Ethan Frome

by Edith Wharton
Reviewed date: 2020 Feb 7
Rating: 3
102 pages
cover art

Everyone in this book makes me angry. The more I think about it, the more angry I get. I'm almost shaking. So, so angry.

I've been intending to read Ethan Frome ever since my 9th grade English teacher recommended it in 1996. She talked about the way Edith Wharton makes the reader feel sympathy for poor Ethan Frome, and makes it seem reasonable, almost noble, for him to abandon his awful wife and run off with the pretty young Mattie. It takes a skilled writer to make that kind of betrayal seem right.

If I'd read Ethan Frome back then, I might have agreed. Ethan's wife Zeena is awful. She's sick and petty and cruel and meanspirited. Mattie is not just a pretty young girl, she's a deep soul, curious about the world--and she's the only person who sees Ethan for what he is: a thoughtful man with a fantastic mind for science and the arts, not just a poor dumb farmer.

But I'm not fifteen years old anymore. I'm thirty-eight. And while I have some empathy for poor Ethan Frome's experience, I have no sympathy for him. None. He's a cowardly, self-centered, chicken-**** little man. He makes me so, so angry because I've been in his position: worn down to the bone trying to keep everything together, working a job and caring for an ill wife who is so consumed with her condition that there is never any real conversation or relationship anymore1. But unlike Ethan, who fantasized about running away and then tried to run away with Mattie and leave his wife behind, I actually took my duties as husband seriously. I'm not the kind of man who skips out. I'm the kind of man who stays when it's hard. I'm a man who knows that love is a commitment, not a feeling. Love is staying, working hard when every year, every month, every day seems harder and more hopeless than the last.

I didn't cut and run. Ethan Frome did. I despise Ethan Frome.

And his wife Zeena. She's sick. Probably a hypochondriac, but nonetheless, it's an illness. She spends all her energy being sick (it's a full time job) and she spends all of Ethan's money (not that he has much) on doctors and quack medicines. Her illness consumes her, and she has no time left to even speak to her husband. In consequence, she's unavailable to him as a wife and partner and confidant. She's shut him out entirely. But she has just enough energy left to be meanspirited and spiteful. She belittles Ethan for being poor; she blames him for her illness.

Zeena is unable to keep house, so they take in their relative Mattie Silver to help with the cooking and housework. Mattie (who is 20 years old and recently lost both parents) tries hard to please Zeena, but Zeena treats her like dirt. After a year, Zeena abruptly decides she needs professional househelp, so she sends Mattie away. Mattie, who has nobody else in the world, who has no place to go, who has been working for no pay--just room and board--for a year. Zeena gives her a day to pack up and leave. Even if Mattie had designs on Ethan (which up until that point she had not given any indication of), Zeena didn't do it to preserve her marriage to Ethan; she did it to be cruel.

Look, I understand being sick is painful and all-consuming. But Zeena is more than sick. She's evil. Meanspirited. Intentionally and deliberately cruel. I have some empathy for the pain she's suffering, but no sympathy for her. She's made the choice to alienate her husband, and she's chosen to treat Mattie like garbage. Zeena's made her bed and she deserves what's coming.

And I have a special kind of disgust for Mattie. She's lost her parents suddenly, and her relatives in the city are unwilling to lift a finger to help her, so Zeena and Ethan take her in. Despite being desperately poor, they welcome Mattie in. Mattie, sick from stress and trauma and exhaustion, isn't as much help around the house as she could be, but Zeena and Ethan take her in.

And what does she do? She ruins their marriage. The ungrateful young woman ruins their marriage. Well, maybe it wasn't much of a marriage to begin with, but it was theirs. Not hers to destroy. Mattie could have had any boy in town, but she chose to go after Ethan.

And maybe this is just my bitterness, but I know a little bit about inviting someone into my house and having that person damage my family. I've invited caregivers into my home and given them a place at the family table. Sometimes that's worked out well, but on occasion it has gone bad. I've had my family damaged and hurt in ways I never expected. I thank God it's never been as bad for my family as it is for Zeena and Ethan with Mattie (again, it helps that I'm committed to my marriage and to my family, unlike Ethan). But I have no sympathy for Mattie. She took Ethan and Zeena's help and she repaid it by shredding their marriage and destroying their lives forever.

They all get what they deserve
There is no happily ever after. Ethan takes Mattie to the catch the train to leave town, and on the way they declare their love for each other. They know they can never make it work--Ethan doesn't have enough money to run away with her--so instead they opt to commit suicide together. Their chosen method of sledding downhill into a tree leaves them both alive. But Ethan is half-crippled and Mattie is completely paralyzed. Zeena takes them both back in and nurses them to health. Now Ethan is doomed to spend the rest of his life with two joyless and mean-spirited women.

The end.

Boy does this book make me angry.

1. Things are better now. Men, don't quit on your wife and family. God is faithful. You should be too.

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