Edith Wharton is one of my favourite authors as can be gauged from the number of books I have reviewed on this blog – The Custom of the Country, The House of Mirth, Old New York, and The New York Stories. Her best novel in my view – The Age of Innocence – I had read pre-blog, and one I hope to reread and review in the near future. But this post focuses on Ethan Frome and Summer, two novellas that boast of the same emotional depth and intensity as her New York novels and stories.
Ethan Frome is a brilliant, dark, wintry tale of doomed love set in a remote New England town, a starkly different setting from Wharton’s classic, old New York.
When the book opens, we are in Starkfield, Massachusetts; a bleak, remote town characterized by winters so bitterly cold that they only accentuate a person’s sense of loneliness and isolation. Our narrator is a young man, visiting Starkfield for a short period on some urgent business. On his way to the post office driven by Harmon Gow, his glance falls upon the pitiable, weighed down profile of Ethan Frome for the first time…
It was there that, several years ago, I saw him (Frome) for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was 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 a jerk of chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two.
He also notices other features on Frome’s face, features that indicate a hard life lived, but with meager explanations provided by Gow, the aura of mystery around Frome only deepens. For instance, we learn of a red gash across Frome’s forehead which in the past is a result of an accident or a “smash-up.” We are told that accident had also “shortened and warped his right side”, so that it was an effort for Frome to take the few steps from his buggy to the post office window.
Information on Frome from the residents is cryptic, not shedding much light on the extent of his calamity or the reason for the defeated expression on his face (“That man touch a hundred? He looks as if her was dead and in hell now!”).
An unexpected offer from Frome to drive our narrator to his workplace on a particularly stormy, snowy night followed by an invitation to his home gives our narrator a clearer picture of Frome’s tormented past, a tale that the narrator then communicates to us readers (“It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story…”).
Rewind back twenty-five years and Ethan Frome is a young, strong man barely making ends meet. Harbouring dreams of pursuing studies in science, those plans are thwarted by his father’s death and a host of misfortunes thereafter. Forced to subsequently take care of his mother as well as the family mill and farm, Frome becomes tied down in Starkfield with no hope of escape. Meanwhile, the mill and farm hardly contribute much to the income, reducing the Frome household to a perpetual state of penury.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Zeena, Ethan’s wife, a hypochondriac, who for the most part of the day is to be found lying in her bedroom beset by a host of illnesses, for which she is on a quest to find a cure. These treatments are an additional burden on Frome, who is struggling as it is to get through the days. It is easy to discern that Ethan and Zeena are estranged in a way, Zeena’s continuous whining and complaining begins to take a toll on Ethan.
In this bleak, despondent household comes Mattie Silver like a breath of fresh air…to Ethan. Mattie is Zeena’s cousin (not closely related), and she finds a place in the Frome household to help Zeena with the housework and to do most of the heavy lifting because of Zeena’s lack of strength. This arrangement works to Zeena’s advantage – she can keep Mattie without paying her because of the latter’s father’s unsavoury past which left him heavily indebted to Zeena’s extended family and relatives.
Mattie is a lively, sensual, joyous young woman and Ethan falls head over heels in love with her and relishes the moments he can spend alone with her, however, frugal. It would seem that after traversing a darkened, suffocating tunnel of poverty, thwarted ambitions, and a dead marriage, he would finally embrace a spot of brightness at the end of it, a slim chance for happiness. But a little domestic mishap destroys that sliver of hope and as if life wasn’t already hard enough for Ethan, a cruel twist of fate in the final pages delivers the ultimate crushing blow.
Ethan Frome, then, is a devastating tale of a wretched marriage, a romance nipped in the bud as well as a brilliant character study of a man defeated by forces beyond his control, and the cruelty of fate.
It’s a very atmospheric read where the weather plays a dominant role in shaping up the lives of the principal characters. The bleakness of the harsh cold winters that gets under your skin, the feeling of being cut off from the world as heavy snowfalls blanket the region transforming it into an expanse of white, only heighten Ethan’s loneliness compelling him to make a bad decision of marrying Zeena. Indeed, Zeena was brought in to nurse Ethan’s ailing mother but once the mother dies during one such deep winter, he mistakenly believes that marrying Zeena is a better alternative than spending the rest of his days alone in this remote town where the cold is so unforgiving.
