Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Ethan Frome

Just a few paragraphs into Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, I couldn't help thinking, I've read this before, only then it was called The Age of Innocence and it was longer.

That turned out to be a fairly accurate assessment of Wharton's novel (novella). The main difference is the setting and the "twist" ending (which felt a bit cheap and expected to me). Beyond that, both of Wharton's novels deal with an adulterous passion (which can never be completely fulfilled) and an overwhelming sense of (tragic) fate. Ultimately, I preferred Age of Innocence, with its more subtle sense of fate and more realistic ending. Ethan Frome seemed a bit like an experiment in authorial cruelty. (The ending of Ethan Frome is so exaggerated that it seemed almost humorous.)

Also, everything I read implies that Zeena should be viewed as a tyrannical, selfish being, but she was so caricatured that I started to feel sorry for her. I started to think, Well, of course she acts all mean and suspicious; she thinks you want to have an affair with her cousin. Oh wait--you do! Her doubtful illnesses started to seem like desperate attempts to get some kind of attention from her husband. It wasn't difficult to see why Ethan liked the sweet, inadept Mattie Silver in contrast to his wife. But I had a hard time feeling he had a good reason to cheat. Not that I ever feel there's a really good reason for someone to cheat on his or her spouse, so maybe that sums up my problem with the novel right there. In Age of Innocence, however, I didn't feel as annoyed about Countess Olenska cheating on her husband (he was cheating on her already and she was continually talked out of divorcing him for the sake of her family--which sounds a lot like Wharton's own marriage).

I guess I'm not on quite the same page as the young woman who said, "I love Edith Wharton. Her stories are so depressing!"

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