Posted by: zhiv | February 21, 2011

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome: Hawthorne everywhere you look

I didn’t realize that Ethan Frome was so short. It’s a novella, just 75 pages in the Norton Critical Edition (1995). I had a great expereience recently reading Rebecca West’s short The Return of the Soldier, and I was pretty excited to find a classic text, one that I hadn’t read by an author I thought I knew fairly well, that was this brief.

Brevity and concision–any echoes of Chekhov the master in this 1911 piece? does a Russian level of cold and ice count?–aside, I found all kinds of things to like in Ethan Frome. I started it the other day and got called away, making me angry that I couldn’t read it in one sitting, but I was immediately engaged and surprised by its setting and subject. I wanted to write an Edith Wharton prep piece, covering what I know and remember, what I’ve read, how she fits into my general perspective, but I’ll have to give the thumbnail version here. It wasn’t so long ago that I read The House of Mirth, and I think it might have even been in the 2007 pre-blogging warmup period when I read Coetzee and Olive Schreiner, along with Cather’s My Antonia and The Professor’s House. I had read The Age of Innocence back in the day, and also The Custom of the Country and Glmpses of the Moon in my vague middle period (the 90s, I guess). Ethan Frome was sitting there, a rather glaring omission, but not so obvious that I ever looked at it and saw that it was, shall we say, petite.

Perhaps there’s a lot to be said for holding off on certain well-read classics until (late) middle age, because of the way they pop with associations and resonance that might not have been there in one’s youth. Veteran readers of this blog will know that I’m all about the sequence in which author’s books are generally encountered and read, my own version of Amateur Reader’s exhaustive study of Obscure Books That Should Stay That Way, or Not, or whatever it is he exactly calls his invaluable work. I assume that everybody (everybody that reads these sorts of books, that is) but me has already read Ethan Frome. And everything I might say here is self-evident enough, covering familiar ground. I’m not sure exactly why all that seems true, but it must be. Ethan Frome is a perfect Edith Wharton starter text, and I would put it on the list of entry-level literature all-stars, right alongside the recently added All Quiet on the Western Front. Another list I should work on.

Except that it isn’t–it didn’t seem like Edith Wharton at all, not given my previous reading of her work. It would seem to be a very strange starter text, but I wouldn’t know. Ethan Frome is a freezing cold New England story that’s straight out of Hawthorne in virtually every way imaginable. My view of Wharton, as I said, was shaped by The Age of Innocence, an impression that was confirmed by The House of Mirth: lots of old New York. In the interim since reading Mirth I went on a Literary Boston and New England jag, reading further into Hawthorne, and reading Sarah Orne Jewett and others. These are just some of the associations that make me value my later reading of EF.

The Hawthorne element is obvious and remarkably strong. What I’ve seen, in a very brief initial glance at my critical edition, is that Hawthorne is quickly mentioned, including by Wharton herself. Ethan Frome seems a great example for the argument that Hawthorne and his themes, settings, and approach are the wellspring of American literature. And the headline item in EF comes from readily accessible Hawthone, associating the title character with Ethan Brand, “his short story of a man convinced he has committed the ‘unpardonable sin,’ intellectual pride” (pg. 94, NCE). I say readily accessible, because after The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne’s Tales are the next stop for most readers, and if Ethan Brand isn’t in the top 5 best-known of these, it’s certainly in the upper half. Moreover, intellectual pride, in a humble and simple form, is Ethan Frome’s original sin and downfall.

But readers of this blog know that I’m something of a zealot about The Blithedale Romance, that it is well worth reading and knowing, and it’s a shame to stop at The Scarlet Letter and the Tales and not finish off the rest of the romances. One beauty of Hawthorne’s wellspring oeuvre is that it is quite manageable, speaking of stories and brevity (and Chekhov–wondering for the first time about Chekhov’s familiarity with Hawthorne). Blithedale was widely known as a more central text in the later 19th century than it is today, and I’ve posted here on the fun of reading Henry James’ The Bostonians as a rewriting of Blithedale, a great tip I got from a professor friend. And the question here is, if Henry James did it, why not Edith Wharton?

