Aesthetic Drift #14 by Scott Hoffman
I Read Ethan Frome Every January
For the past decade or so, I’ve read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome every January. I’m still trying to figure out why.
The story is simple. (I suppose I should announce “spoilers alert!” here, but we’re all adults.) Ethan is a hard-scrabble farmer trapped in a loveless marriage. His wife Zeena is a hypochondriac who bitterly questions and criticizes his every move. Her obsession with her health slowly drains the couple’s resources as the farm falls deeper and deeper into disrepair. They live among the granite outcroppings of Western Massachusetts in an isolated village aptly named Starkfield, where it always seems to be winter but never Christmas. Into this tense, claustrophobic situation enters Mattie, Zeena’s orphaned cousin, an attractive, sunny young lady left alone and impoverished by her parents’ death. With nowhere else to stay she becomes the couple’s “girl,” but she doesn’t know much about farm life and is little help. Zeena despises her. Ethan is smitten. So is Mattie. The story tracks the final days of their furtive, cautious relationship as Zeena maneuvers to send her rival away into a life of poverty and desperation. Ethan tries to escape with Mattie, but finds himself trapped by poverty, the past, and a tattered sense of loyalty to his wife. The two desperately attempt suicide only to survive, their bodies mangled, still trapped in Starkfield. The story is told by a visitor who, decades later, finds the three on the farm barely scraping by. Little trace of the love once shared by Ethan and Mattie lingers, just bitterness and poverty.
Bleak. Yet, I read Ethan Frome every January. I’ve even developed a ritual around it. At one point in the story, a cat shatters a red pickle dish deeply prized by Zeena, but used surreptitiously by Mattie when eating supper alone with Ethan. It marks the beginning of the downhill slide to the lovers’ doom. As soon as I finish reading that passage, I text one of my best friends in Boston, excoriating the damn cat for breaking the damnable dish. She waits for the text every year, noting that I get to that point quicker each time.
I read Ethan Frome each January. I am somehow drawn to relive that bitter winter in Starkfield. Perhaps it’s the environment. Wharton makes palpable the snow-bound oppressiveness of Starkfield, the chipped, threadbare poverty of the Frome farm, and the brilliant flashes of red that relieve the gloomy whiteness whenever Mattie appears wearing that color of joy and lust. Often, when reading the book, I’m startled to see that the sun is shining through my window. Or perhaps it’s the characters that Wharton draws. Ethan Frome could be read as a fairy tale among the Berkshires: a hero, a heroine, and a witch. But Ethan and Mattie and Zeena have more depth than that. Living in a land where silence reigns, each reveals their desperation quietly. Wharton’s characters express more in a simple glance than pages of dialogue.
I’m most drawn to Ethan himself. Not the young Ethan of some twenty years earlier, that desperate, trapped Ethan who cannot find it within himself to really assert himself before Zeena and who thinks death is the only way out. Instead, I find myself admiring Ethan in his later years when the visiting Narrator first encounters him at the village post office. This Ethan bears the hideous scars of his “smash-up” with Mattie, when they tried to take their lives. One side of his body is a mangled, tortured mess. Mattie’s scarf and Zeena’s dish have become a red scar across his forehead. Ethan’s “A” perhaps. He limps painfully from his wagon to the mail and back again. All of Starkfield views him with pity, an emotion that New England reticence cannot allow them to express, except perhaps when gossiping behind drawn curtains. Yet the Narrator describes him as “striking,” with “a careless, powerful look.” Soon the Narrator hires Ethan to drive him to the nearby train station, a regular assignment, which the farmer takes pragmatically because he clearly needs the cash. But Ethan quickly proves to be as curious of this outsider as the Narrator is of him. Perhaps he is the first outsider that he’s encountered in Starkfield for years. They share an interest in engineering, which Ethan had studied in his youth, never completing his degree. As a driver he proves to be faithful, showing up at exactly the time he is needed and delivering his passenger right on time. Perhaps the Puritan work ethic and the need for a dollar makes him so punctual, but I suspect his curiosity and possibly a sense of friendship with the stranger drives such dedication. When a winter storm blocks their path one afternoon, Ethan generously offers the Narrator his home and a share in his meager supper until the storm blows over. And in crossing the threshold into the Fromes’ battered kitchen the Narrator puts together the clues he has learned about Ethan into a vision of his life.
