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Old 12-21-2012, 09:23 AM   #1
WT Sharpe
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December 2012 Discussion: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (spoilers)

Sorry for being late, but with the world ending today and all, I felt posting the December discussion was a bit moot.

Okay, it really slipped my mind. I usually do it at the same time I start the nominations for the next month, but for some reason this time I didn't. At any rate, let's discuss the November 2012 MobileRead Book Club selection, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. What did you think?

Actually, so much has already been said, I feel we've already started the discussion.
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Old 12-21-2012, 11:06 AM   #2
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I really enjoyed this story which shouldn't come as a great surprise as I'm sure Bleak is one of my middle names.

Wharton can certainly write. This is the first of her works I have read and I was mesmerised. The claustrophobia of Ethan's relationship with his wife, the smouldering desire for Mattie, the disaster brought about by the inevitable slip into recklessness for them both and the final position reversal at the end.

The most interesting thing I found about the story was the contrast of Mattie and the wife. While Zeena was tending to Ethan's sick parent (can't remember if it was mother or father now), she came into her own, displaying a selflessness and strength. She was like an anchor for Ethan. However, when married and stuck with no real purpose, she is reduced to a harping hypochondriac. At the end though, she has come into her own again with Mattie to tend to - a picture of patience.

Mattie is the great hope of a life of sentimental romance for Ethan; the grass-is-always-greener proposition that he battled against until he finally succumbed to a tidal wave of rather silly passion that ends - well - badly. But the dream becomes a nightmare once Mattie is crippled and becomes a whining, criticising invalid.

I got the feeling that Ethan was doomed. Too sentimental to live with the guilt of abandoning his wife, romantic enough to attempt to attempt a foolish lovers' suicide. He was never going to be happy with his wife as she was only bearable when there was someone to look after. Having Mattie as an invalid might have made his wife more bearable, but Mattie was not a gracious boarder once crippled.

All this and a bleak landscape too.

I'm interested in what other people thought about this story.
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Old 12-21-2012, 12:51 PM   #3
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The ending gave me chills, literally. The story perfectly captured the atmosphere of misery and the feeling of being trapped. All three characters were restrained by circumstance and couldn't escape, almost like being buried alive. I found it hard to judge any of the characters harshly, I ended up pitying them all.
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Old 12-21-2012, 02:42 PM   #4
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What stayed in my mind most wasn't the story or the characters, oddly enough, but the writing. I absolutely loved the writing! The story was told so incredibly well! I didn't particularly care about the story or the characters, but I still couldn't stop reading!
Not being a native English speaking I sometimes struggle with English language classics, but I did not for one moment feel like it was written 100 years ago!
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Old 12-21-2012, 04:17 PM   #5
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I had read Ethan Frome a couple of months ago, but decided to read it once more for this discussion. Once more I was also struck by the beauty of Warton's writing. The way she described the physical scenery, the people, and their emotions was truly great literature.

It being a repeat read I was not shocked at the ending, but was still amazed at the transformation of the female main characters. Zeena went from being a thoroughly unlikable self adsorbed hypochondriac, to someone who if not pleasant at least accepted responsibility for caring for the crippled Mattie for more than 20 years. That still surprises me considering how callous she was about casting Mattie off to bleak future prior to the sleigh injury. Mattie turned from a pleasant young woman who was willing to endure hardship without much complaint to a sour bitter woman.

I had real sympathy and understanding for Ethan. His entire life he subverted his own wishes and dreams in order to comply with what he thought was his responsibilities at any time. Caring for his parents, marrying Zeena, abandoning the idea of staring a new life with Mattie, and spending likely the rest of his days caring for Zeena and Mattie.
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Old 12-21-2012, 05:22 PM   #6
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My first surprise was finding Warton wasn't an English writer. Not sure why I thought Ethan Frome was a British classic, but I opened it with some trepidation, and was glad to find it wasn't.

Despite the bleak storyline and the tale of hard living and poverty, I found the writing itself uplifting, and never felt brought down by the telling of the tale. I was quite invested in the character of Ethan, and found myself shouting (in my mind) for him to just do it, to run away with Mattie and let the chips fall where they may. His sense of responsibilty was admirable, to not want to abandon Zeena to a life of penury, but then killing himself would have had the same result, so why not just go with his heart and leave? That was the tragedy of the book for me, not the fact that he spent the rest of his life looking after both of the women in a state of perpetual penance and misery.

Glad I have read it, and glad that the naysayers were wrong about it (you know who you are ).
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Old 12-21-2012, 08:34 PM   #7
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I'm glad everyone is in accord on the writing. It really was beautiful and has convinced me to read more of her works.

I particularly liked this comment from Synamon:

Quote:
The story perfectly captured the atmosphere of misery and the feeling of being trapped. All three characters were restrained by circumstance and couldn't escape, almost like being buried alive.
It was like every decision was going to be a bad decision for Ethan and neither of the other characters had any better choices.

First read through, I was quite shocked by the reveal at the end. At no time could I picture Mattie becoming such a horrible burden on Ethan and then it was laid bare for me while allowing me to see Zeena in a different light.

But what interested me was that Zeena's elevation towards the end is a false dawn. Remove Mattie from the situation and she would again return to being the bitter hypochondriac she was before.

There really was no hope for Ethan.

