In the middle of cold I couldn’t shake, as a treat for myself, I picked up a collection of British “costume drama” films. One of them was “Ethan Frome.” I did not have a good memory of the novel, having read it in school. I remembered it as a children’s story, probably because I had to read it in school and it had something to do with sledding. The other part I remembered was a pickle dish because I had never seen one and couldn’t picture one in my mind. As a teenager, even though I read everything I could get my hands on, this was one book I could barely get through.
So when I looked at the DVD selection, the only thing that convinced me to watch the film was Liam Neeson starring as Ethan Frome. As promised, the film was as bleak as the novel which started coming back to me. Yet I kept watching. There was the power of an archetypal drama to it- humans trapped in a morass of their own making, the very structure of human life.
Years later I came to love Wharton’s novels and never understood why this particular story was read in school. Maybe it was for the simple reason that it was short. In any case, as in the case of Lily Bart in “House of Mirth”, the problems of the female characters in” Ethan Frome” were economic and gender based. Zeena was sent to take care of Ethan’s mother and Mattie was sent to take care of the household for her distant relative. The fact that Ethan married Zeena after his mother died was considered fortunate for her. Where else would she have ended up? Women who had no means were trapped by circumstance, which has not changed much in the decades since the novel was written.
The other glaring problem with the story was the weakness of Ethan Frome himself. He was unable to stand up to his wife. So there it is- poor women trapped by lack of money and a weak man who suffered instead of standing up for himself and the woman he loved. That’s my take on revisiting a story years later. I wonder if students are still reading this.