I suppose we could debate the causes of Ethan’s tragedy. Does it lie in his character flaws? His inability to defend himself against the domineering, harping Zeena? His romantic vision of love that somehow escaping with Mattie will solve all his problems? Or in the empty circumstances of his life? The harsh social order and poverty of Starkfield that prevents him from escaping anyway. Either or both lead him to end the pain in his life by ending his life altogether. Wharton does not allow him such escape. Rather he must endure crippling pain in a mangled body and the pity and whispers of the village. But I find hope in Ethan’s response to the aftermath of the smash-up. When the Narrator enters the Fromes’ kitchen he finds Zeena and Mattie there. Zeena doesn’t greet the visitor, but silently goes about preparing supper with “pale, opaque eyes that revealed nothing and reflected nothing.” The mild surprise that she registers suggests that later she might berate Ethan for violating their privacy. Earlier we learned that Ethan still picks up patent medicines for her at the post office, indicating that she still suffers hypochondria. It seems that Zeena has changed only little. Mattie on the other hand has changed the most. The girl who once reveled in red is now “bloodless and shriveled,” with a “witch-like stare that disease of the spine sometimes gives.” Ethan and his visitor walk in on her in mid-rant, complaining about Zeena in a “high thin voice.” Her charm and warmth are long gone, understandably so. Clearly Zeena spends her days caring for Mattie, but the animosity that was once hidden between them is fully in the open now, catching Ethan in the middle. He himself however has a different response. He does not remain relatively unchanged, like Zeena, nor does he succumb to bitterness like his one-time love, Mattie. Ethan endures. His is one of those everyday Americans who rises each day to the tasks at hand and, despite pain and disappointment, puts his hand to them. He continues to scratch out a living among the granite outcroppings of the Berkshires in the face of great hardship. Perhaps this is simply his New England pragmatism, but I see something heroic in his quiet refusal to simply quit. He once tried to escape the pain of his life through death, now his body bears that pain, no doubt it reminds him of it each morning, but now he does not quit. He continues. He endures. How many of us in our comfortable first-world lives would have the strength, the fortitude to do that?
Yet Ethan does more than simply endure. When he encounters the Narrator, he could easily take the stranger’s money and drive him to the train station and back with only the most necessary of words. It takes a certain remarkable decency for someone who has so little to offer what little he has. It also takes a certain strength. Despite his despair, his pain, the smash-up has brought out that core of decency and fortitude that exists inside Ethan. To me, that is perhaps the best response to disappointment and tragedy in our lives.
I read Ethan Frome every January. But this January, January 2017, I am of two minds about reading it again. We’re living in a world that seems much starker, colder, and more unjust than Starkfield. That feeling of being trapped and desperate is all too palpable. Or, with my hand lingering over the red-bound volume on my bookshelf, I might just read it again and go on to bear life’s scars, like Ethan, like all of us, to endure another winter and rise each day to try to work a little more good in the world. We could all try that. It is the decent thing to do.
Scott Hoffman (Episode 66, 241) is an independent scholar and native Austinite living and working in his hometown. He earned his Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue University in 2005 and is currently revising his manuscript Haloed by the Nation: Popular Martyrdom in Contemporary America. In 2008, he was nominated for a Lone Star Emmy for researching and writing The World, the War and Texas, a public television documentary about Texans during the Second World War. His publications include “How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria? St. Maria Goretti in the Post-Counter-Cultural World” in The CRITIC and “Holy Martin: The Overlooked Canonization of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” and “‘Last Night I Prayed to Matthew:’ Matthew Shepard, Homosexuality and Popular Martyrdom in Contemporary America,” both in Religion and American Culture. This year he completed compiling an LBGT Resource Guide for the Austin History Center. In his spare time Scott likes to sing like nobody’s listenin’ and dance like nobody’s watchin’, which means he tends to wail and flail his arms a lot…