Ethan Frome

 by  Edith Wharton

A Norton Critical Edition edited by Kristin O. Lauer and Cynthia Griffin Wolff

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Ethan Frome

The narrator is curious about lonely and quiet Ethan Frome. He begins to learn a bit more when Frome begins giving the narrator rides to work.

1

We go back in time 24 years earlier

“The guests were preparing to leave, and the tide had already set toward the passage where coats and wraps were hung, when a young man with a sprightly foot and a shock of black hair shot into the middle of the floor and clapped his hands. The signal took instant effect. The musicians hurried to their instruments, the dancers–some already half-muffled for departure–fell into line down each side of the room, the older spectators slipped back to their chairs, and the lively young man, after diving about here and there in the throng, drew forth a girl who had already wound a cherry-coloured ‘fascinator’ about her had, and, leading her up to the end of the floor, whirled her down its length to the bounding tune of a Virginia reel.

“Frome’s heart was beating fast. He had been straining for a glimpse of the dark head under the cherry-coloured scarf and it vexed him that another eye should have been quicker than his. The leader of the reel, who looked as if he had Irish blood in his veins, danced well, and his partner caught his fire. As she passed down the line, her light figure swinging from hand to hand in circles of increasing swiftness, the scarf flew off her head and stood out behind her shoulders, and Frome, at each turn, caught sight of her laughing panting lips, the cloud of dark hair about her forehead, and the dark eyes which seemed the only fixed points in a maze of flying lines” (14).

“The face she lifted to her dancers was the same which, when she saw him, always looked like a window that has caught the sunset” (16).

Frome is beginning to care more for Mattie, his wife’s cousin, than for his wife.

II

I think Frome’s wife, Zeena, knows what is going on.

III

Zeena will be in town overnight to see a new doctor. Frome and Mattie will be alone.

IV

“There was in him a slumbering spark of sociability which the long Starkfield winters had not yet extinguished. By nature grave and inarticulate, he admired recklessness and gaiety in others and was warmed to the marrow by friendly human intercourse” (29).

“…the laughter sparkling through her lashes” (34).

A special dish is broken during dinner. When will Zeena learn of the broken dish and how it was being used over a flirtatious dinner?

V

Mattie and Ethan spend a quiet evening together, both too nervous to really do anything.

VI

All Ethan thinks about is Mattie though they’ve never touched or kissed. His wife has now returned. Ethan now has to secretly fix the dish they broke.

VII

Zeena finds the broken dish. Mattie confesses. 

VIII

Ethan is going to ask the Hales for an advance so he can run away but he changes his mind. He just couldn’t lie to them.

IX

“She clung to him without answering, and he laid his lips on her hair, which was soft yet springy, like certain mosses on warm slopes, and had the faint woody fragrance of fresh sawdust in the sun” (60). 

Zeena knows all…you can tell by the clues and the way she acts.

“…all their intercourse had been made up of just such inarticulate flashes, when they seemed to come suddenly upon happiness as if they had surprised a butterfly in the winter woods…” (63).

Mattie and Ethan stop by a shared memory space on the way taking her to the train. They share a sled ride down a long run and almost hit a tree. Mattie decides instead of parting that they should sled down the hill once again and that is when they hit the tree. They’d rather die together than part.

“…and her dark eyes had the bright witch-like stare that disease of the spine sometimes gives” (71).

Read this short novella to find out the juicy details! The story is only 72 pages long (in this version). Just an afternoon’s read. 

I didn’t read all of the background and context material (too boring), but I did find something of note in a piece by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. Her essay is called “They Hysterical Woman: Sex Roles and Role Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America”

“Hysteria as a chronic, dramatic, and socially accepted sick role could thus provide some alleviation of conflict and tension, but the hysteric purchased her escape from the emotional and –frequently–from the sexual demands of her life only at the cost of pain, disability, and an intensification of woman’s traditional passivity and dependence.”

II

“The effect of hysteria upon the family and traditional sex-role differentiation was disruptive in the extreme. The hysterical woman virtually ceased to function within the family. No longer did she devote herself to the needs of others, acting as self-sacrificing wife, mother, or daughter: through her hysteria she could and in fact did force others to assume those functions. Household activities were reoriented to answer the hysterical woman’s important needs. Children were hushed, rooms darkened, entertaining suspended, a devoted nurse recruited. Fortunes might be spent on medical bills or for drugs and operations. Worry and concern bowed the husband’s shoulders; his home had suddenly become a hospital and he a nurse. Through her illness, the bedridden woman came to dominate her family to an extent that would have been considered inappropriate–indeed, shrewish–in a healthy woman. Taking to one’s bed, especially when suffering from dramatic and ever-visible symptoms, might also have functioned as a mode of passive aggression, especially in a milieu in which weakness was rewarded and in which women had since childhood been taught not to express overt aggression. Consciously or unconsciously, they had thus opted out of their traditional role.”

