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Ethan Frome- novel by Edith wharton

Ethan Frome- novel by Edith wharton

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American literature
American literature

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01/04/2013

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OXFORD WORLD'S CLASSICS
EDITH WHARTON
Ethan Frome
INTRODUCTION
Readers who do not wish to know the plot may prefer to treat the introduction as anepilogue.OF all of Edith Wharton books,
 Ethan Frome
( 1911) is probably the best-known in theUnited States. Generations of American readers have studied
 Ethan Frome
as a set text insecondary school, less recommended, I suspect, for its artistic brilliance than for its brevity and absence of explicit sexual references. Ironically, however, this classicexample of American female Gothic is a twisted tale of sexual hysteria and thwartedadultery, perhaps the darkest novel Wharton ever wrote. Moreover, despite its apparentstylistic simplicity,
 Ethan Frome
is a complex frame narrative, and Wharton herself regarded it as a turning-point in her evolving mastery as a novelist. In her memoir,
 A Backward Glance
( 1934), she credited the composition of the novel with her firstawareness of the 'artisan's full control of his implements',
1
 and up until the end of her lifeshe retained a special attachment to it. In 1936, at the age of 74, she wrote a preface to adramatic version, expressing her hope that it would lead to a 'new lease of life' for thestory: 'My poor little group of hungry lonely New England villagers will live again for awhile in their stony hillside before finally joining their forbears under the villageheadstones. I should like to think that this good fortune may be theirs, for I lived amongthem, in fact and in imagination, for more than ten years and their strained starved facesare still near to me.' 
2
 Only in recent years have new biographical data on Wharton, including the publication of her letters, and new critical perspectives on Wharton's affinities with American women'swriting at the turn of the century, come together to illuminate the special intimacy between Wharton and
 Ethan Frome
. Wharton herself was particularly stung by reviewerswho accused her of unfamiliarity with both the region in which
 Ethan Frome
is set, andthe class background of its characters. In 1922 she agreed to write a preface for a newedition defending both her background and her narrative technique; as she explained toher publishers Scribner's, 'I am rather fond of 
"Ethan Frome" 
, and I should not care tohave it spoken of by any one who does not understand what I was trying to do.'
3
Although she had become famous as a chronicler of fashionable New York Society,Wharton's country residence, The Mount, was in Lenox, in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts, and she knew the harsh landscape and its taciturn people well.Far from being 'a successful New Englandstory written by someone who knew nothing of  New England', she noted in 'The Writing of 
 Ethan Frome
', during her visits in bothsummer and autumn from 1899 to 1908, she had 'become very familiar with the aspect,the dialect, and the general mental attitude of the Ethans, Zeenas, and Mattie Silvers of neighbouring villages'.
4
 In long car rides, alone or with friends, rural New England, with
 
its hardscrabble farms and severe climate, its 'lonely lives in half-deserted . . . villages, before the coming of the motor and the telephone'
5
  became for her imagination whatFlintcomb Ash was to Hardy, or the Yorkshire moors to the Brontës, a primal landscapewhich exposed the harsh face of human existence.Even in her time, Wharton recalled in her memoir A
 Backward Glance
, 'the snowboundvillages of Western Massachusetts were still grim places, morally and physically:insanity, incest, and slow mental and moral starvation were hidden away behind the paintless wooden house-fronts of the long village street, or in the isolated farm-houses onthe neighbouring hills'. Indeed, she noted, ' Emily Brontë would have found as savagetragedies in our remoter valleys as in her Yorkshire moors.'
6
 The region became thesetting for numerous short stories, and for both
 Ethan Frome
and her other tragic shortnovel of isolated New England life,
Summer 
( 1917), which she sometimes called 'hotEthan'.Curiously, the first draft of 
 Ethan Frome
was written in French, and titled
 Hiver 
. As sheexplained in 1932, Wharton had composed it during a winter's stay in Paris in 1907, as anexercise for her tutor: 'I timidly asked him if a story would "do", and, though obviouslysomewhat surprised at the unexpected suggestion, he acquiesced with equal timidity.Thus the French version of 
 Ethan Frome
began, and ploughed its heavy course through acopy-book or two; then the lessons were interrupted and the Gallic "Ethan" abandoned, Iforget at what point in his career.' 
7
 In the French sketch--only eight pages long--the storyis told by an omniscient narrator. Hart is married to the sickly Anna, but in love with her niece Mattie, who lives with them. When Anna goes away for two days to see a doctor,Hart stays at a tavern in town to avoid compromising Mattie, and gets a bit drunk. ButAnna returns to announce that she has hired a new serving-girl, and that Mattie mustleave. The lovers declare their feelings for each other, but accept the inevitability of their separation; at the end, Hart is driving Mattie to the train through the falling snow.
8
Wharton describes Mattie as the end of a long line of suffering women: 'One would saythat she expressed all the mute anguish of a long line of women who, for two centuries,had used up their lives and eaten their hearts in the narrow and dreary existence of theAmerican countryside.' 
9
 During a summer at The Mount a few years later, Wharton remembered, 'a distantglimpse of Bear Mountain brought Ethan back to my memory'; and in the winter of 1911,once more in Paris, Wharton took up the story again, reading her work out loud eachevening to her friend, the lawyer Walter Berry, a Harvard graduate who also knew NewEngland well.
 At this stage she not only expanded the story ('that ridiculous nouvelle . .. has grown into a large long-legged hobbledehoy of a young novel,' she wrote to BernardBerenson), but also added the frame narrator, and the terrible accident that maims thelovers. 
 In March 1904 there had been a spectacular sledding accident in Pittsfield,Mass., in which an 18-year-old girl was killed and four others severely injured when their 'double ripper' crashed into a lamppost at the bottom of a steep hill.
 Wharton knew oneof the scarred survivors, who worked at the Lenox public library. 
 
