Thursday, January 5, 2012

Great Novellas: Ethan Frome

One of the things I'd like to do with my blog in 2012 is to return to the serial posts I began in the past which could use some additions.  In August, I began a series of Great Novellas, but I only discussed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Night, and "The Yellow Wallpaper," which is really more of a short story than a novella.  To do the genre justice, I have some more to add to the series and am open to further suggestions from all of you.

I want to start with Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.  This is a perfect time of year to discuss this novel, since it is set in the winter and filled with magnificent wintery details.  Unlike many people, I praise winter as my favorite time of the year, and I bask in frostbitten narratives.  There are few things I love more than curling up on the couch in the wintertime, wrapping myself in a blanket with hot chocolate or coffee, and reading a great book.  Furthermore, Ethan Frome is set in Massachusetts, which is my favorite place of residence, and the apt description of it warms my heart.

But the content of the novella is just as worthy as its setting, and I don't want to distract from that.  It's a character study that delicately leads you to understanding a complex and pitiable man.  Most of the story is conveyed through a flashback, which is contained within a frame narrative.  The initial first-person narrator is a visitor to the town, who is intrigued by a mysterious man he encounters named Ethan Frome.  During the Introduction section, we perceive Ethan through his eyes and form a biased opinion of this gruff and disfigured man.  Yet the majority of the novella is a flashback of Ethan's past, narrated in third-person from his perspective.  We then have access to his inner thoughts and hidden desires, as well as all the conflict they spark within him.  My heart ached in sympathy for this young Ethan, and I became completely attached to the character. 

This story hooked me.  I was in the middle of a different book and intended to download Ethan Frome so I could read it after I finished the one I was working on.  Out of curiosity, I glanced at the first page, and then I couldn't put it down until I was finished.  Wharton's writing is incredibly beautiful and compelling, and I flew through the pages.  But I think the most captivating aspect of the story is how very real Ethan seems to be.  It really felt like Ethan was a real person rather than a character, as his struggles were so earnest and heart-rending.  And yet, appropriately, you can recognize that Ethan is responsible for his position and that he made these choices with which he is now struggling.  Ultimately, no one is to blame for his situation, though he undeniably had some difficult circumstances most people don't have to experience at his age.  I think this is why I found it to be so compellingly human.

Because of the Introduction, we can sense that tragedy is looming over young Ethan in the flashback, and this foreboding adds a distinct mood to the story.  Nevertheless, it is still a bit of a shock when that time comes, and we return quickly to the present-day setting of the Introduction.  I think that the structure of this story is powerful, for though the Ethan we meet in the Introduction is consistent with the one we see in the Conclusion, our perspective of him has radically changed.  This creates a powerful, heart-breaking ending, which I do not think could have been shared in a more effective way.  It amazes me how deep Wharton is able to delve into the character in so few pages, and I think she had remarkable talent to be able to pull it off.  As I said at the beginning of this series, it is arguably more difficult to write great work in shorter genres like novellas, for every single word has to count.  I believe Ethan Frome is an excellent example of successfully accomplishing this challenge.


steelsuzette said...

This is one I've been meaning to re-read; I read it my junior year of high school, and remember being upset by the story. Since then, I've read 'The Age of Innocence,' and many of my friends love her work. I should add this one to my list for this year.

Jessica said...

I first read Eathan Frome years ago during a trip to Houston in mid-July. Despite the heat outside, I remember feeling so cold while I read it. Wharton does a magnificent job of describing the frozen world of New England, which perfectly matches Eathan's frozen life. This book chilled me to the bone (in such a good way).

Allie said...

I love Ethan Frome. She does such a great job of packing such a large emotional punch in such a short little book.

Now I want to reread it. :)

Julia Hones said...

Interesting, I'd like to read it. I've just finished My Antonia, by Willa Cather. I wrote a review about it that I will post in a few days.

Amy said...

I'm glad to hear you all are interested in this book! As I was writing this post, I decided I wanted my dad to read it, since he grew up in New England and loves descriptive passages. Though not typically much of a reader, he flew through it and enjoyed it very much. I have read some reviews where people are annoyed by the book and think that the climax is ridiculous, but I still think it's a great piece. Feel free to object if you must :)