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Jan 12, 2010

My introduction to Edith Wharton is her Nobel Prize-winning The House of Mirth, a book that took me months to finish. Months. When I can devour most books in hours. It's not an exaggeration. I really can finish a full novel in just one day. My record so far is six hours -- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell but that was only because I've already read the book countless times before (and seen the movie even more times), that is to say, I was able to skip a lot of passages. But while it's true that I'm easily distracted by the littlest things and usually have more than one thing going at the same time and thus get very little done, when I do focus on those rare occasions when the moon is full and the tide is high :), I get really FOCUSED to the complete exclusion of everything else. Which explains why I seem to just inhale Bible-thick books. That and years of training in law school can teach one (out of necessity) a lot about speed-reading.

But I digress.

The House of Mirth took me months to finish because the novel was just hard to read. I don't mean it's bad. On the contrary.... Hell, the author won a Nobel. Just that from the first moment I opened the book, I could already sense the tragedy that is to befall the protagonist, Lily Bart. It's horrible, especially because she's so well-constructed, imbued with all the charm of the world, I couldn't help but sympathize and root for her success, despite knowing otherwise.

The knowing part is the hardest. Each chapter is a cruel twist of the knife, appalling and fascinating at the same time. And that's why I had to take frequent breaks from it, if only to gain a little perspective before plunging back into the dark, funereal world that Wharton created with only the thinnest veneer of gaiety and sophistication. The House of Mirth is so sad, it's funny and the joke is on the characters and on me, the reader.

Ethan Frome is a later novel (more accurately a novella) also by Edith Wharton and a random find I made while browsing through BookSale. Because of its shorter length, I was able to finish it in half a day and spent the other half feeling depressed. And before you wonder, I usually know a good work when it plunges me into a state of existential malaise for several days after sight. That this book depressed me to a point is a mark of its artistic value to me. This is my attempt at explaining why.

The novel echoes the tragic tone of The House of Mirth, even though stylistically no two works by the same author can be more different. If The House of Mirth is a comedy of manners, largely ornamental in language, Ethan Frome is written with as little artistic flourish as possible, except perhaps in the form of its composition. Incidentally, even the author herself admits that Ethan's construction is born out of her experiment with composition. According to her Introduction to Ethan Frome (the only one she's ever made for any work of hers):

"....It appears to me, indeed, that, while an air of artificiality is lent to a tale of complex and sophisticated people which the novelist causes to be guessed at and interpreted by any mere looker-on, there need be no such drawback if the looker-on is sophisticated, and the people he interprets are simple. If he is capable of seeing all around them, no violence is done to probability in allowing him to exercise this faculty; it is natural enough that he should act as the sympathizing intermediary between his rudimentary characters and the more complicated minds to whom he is trying to present them. But this is all self-evident, and needs explaining only to those who have never thought of fiction as an art of composition."

And so Wharton writes (initially) in the first person point of view, from the perspective of a nameless narrator, an engineer who happens to be in the town of Starkfield, where this story is set. The fact that the narrator is an engineer is a conscious decision on the author's part I believe and this is boosted by the later discovery that Ethan is also interested in engineering, and cemented by the author's self-professed intention of viewing his (Ethan's) story in as much sympathetic light as possible. It warned me to the great probability that the narrator could have seen himself in Ethan, might have believed that he'd have ended up just like him had he made different choices in life, ultimately revealing his great bias and the skewed view of the story I was to get. As if this wasn't enough, there's the novel's first chapter in which the narrator almost from the first instant becomes fascinated with Ethan Frome:

"...the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the "natives" were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed: it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain."

This first impression -- particularly the use of the word "chain" -- hints at the real story of Ethan Frome but his story is revealed -- almost frustratingly -- only in bits and pieces. There's talk of a smash-up, the red gash on Ethan's forehead as if to mark him for a past sin (see Scarlet Letter), and the narrator himself commenting that he "looks as if he was dead," and in between are huge gaps that only start to unfold -- partially -- in the middle. Here, the novel becomes peculiar. Not the story itself, that's simple enough: it's a story about a man trapped in a loveless marriage, stifled by a boring town, met a bright, young thing -- a symbol of rebellion and freedom, becomes infatuated but lacked the moral courage to consummate desire, spurred into action only upon instigation, then beaten to submission by life's circumstances or ironic fate. No, this work is peculiar because of how it is written. Again, this is "an art of composition."

