I Read a Classic No. 2: Ethan Frome

The title should actually say "RE-read," because by my count, this is the sixth time I've read this book.

As I've mentioned in a previous post, Ethan Frome was my lifeline when I was in the 10th grade and grounded for the very first time. When my parents grounded me, they did it RIGHT.

Here is a list of things I was not allowed to do: watch tv, listen to the radio, talk on the phone, read any book not related to school.

Here is a list of things I WAS allowed to do: practice the flute, do homework, sleep. I slept A LOT.

At the time, my English class was reading Ethan Frome. Man, I am so lucky Mrs. Perkins decided to make us read it at that exact time. Otherwise, I would have been forced to read my biology text, and y'all. That would have violated my rights under the Eighth Amendment.

While searching for a book club selection, I pulled this book from my shelves and sat down to read it again. I wondered, as I began, if I would love it as much as I did when I was fifteen.

Answer: yes, but in a different way.

You see, when I was fifteen, I loved the book because it was, in fact, a book. And it was the only one I was allowed to read for SIX WHOLE WEEKS. So I read it four times. It even has my notes in the margins, which made for some very interesting contemplation.

My copy of the book is, itself, fifteen years old, and it has been through two English classes (mine and Joon's), four years of college (out-of-state, so it was packed and moved eight times), and five other moves (just because I felt like it). Remarkably, it is still in good condition and did not fall into pieces upon this, my sixth reading.

So, a synopsis: (spoiler)

Bookended by a narrator, twenty-some years after the main action of the book, Ethan Frome is the story of ... guess who? Twenty-two years ago, Ethan was a twenty-eight year old man, unhappily married to his thirty-five year old crank of a wife, Zeena.

Zeena is a chronic hypochondriac, though I feel that she focuses on her supposed illnesses because 1) she is unhappy in the sleepy little town of Starkfield 2) it is a way to get attention from the townspeople, and possibly, Ethan himself.

You see, Zeena first met Ethan when she came to care for his dying mother. At the time, Ethan was dying for a little human companionship, and when his mother died and Zeena was about to leave, he could not bear the thought of being alone. So he proposed. Zeena was under the impression that they would eventually move to a larger town, but Ethan's mill was not financially stable, so they were never able to leave. So she got "sick."

One of Zeena's relatives, Mattie Silver, came to live with the Fromes. She had had some troubles herself, in that her father had cheated a bunch of people out of their money, and then he died and the truth came out, and she was broke. So her family pawned her off on other members of the family, though nobody really wanted her. She was supposed to be a sort of nurse/housekeeper for Zeena, but she'd never had any real training so she wasn't all that good at it.

By this time, Zeena was Ms. Negative about EVERYthing, and she was nitpicky and watchful and, in general, very unpleasant. Ethan's life as his husband was pretty crappy, and he spent a LOT of time at work, probably to try and make some more money, but mostly so he wouldn't have to hang around Zeena all the time.

Mattie, when she moved in with the Fromes, was sort of like Zeena had been originally; she was young, and cheerful, and she would talk to Ethan about things other than doctors or medications or aches and pains.

So Ethan fell in love with her.

One day Zeena decided to go see a new doctor in another town, which meant she would be gone overnight. Well, this is just the opening Ethan was waiting for. He was super-excited about being alone with Mattie (though not in the way a 21st century man would be, because everything was sort of subdued back then, and the moral code was a little more strict, I think).

Mattie, for her part, didn't say anything, but she wore a red ribbon in her hair and sang as she cooked, so that was a good sign that Ethan's feelings were returned.

The next day, Zeena came back with the news that the doctor told her she was really, really sick and that she needed a good hired girl. This meant that Mattie would have to go. Ethan got very angry about this, because the hired girl would cost money, but mostly he was mad that Mattie would have to go.

Well, evidently, Zeena was not stupid, and she had come up with a way to get Mattie out of the house without making herself look bad to the rest of the family. While she never says it straight out, she gives the impression that she knows how Ethan and Mattie feel about each other, and SHE IS NOT HAVING IT.

Mattie and Ethan are both sad, and when Ethan is driving Mattie to the train station, they stop off to go sledding. (This is something that Ethan had told Mattie he would do for two nights running, but they never got around to it). It is sort of an act of rebellion, and also it is a socially acceptable way for them to get physically close to each other.