Readers mindful of Blithedale will enjoy being startled as they see that it’s not just Ethan Frome echoing Ethan Brand, but that one of Wharton’s primary female characters is named Zenobia. The NCE notes the association with Blithedale’s “dark, queenly” Zenobia (pg.4) and says that “echoes of the New England Hawthorne occur throughout in setting, imagery, and names” (pg. 3). The note on the name Zenobia goes further, mentioning Hawthorne’s source, “Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, who openly defied the Roman emperor in AD 270. Thus any powerful, ambitious woman.” The association to Blithedale is thus quick and immediate, and then it is just as quickly veiled (very Hawthorne and Blithedale both) as Wharton’s character is referred to as Zeena throughout the text. Wharton establishes the association and similarity, and then goes to work on the differences.

I should mention, just to be thorough and to show the degree to which EF is steeped in Hawthorne lore, that Zeena’s full name is Zenobia Pierce, and we hear about her “Pierce relations,” who were swindled by Mattie Silver’s father. Hawthorne was of course a college crony and later the campaign biographer of Franklin Pierce, a troubled president who became extremely unpopular in New England because of his “doughface” and appeasement stances towards the South and slavery. Pierce’s wife Jane Appleton was a sickly and grief-stricken woman who may well be the “darkest” of American first ladies, casting a pall on his entire presidency. Jane Appleton Pierce could easily serve as a model for Zeeny Frome and the power of her illness. My maternal grandmother was Gertrude Pierce, daughter of Charles and granddaughter of Chauncey, who was a “relation” to the president and Ethan Frome’s wife, no doubt. Barbara Bush, wife and mother to presidents, is a Pierce, and is said to be savvy about the ways of power.

Thus prompted by the name Zenobia, it’s easy to mark the similarities between Blithedale and Ethan Frome, which seem to go well beyond “setting, imagery, and names.” Why not start with structure? Ethan Frome is essentially a love triangle, the story of a man repressed and subjugated by his sickly, passive-aggressive, dominant wife, who falls in love with Zeena’s vulnerable, displaced young cousin, Mattie Silver. Mattie has been living with the Fromes as a servant of sorts for a single year. Blithedale is of course a triangle with the (Melville-like) Hollingsworth torn between strong, mature Zenobia and young (related, half-sister) vulnerable Priscilla. The connection might not at first seem so obvious, because Blithedale has four primary characters, not three.

But not so fast! Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in the NCE (which she edited with Kristin O. Lauer) writes about “the Narrator’s Vision,” an excerpt from her book on Wharton (1994). She says that “Ethan Frome is about its narrator. The novel begins with him, begins insistently and obtrusively” (pg. 130). She notes that this “assault” of the narrator is “a decidedly unusual way to open a fiction,” and she says that “only two like it come readily to mind,” mentioning Wuthering Heights and Bartleby the Scrivener. She goes on:

“What does all of this suggest? First of all, an extraordinarily literary self-consciousness. Second, a focus on the narrator (for however intricate Bronte’s story is, however compelling Melville’s vision, it is the narrator’s reaction that must be deemed the ultimate “subject” in both fictions).
Bearing this fact in mind, let us rush momentarily ahead–to that point in the novel where the “real subject” is generally assumed to begin. An astounding discovery awaits us: the man whom we come to know as the young Ethan Frome is no more than a figment of the narrator’s imagination.”

It’s all good enough, and it sets up Wolff’s extensive interpretation of EF. But isn’t something missing? “Her preoccupation at the time with the techniques of Hawthorne suggests that she might have had Melville’s tale in mind as well.” Perhaps Bartleby has some relevance to Wolff’s argument, but the Melville connection is clearly a stretch. Especially when the most obviously “insistent and obtrusive narrator” imaginable is there within easy reach in Hawthorne’s Miles Coverdale, in The Blithedale Romance. It’s a massive no-brainer, and the association to Coverdale and his strangeness just builds on Wolff’s argument and reading of EF. And vice-versa, as Wolff’s view of the centrality of the narrator strengthens my own sense that Ethan Frome, like The Bostonians, can be easily seen as a rewriting of Blithedale. As in James’s novel, EF has virtually the same characters and essential story, and it’s perhaps even closer than the Bostonians because of the “setting, imagery, and names.”