Only the first and last parts of Ethan Frome are written in the first person point of view. In the first, the narrator is the outsider who knew almost nothing and, thus, is unreliable. In the last, which happens twenty-four years later, he is still unreliable even as he behaves as if he knew the protagonist in a way noone else in that town does. But the bulk of the story is in the third person, supposedly from the perspective of Ethan Frome himself, but actually still the narrator who has now sympathized with the main character so much that he has identified himself with the latter:

"It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . "

The ellipses is another deliberate choice of the author. She puts them and the long dashes to good and plenty use here. Grammatically, these two punctuations are used to represent sudden silences or a thought interrupted. In Ethan, they mean more than that; they are used to emphasize the gaps in the narrator's story, the town's innate reserve, the inarticulateness of the characters, the lives interrupted. In her introduction, Wharton talks of having "an uneasy sense that the New England of fiction bore little -- except a vague botanical and dialectical -- resemblance to the harsh and beautiful landscape." And so the punctuations also double to reflect that the town of Starkfield hides (as smalltowns are wont to do) its own dark and complicated secrets which strangers tend to overlook in the face of the simplicity of its surroundings.

I said that Ethan Frome has little artistic flourish, and indeed the language used is plain and the narrative simplistic. This is necessary I think to articulate to the minds of the reader what the story's characters are incapable of putting into expression. Every line could have been screaming: Listen, there's more! The problem is that I don't really know what Wharton left out from the story and I can only wonder and satisfy myself by drawing my own conclusion.

I think Ethan Frome is a love story, a little skewed maybe and gothic (although there is no trace of the phantasm in it), but a love story nonetheless. It's also about death (and hence the gothic tone). About 75% of Ethan Frome foreshadows, or symbolizes, or plain talks about death even as no character actually dies. The death here is not the physical kind but the living death kind -- the death of dreams and desire.

The other 15% of the novel pits the power of desire against moral restraint, with the latter ultimately winning. But there is no triumph. Yes, Ethan gets what he wants but it's a hollow kind of victory because he gets what he wants but not in the form that he wants it. Speaking of want and desire, it's another major theme in the novel, next only to death. The color red is used interchangeably to symbolize desire as well as life-giving blood or bloodspills from a mortal wound: the red scar on Ethan's forehead, the red scarf, the red moon, the red pickle dish shattered to pieces.

And finally, because the main character does not get what he wants -- or rather, gets a distorted version of it -- Ethan Frome is also a tragedy but not the usual tragedy because Ethan is not a great parsonage who experiences a reversal of fortune. Ethan had potential which never got actualized. And there's no reversal; more like this has been going on all along and no one, not even Ethan himself, was aware.

I don't think it's poetic justice the way Wharton treated her characters. She's never been the moralizing kind. She didn't moralize in The House of Mirth. She didn't in Ethan Frome. It's However, i think it's too simple to say that a person can be fundamentally good and still get a bad lot in life. In my opinion, either it's axiomatic in Ethan's character that he ended up the way he did (he fails to act and free himself against his shackles, finally becoming spiritually and physically trapped) or it's in the town of Starkfield itself which prevents someone with Ethan's constitution from achieving his dreams. The first is my own sense of morality speaking, and the second is just me being irresponsible and refusing to decide for myself. Interestingly, the latter seems to be in accord with Ethan's sentiment in the final hour before the near-fatal accident when he allowed (note the word) Mattie to persuade him to suicide together:

"'Come,' Mattie whispered, tugging at his hand.

Her sombre violence constrained him: she seemed the embodied instrument of fate."

So I get the feeling that it is, in fact, Ethan's complacency of character that could be held, at least partially, at fault. That and because, the town of Starkfield, dissected by a newly constructed railway (a symbol of industrialization modernity), paradoxically does not grow along with its surroundings but seems to shrink further into its winter shell as though frozen. In such a forbidding landscape, a person as sensitive as Ethan Frome, with dreams of a brighter future, can only smash himself against a wall and shatter should he try to escape, and this the novel portrays in perfect dramatic irony.

So in short, I don't really know the answer to the ultimate question posed by Ethan Frome. I don't understand for sure why the main character had to go through such misfortune or what the moral lesson is ^_^ but to be sure the work is a very interesting subject of discourse and for that alone, I recommend it to anyone who wants to exercise their thinking muscles.


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