In the bleak mid-winter,
Frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone…”
Thus Christina Rossetti‘s poem of the late 19th century begins, and she could have been channeling Edith Wharton’s future Ethan Frome. This slim, little book contains a truly desolate tale, but its heart spans the universe.
Set in the early 20th century in rural Massachusetts, when economic conditions boomed for those on the cutting edge of invention and shriveled for those hard-scrabble folk who worked the land in remote places, we are introduced to one Ethan Frome. He appears tall, with a careless power, “in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain.” He is gaunt, remote, and silent. A visiting engineer observes him and wonders what caused his striking appearance. Bit by gleaming bit of information from various neighbors the tale tumbles together revealing a stunning portrait of a life gone horribly awry.
It is an old story, worn at the edges, blurred by tears. Ethan, a man of principled duty, left his first love - studying for an engineering degree- to return to the family farm after the death of his father. Once there, he attempted to save the business while attending to his grieving mother as she gradually lost touch with reality. Zeena is hired to help with the nursing, and he is dazzled by her efficiency. When his mother dies, rather than face the specter of the long harsh winter alone, he marries Zeena. And while there were now two bodies to face the cold winter, they remain isolated in spirit. Zeena, in her disillusionment, begins imagining all kinds of ailments and gains notoriety for pursuit of their cures. Ethan grows more and more silent in the face of her querulous complaints, setting the stage for a life of quiet, inevitable desperation.
Enter Mattie, a young cousin of Zeena’s whose family disintegrated. She has nowhere to go but to the Frome household as a companion and helper to Zeena. Gradually, Mattie emerges from her sorrow and being fresh, nubile, rosy- cheeked, and dreamy, she brings springtime to Ethan’s heart. And where there had been deep unhappiness, now there was promise - sudden sunshine pierced his darkest days.
What follows is timeless – tamped desire, the unwinding spool of jealousy, unshakeable puritanical standards of conduct, and consequences -this time in the form of a sled ride.Whether Wharton was being moralistic or cynical about illicit love being the only true love, she penned an exquisitely mirrored tale of a bleak winter’s discontent, paralyzing inaction and a shining moment of ecstasy shattered by an elm tree.And the jerk of the chain reaches down through the decades.