Since the publication of R. W. B. Lewis's definitive biography of Wharton in 1975, manycritics have seen correspondences between the novel and Wharton's life. Like
 Ethan Frome
, she had suffered for many years in an unhappy marriage, to the mentally unstableTeddy Wharton, and in 1905-8 had escaped it in a brief but ecstatic love affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton. 'I have drunk the wine of life at last,' she wrote in her diary.'I have known the thing best worth knowing, I have been warmed through and throughnever to grow quite cold again until the end.'
 In 1911 Wharton finally separated fromTeddy, and sold The Mount. Lewis argues that
 Ethan Frome
'portrays her personalsituation, as she had come to realize it, carried to a far extreme, transplanted to a remoterural scene, and rendered utterly hopeless by circumstance'.
 In the denouement,Wharton imagined the nightmare her life might have become if she had remained tied toher husband.In the summer of 1911,
 Ethan Frome
was being serialized in
Scribner's
, with praise fromthe reviewers and from Henry James: 'a beautiful art & tone & truth,' he wrote toWharton in October 1911; '--a beautiful artful kept-downness, & yet effectivecumulation'. Although some reviewers were put off by the relentless bleakness of thestory, the London journal
The Bookman
was among those that immediately recognized itsliterary distinction. 'It is a beautiful, sad but intensely human story,' the reviewer observed, 'working out to its final conclusion with all the inevitability of a great Greek tragedy.'Greek tragedy was frequently cited as an analogy for 
 Ethan Frome
, but its literarysources and its technique were more diverse than its brevity might suggest. The NewEngland setting and the names of the chief characters brought Hawthorne to mind,especially his short story "'Ethan Brand'", with its isolated hero, and his novel
The Blithedale Romance
, with its doomed feminist heroine Zenobia. On the other hand,Wharton insisted that her work and intentions were very different from those of the NewEngland female local colourists like Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman, whohad specialized in chronicles of village life. Her sense of high literary aspirationdemanded that she differentiate herself from American women's culture and Americanwomen writers. American women, she believed, were intellectually infantilized by acultural separation which celebrated quilting bees, gardens, and feminine rituals. In particular, she felt the need to define herself as an artist against the work of Jewett andFreeman, the most talented and productive of her competitors. In her 1922 introduction,she differentiated
 Ethan Frome
from their ' New England of fiction', a landscape of 'vague botanical and dialectical' realism, which enumerated the local flora of 'sweet-fern,asters, and mountain-laurel', and attempted a 'conscientious reproduction of thevernacular', while sentimentalizing the harshness of village life. This landscape, sheargued in
 A Backward Glance
, came from the 'rose-andlavender pages' of the 'favouriteauthoresses' of New England, her predecessors Jewett and Freeman, who, she charged,saw the world through 'rose-colored spectacles'. 
 Yet Wharton had much more in common with the local colourists than she wished toadmit. Freeman was a thorough writer who recorded the ironies of a declining,depopulated New England, inhabited by ageing women and tight-lipped men. As Jewett

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