I encourage Blithedale and Hawthorne readers (you know who you are) who haven’t read Ethan Frome (though you probably have) to rush to Wharton’s excellent little book and play this game for themselves. The common path must be to read Scarlet Letter, and Tales that might include Ethan Brand, and then Ethan Frome. You would certainly pick up the strong general Hawthorne vibe, and make the obvious connections between Mattie’s red ribbon and scarf and Hester Prynne, along with the maiming power of desire in Dimmesdale and Ethan Frome, but without knowing Blithedale, much would be missed. Putting The Bostonians in between is fun but not really necessary.

And I’ll note one more seemingly major, obvious connection and association between the texts. Another important item in the NCE secondary materials is the account of the “Fatal Coasting Accident,” as a local girl was killed sledding in 1904 in Lenox, Massachusetts, home of Wharton’s estate The Mount. Further research revealed that Wharton was well-acquainted with another girl involved in the accident, Kate Spencer. So it’s clear that Wharton based the climax of her story on a shocking and fatal local incident. Sound familiar? The suicide by drowning death of Zenobia in Blithedale was based on Hawthorne’s actual participation in the search for the body of a local girl, Miss Hunt, which he recorded in his journals. Local girl dies in sled accident; local girl drowns herself, body discovered. Wharton’s rather direct use of the same approach towards finding a conclusion as Hawthorne may be a critique of James’s departures from Hawthorne in The Bostonians.

Wharton’s adaptation of Hawthorne’s example and prompts is fascinating, and worthy of a separate post, but it’s interesting to see the differences in the conclusions of Blithedale and EF. Hawthorne’s Zenobia, rejected by Hollingsworth, drowns herself, and Hollingsworth marries Priscilla. Ethan Frome is in love with the Priscilla-like Mattie, but Wharton’s Zeeny’s power over them seems absolute. It’s Mattie who wants to die, who suggests the romantic double suicide sled run. But at the last second Ethan sees Zenobia’s face, and he shifts his course slightly, and he and Mattie survive. Mattie is crippled, losing her beauty and vitality, and Zeena rallies to become her caretaker. What kind of resolution is this, and what does it mean? Who knows. Have to read more and think about it, and I’d love to find closer studies of Wharton’s Hawthorne (Hermione Lee, here I come!) Like I said, this was all a huge, swift, wonderful surprise.



  1. Wow, completely convincing. Zenobia! Ethan! What fun.

    Those red ribbons also tie Mattie to the pink ribbons of Faith in “Young Goodman Brown.”

    Sometimes, these sorts of connections reflect an author purging an influence – getting it out of her system. I don’t know enough about Wharton to know if that’s the case here, or if it’s something more playful, or has some other purpose.

    My understanding is that Wharton has a number of short stories with this New England setting, so Ethan Frome is not a complete freak.

    I love the critical overreach of that “must” – that Wuthering Heights “must” be about the narrator. Or else, what? Those dang readers, always thinking the ultimate subject is in the compelling visions or intricate story.

  2. I’ve been bad about Hawthorne — Scarlett Letter and stories in grad school and that’s it. Ethan Frome was college and yes, it felt entirely different from the other works I’ve read — but then, Wharton wrote so much, and I’ve read only four or so novels. Perhaps there are others more like Ethan Frome that aren’t as well known?

  3. Zhiv, this is so great! Having stopped at The Scarlet Letter (something I will rectify) I missed all this great Hawthorne connection with Frome. I do love, however, how Frome sort of knocks the reader outside his (or in my case, her) settled idea of what Wharton’s fiction will be like. She’s got a varied oeuvre and well-worth settling into in its entirety. You know, cause we all have sooooo much time.

  4. […] like The Story of an African Farm, Country of the Pointed Firs, and The Awakening. Ethan Frome (“Hawthorne everywhere you look”) and The House of Mirth would make excellent Ware companion texts as well. Frederick’s […]

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