediately jealous. By the church, he hears a couple kissing and takes delight in scaring Ned Hale and his fiancée. He heads home, past the graveyard where he admires a gravestone engraved with the names of Ethan Frome and his wife Endurance who had been married for 50 years. (If the first Ethan was anything like this one, Endurance is probably an apt name for his wife.)
Upon reaching home, Ethan is gleeful to find that Denis never actually showed up and that Mattie is alone in the house. She’s got a ribbon in her hair and food on the table, which makes her appear all kinds of womanly to him.
Supper is awkward, and they talk about the weather and whether it might affect Zeena’s return, while the cat tries to steal the milk jug. In reaching for the jug, they scare the cat, who knocks over Zeena’s pickle dish and shatters it. Apparently Zeena never used the pickle dish (why do pickles need their own dish anyway) and kept it with her best things until Mattie decided tonight was the perfect time for pickles. The pickle dish is, of course, an irreplaceable wedding present from Zeena’s aunt, and its departure from useful existence completely ruins the evening. Ethan puts the pieces back on the shelf in such a way that they don’t look broken from below and decides he’ll glue them back together in the morning.
After eating, Ethan finds Mattie sewing in the kitchen and insists she sit by the stove to complete his fantasy of domesticity. Mattie seems to find it awkward sitting in Zeena’s rocking chair (no kidding) and since she can’t actually see her sewing, goes back to sit by the lamp. They start chatting about various things – how it’s too dark to go sledding tonight, how he caught her friends making out, and when their wedding is going to be (the friends, that is, not his and Mattie’s – as much as he would wish otherwise). He tries to find out again if she has thoughts of marriage, and she tries to find out if she’s going to be fired. He reaches a hand out toward her, but the meddling cat jumps off Zeena’s rocking chair, which makes him remember that his wife is actually coming back. His hand creeps closer and he kisses Mattie’s sewing. She starts packing it all up (possibly because that was really weird) and they go to bed separately.
The next day he is anxious to run out and get the glue so he can mend the pickle dish and spend time with Mattie before his wife gets home. Zeena is, of course, already home and in her room when he gets back. There is something ominous when his farmhand refuses to stay for dinner (and they’re even eating donuts – you know it’s bad when he refuses donuts).
Ethan calls Zeena down for dinner, but she says she is much sicker than he thinks, with “complications” and everything. It only now occurs to him that she might actually be telling the truth. Her new doctor says she should probably have an operation, but it’ll be sufficient if they just get a hired girl to do everything around the house instead. She’s already found one, in fact, and the girl is coming over tomorrow.
Ethan freaks out about the money they don’t have, Zeena plays the “I lost my health nursing your mother” guilt card, and things get even nastier when she informs him that she’s letting go of freeloading Mattie immediately – apparently it’s time the girl spent a year sleeping on someone else’s couch and hogging the Doritos.
After this revelation, Ethan slumps downstairs to dinner by himself – though instead of eating, he prefers to be dramatic. He clutches Mattie to him, kissing her and declaring that he doesn’t want her to go. She is, of course, alarmed because he spent the last two days ensuring her that no one was going to fire her. He insists that he’ll stand up to his wife, but falls silent as Zeena shuffles into the room, deciding she’s going to eat after all. Afterwards, Zeena goes to get some Tums or something for her stomach, but she finds her broken pickle dish instead. She’s enraged. Ethan blames the cat, Mattie blames herself, and Zeena calls Mattie a bad girl for ruining the one thing she cared about most of all. (Apparently it was a really fantastic pickle dish.)
Later that night, Ethan realizes he is an independent man who don’t need no bitter woman running his life. He decides he could totally run away with Mattie, leave the farm for Zeena to sell and head west. But when he starts writing her a letter, he realizes that leaves him with no money whatsoever – not even the train fare to head west. He thinks about borrowing money, but finally realizes that he’s a poor man trying to leave his sickly wife alone and destitute and that no one is likely to feel sympathy for him on the issue.
The day of Mattie’s departure (the very next day, as it turns out) Ethan insists on driving her to the station. They stop along the way to spend time reminiscing and flirting. Ethan asks her how on earth she’ll manage working in a shop with her helpless little stick legs. She pulls out the letter he started writing and confesses her feelings. He exclaims that he wishes she were dead instead of married to someone else, and she agrees (this seems like a bit of an exaggeration to me, but apparently I know nothing of true love).
As they drive past the old sledding hill, Ethan insists on taking her down it immediately. Ned Hale has conveniently left a sled there for them to use, and after they have a go, Mattie kisses him. As the time draws near for Mattie’s train to leave, they panic about separating, which leads Mattie to the logical conclusion that they should go ahead and kill themselves by crashing the sled into the tree.
Honestly guys, death by urban legend is not the most surefire way to go. You should try poison or something.
They make the attempt anyway, but during the descent, Ethan hallucinates, sees the face of his wife and jerks the sled slightly off course. They hit the tree all right, but not fatally. Although he’s in pain, Ethan gets up, checks to make sure Mattie’s alive, and then compulsively thinks about feeding his horse. Man’s got priorities.
The flashback ends and we return to our narrator (remember him?) meeting two gimpy gray-haired women who turn out to be Zeena and Mattie. As the narrator later learns from Mrs. Hale, he’s the first person to set foot in the Frome house for twenty years. Since the accident, Zeena has taken over the care of everyone. Unsurprisingly, she and Mattie still don’t really get along, and they are all miserable. Mrs. Hale tells the narrator that everyone in that house would be better off dead. Which is as cheerful an ending as this story is going to get, I guess. If I’ve learned anything here, it’s either that adultery is wrong or that sledding is a terribly ineffective method of accomplishing suicide pacts.