I have to agree with Orlok too. I knew a bad ending was a foregone conclusion, but that didn't stop me from "...shouting (in my mind) for him to just do it, to run away with Mattie and let the chips fall where they may."

I'm very glad this book was selected for our read this month.
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Old 12-22-2012, 12:14 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by caleb72 View Post
I'm glad everyone is in accord on the writing. It really was beautiful and has convinced me to read more of her works.
Same here, this was my first exposure to Wharton and I'll be moving her other books up my to-be-read list. She used language like an orchestra score, with heavy and light notes revealing the whole. Her insights into Ethan's life are surprising when you consider that she was part of the privileged upper class.
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Old 12-22-2012, 05:21 AM   #9
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But what interested me was that Zeena's elevation towards the end is a false dawn. Remove Mattie from the situation and she would again return to being the bitter hypochondriac she was before.
I'm interested that you should say that, as some of the comments here suggest that Zeena was redeemed at the end. I saw it differently. My view is that she was revived by spite - Ethan was now having to live with the shell of a ruined Mattie, and be faced with the reality of what he had done every day for the rest of his life, and Zeena was happy to look after Mattie in order to perpetuate that torture. I never believed her illness, to me it was just a way of trapping Ethan, and once she had found a better method of keeping him imprisoned, she miraculously improved in health.
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Old 12-22-2012, 05:29 AM   #10
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I'm interested that you should say that, as some of the comments here suggest that Zeena was redeemed at the end. I saw it differently. My view is that she was revived by spite - Ethan was now having to live with the shell of a ruined Mattie, and be faced with the reality of what he had done every day for the rest of his life, and Zeena was happy to look after Mattie in order to perpetuate that torture. I never believed her illness, to me it was just a way of trapping Ethan, and once she had found a better method of keeping him imprisoned, she miraculously improved in health.
I wouldn't say she was redeemed - more revived. But really interested in your view of Zeena.

I was thinking that Mattie was giving her what she needed - someone to nurse. The reason I looked at it that was is that the only time we saw a "revived" Zeena before was when she was nursing Ethan's sick parent. I got the impression she thrived on being the suffering caregiver and without that, the only way she could keep the higher ground was to paint herself as suffering (hence illness).

I absolutely agree with you about the illnesses of course. Totally manufactured in my reading. But I really like your perspective on her continuing to care for Mattie as a silent punishment of Ethan. Nice thought and one that didn't occur to me (although it really should have given her manipulative nature).
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Old 12-22-2012, 11:25 AM   #11
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I saw it differently. My view is that she was revived by spite - Ethan was now having to live with the shell of a ruined Mattie, and be faced with the reality of what he had done every day for the rest of his life, and Zeena was happy to look after Mattie in order to perpetuate that torture.
I agree...and fits the twisted end and bleak nature of this story.

I can honestly say I would never, never have picked this book to read on my own....and now I am very glad to have been introduced to the writings of Edith Wharton.

1. Oh....the writing was marvelous! I got lost in the words.
2. It was a bitter, sad story in a bleak setting--glad it was short. I don't think I could endure the waffling of Ethan more than the very suitable length of this story.
3. The end---total surprise. Knew the story had no good ending...had no idea it would take the turn into, well, suicide attempts and lifelong consequences.
4. The triangle is supposed to be such a strong and stable shape--but never really works in matters of the heart, does it?
5. I find that his unrealized dreams bother me the most. Makes me want to reach for my own dreams while I can.

Last edited by Bookatarian; 12-22-2012 at 03:55 PM.
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Old 12-22-2012, 12:03 PM   #12
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Great comments. I don't have much to add, except I too loved the writing, even with the bleak tale. I'll be definitely taking a look at more of her writing.
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Old 12-27-2012, 04:40 AM   #13
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The writing is indeed very beautiful. On the other hand, the story is mega-depressing! The ending certainly has a remarkable ironic twist with the warning that no matter how we try to embrace and create our romantic illusions, reality is so powerful that those self-created patterns simply can't survive.

I see why she is compared to Hardy--though I think Wharton is actually a better writer than he. I'm glad I read Ethan Frome but I don't know that I want to explore that bleak vision any further.
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Old 12-27-2012, 09:50 AM   #14
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I read the book twice in December, and really loved the writing style. It is the only Edith Wharton book I ever had read and am going to nab all the rest to read this coming year.
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Old 12-27-2012, 10:43 AM   #15
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For evocation of time and place, Ethan Frome is among the best; a tour de force from a New York society woman. I'm a transplant to New England and even now, I look around me in midwinter and wonder how they stood it, in more primitive times. The dark, the cold, the snow.... With furnace and electric light and snowplows and everything else that makes it bearable, I still hate winter here. And even given how depressing it must have been, so long as there was enough food stored away, perhaps the inhabitants looked forward to winter and its time of enforced idleness, a surcease from the relentless labor needed to scratch a living from rocky soil with a short growing season. I know what I've said can equally apply to other northern spots, and even more so, but Wharton got it right.

Knowing what's coming rewards the reread, adding shadow to the narrative as it progresses and breaks your heart even more than the first-time shocker, at least for me. I can pity them all, but I only like Ethan, even though he was the agent of his ultimate misfortune and ruined Mattie's life as well. His suffering redeems himself over and over, but in my opinion, it also begs the question of whether redemption serves a purpose.
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