I do remember reading that back in the day when some husbands became increasingly unsatisfied with their wives, they would begin to make a case that the wife was hysteric or was losing her mind. In this way, they could have their wives committed against their will. They would leave their wives in asylums while they married new, younger wives. Can you imagine having to resort to hysterics in order to rest? We’ve come a long way, baby.

Ordinary People

by Judith Guest Ballantine Books New York 1976

This is a classic and an easy read with short chapters. The writing is not flowery or dreamy although when someone is experiencing disordered thinking the writing reflects what that might look like with few punctuation marks and fragments of sentences. The story deals with difficult family issues. The story and emotions are realistic. There are no easy answers if there are any answers at all. We learn that parental love can come in many forms, but it can also not be shown at all. Accidents happen, emotions and behaviors become twisted, people lose their shit and those around them don’t know what to do with that lost shit. Trigger warning issues of accidental death, suicide and mental institutions.

What follows is a plot summary excluding the epilogue; that’s for you to get to. The numbers indicate the chapter.

1 We meet young Conrad Jarrett fresh out of the mental facility and having trouble starting his day.

2 Calvin Jarrett is the father. Being abandoned as a child makes it even more difficult for him to parent a teen with mental illness. (The chapters alternate between these two characters’ points of view. The novel is written, interestingly, in the present tense.)

3 We learn about Conrad’s school life. All his friends are seniors but due to his illness he is still a junior. He has trouble feeling normal although he is trying to get back to his old routine.

4 Calvin doesn’t think it wise to go on their annual Christmas vacation. He doesn’t want any trouble. We learn that another son, Jordan, (older brother to Conrad) is now deceased.

5 Conrad sees a crazy local psychiatrist who appears inept. Conrad says his older brother died in a boating accident.

6 Calvin, the dad, seems every bit as lost as his mentally ill son. He has no idea who he is or what he wants.

7 Conrad attempts an afternoon date with Karen, a girl from the mental facility. She doesn’t feel mentally safe and leaves quickly.

8 Calvin drinks quite a bit. The neighbors are curious about Conrad’s situation. Beth (Conrad’s mother/Calvin’s wife) doesn’t want to discuss the topic at parties (or generally in public). Calvin misses hearing both sons in the house. We learn Conrad has slit his wrists.

9 Conrad is actually getting something out of seeing this wacky psychiatrist, Dr. Berger.

10 Conrad quits the swim team; he doesn’t like those people. They are too mean and he is too sensitive; too raw.

11 Calvin thinking about his law partner’s life and marriage.

12 Conrad successfully visits with a cute girl. He recalls a ski trip with his brother.

13 Beth finds out Conrad quit the swim team from an outside source. He quit a month ago and his parents didn’t know. There is a big family freak out. Conrad feels his mother hates him.

14 Dr. Berger’s genius is slowly being revealed.

15 Instead of talking about their grief, Calvin and Beth simply fight.

16 Conrad gets his looks complimented. He is starting to gain positive momentum. His psychiatrist is very helpful.

17 Calvin is now the one seeking Dr. Berger’s help.

18 Bumbling through exams and asking out girls.

19 Calvin’s business partner is worried about him.

20 Conrad’s date goes well. They set up another for the following weekend.

21 Calvin evaluates his fears and how he is most motivated to be safe.

22 Conrad gets in a fist fight with an asshole in the school parking lot.

23 Conrad tells his dad about the fight. Mom doesn’t even notice Conrad is waiting up for Dad.

24 Conrad’s new girlfriend is experiencing family drama. His own parents are out of town and he has to stay with his grandparents. His grandmother is a ball buster. (You can see where his mom gets it.)

25 Calvin and Beth on vacation at her brother’s place in Texas.

26 Karen is a girl Conrad was in treatment with. She has killed herself. This sends Conrad into a tailspin thinking about his brother dying on the lake and about electric shock therapy in treatment. He calls his psychiatrist and is driving to see him.

27 Conrad has a bad night but he makes it through.

28 Calvin and Beth can’t get through a vacation without fighting. Beth feels her son cut his wrists to show HER how much he hates her.

29 Everyone seems relieved to be home again.

30 Conrad has a girlfriend and they can discuss important things.

31 Calvin and Conrad discuss Beth and her leaving them. There are no clear answers and they’ll just have to be okay with that.

Epilogue