At the bottom of a sledding hill, there is a huge elm tree. If a sledder is not very careful, he could run into the tree and cause himself some damage.

Ethan and Mattie sled down the hill, and for about one minute, they are caught up in the excitement and the adrenaline, and they forget about Zeena and the fact that Mattie is about to leave. But it all comes back to them as they are trudging back up the hill, and Mattie freaks out about how she can't leave.

So she tells Ethan [paraphrased], "Let's go down the hill again. And this time, don't steer us away from the tree. Because death is better than leaving you."

Which is pretty hot, if you think about it. I mean, how she reveals her feelings for him. The suicide, not so much.

And Ethan gets to thinking, and he thinks about the new hired girl, and Zeena's constant complaining, and how his life is really really crappy, and how he is never going to get to leave the farm. And he agrees.

So they get back on the sled, and Ethan steers them straight into the tree.

But here's the thing: neither of them dies.

Ethan is crippled, and Mattie--her injury is not specifically mentioned, but I think it is some sort of paralysis.

So we come back to the present, twenty-two years after the accident, and the narrator is at Ethan Frome's house. Before he walks in, he hears a negative, nitpicky voice, and he thinks he knows who it is.

But it's not Zeena; it's Mattie.

Zeena, because she is NEEDED again, has overcome her various illnesses, and Mattie has become what Zeena once was.

And Ethan's life is that much worse, because he didn't die, he still has to live in Starkfield, he's still a farmer, and the love of his life has turned into a shrew.

I think, if I'm going to be truthful about it, that I probably sympathize most with Zeena. I can see myself becoming that person, if the man I married turned out to be a disappointment, if he never paid attention to me, and if he started staring all moony-eyed at my cousin.

On the other hand, Ethan had given up his dreams (he wanted to be an engineer) in order to take over the family farm when his parents got ill. His life got continually worse, when both his parents died, his farm failed, and his wife turned out to be less than he expected. Maybe Mattie was a sort of lifeline for him, a sign that things could get better. Maybe he wasn't actually in love with Mattie, but with the idea that people could be happy, and that maybe HE could be happy.

He does show himself to have character, when he doesn't leave his wife (though he is thinking about it) because he can't leave her alone with a failing farm and bad health. Then too, he realizes that Zeena expected more of him, perhaps as he expected more of her, and both of them have become bitter in their disappointment, though she is a bit more vocal about it than he is.

There is a lot made of the silence in the house. There is a distinct lack of communication between the Fromes, which maybe could have saved both Ethan and Zeena some trouble. But maybe not. I know, for my family, it always helps if you yell something at the top of your lungs and get it out of your system (we are a very loud family), instead of stewing silently over an issue.

As for Mattie ... I don't tend to feel very much sympathy for her. I don't know why that is. Maybe because I have a real problem with adultery, though in that case you'd think I would be mad at Ethan too. And maybe because it was her idea to commit suicide by running the sled into a tree, and I don't condone suicide by any method.

But I think my biggest issue with Mattie is that she had SEEN how miserable Zeena's constant harping and nagging made Ethan, but she allowed herself to become negative after the accident, until she herself was always harping and nagging. I'm not saying I wouldn't become bitter if I were paralyzed, because I think I would probably become the very definition of BITTER.

However, for Mattie to turn into the very thing that she and Ethan were trying to escape seems almost ... unforgivable, to me.

So it's kind of weird, right? that I would love this book, because it is a real downer. But I think ... I FEEL Ethan's desperation, and I FEEL Zeena's anger, and I can understand both of them, and I can see why their actions might be justified.

It's so well-written, and there is a lot of symbolism (which even I can pick out, even though I am normally bad at that stuff) that is so fine that I would be reading and I would think, "Oh! THAT'S why it's named that!" or some such thing. And I like the irony of the ending, and how the Fromes keep their problems to themselves, so that even the townspeople never know their real story.

In the end, I guess, I love that this is a story that COULD HAPPEN, and that I don't feel manipulated into rooting for one character over another. Or that the characters aren't one dimensional, so that Ethan is the Sad Man Whose Dreams Were Dashed, and Zeena is the Mean Wife Who Likes Making People Miserable.

I like that I can see a variety of emotions from both of them, and that I can decipher their motives and that I can honestly see myself LIKING them, if they were real people that I knew.

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