The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.
Ethan’s plight is heartbreaking and poignant all the more so because of his gentle, helpful personality which unleashes a wave of sympathy and sadness in the reader. And he finds himself at the mercy of Zeena who while is not always physically around because of being locked up in her room, is nevertheless perceptive about the goings-on in the house in her absence.
Wharton’s writing is impeccable as ever, her vision for this novella is unremittingly bleak but she infuses such depth in her characters so as to make the narrative utterly compelling. A slim novel with a big impact.
Summer is also set in a New England town but during the blazing days of summer with Wharton herself calling this sensual, sensory novella the “hot” Ethan. Often considered a companion piece to Ethan Frome, this novella is a tale of a young woman’s sexual and social awakening.
Our protagonist is Charity Royall, a young, attractive woman residing in the small, puritanical town of North Dormer with her guardian Mr Royall. The book opens with her emerging from the Royall house on a translucent July afternoon where “the springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village.” Her glance falls on a young man who rushes to retrieve his hat which has fallen in the duck pond, a man she has never seen before…
As he ran to fish it out the girl on lawyer Royall’s doorstep noticed that he was a stranger, that he wore city clothes, and that he was laughing with all his teeth, as the young and careless laugh at such mishaps.
We learn that Charity has been residing in North Dormer since she was five years old. A dull place, remote from everything else, she sometimes wonders what people from other parts of the world could possibly think of it. Charity realizes that her worldview is very narrow when for the first time she travels by rail to the nearby bigger towns of Hepburn and Nettleton. Having experienced the pleasures of theatre and fancy glass plated shops in those towns, Charity begins to feel increasingly disillusioned with her claustrophobic life.
That journey makes her realize that there’s a bigger world beyond, and this unleashes a thirst for information. She takes advantage of her position of a library custodian to read as much as possible, but soon the sheen of Nettleton wears off and Charity once again settles into her present staid life.
But then comes along the young man, Lucius Harney, and once again that wave of discontent rises in Charity as she is forced to admit how small and limited her existence is.
Meanwhile, Lucius Harney is residing with Mrs Hatchard (they are cousins), and has arrived in North Dormer because he is interested in the architecture of this town. On his visit to the library, he notices Charity for the first time and is so struck by her beauty that he willing to brush aside Charity’s ignorance of the requirements of her job.
After some misunderstandings between the two, Harney and Charity embark on a passionate affair that unfurls over the course of a hazy, languid summer.
All her tossing contradictory impulses were merged in a fatalistic acceptance of his will. It was not that she felt in him any ascendency of character – there were moments already when she knew she was the stronger – but that all the rest of life had become a mere cloudy rim about the central glory of their passion. Whenever she stopped thinking about that for a moment she felt as she sometimes did after lying on the grass and staring up too long at the sky; her eyes were so full of light that everything about her was a blur.
Meanwhile, there’s Mr Royall with whom Charity has a very complicated relationship. Sort of like a father figure to her, Mr Royall is also prone to spells of debauchery and he makes no mistake about his romantic interest in Charity with hopes of converting their relationship to that of husband and wife. Thus, Charity’s feelings are transformed overnight from pity to contempt when Mr Royall first makes his inclinations clear.
Wharton’s depiction of a sultry, languorous summer is so evocative, the portrayal of an Impressionist painting setting where the romantic and sexual relationship of Harney and Charity plays out. For a girl like Charity whose social sphere is so restricted, her affair with Harney is sort of a rebirth and she is drunk with joy. The two arrange to meet secretly and regularly at a secluded empty house to spend time together, and while North Dormer would consider this arrangement scandalous (“She had lived all her life among people whose sensibilities seemed to have withered for lack of use”), Charity simply does not care (“She had always thought of love as something confused and furtive, and he (Harney) made it as bright and open as the summer air”).
She was always glad when she got to the little house before Harney. She liked to have time to take in every detail of its secret sweetness – the shadows of the apple-trees swaying on the grass, the old walnuts rounding their domes below the road, the meadows sloping westward in the afternoon light – before his first kiss blotted it all out. Everything unrelated to the hours spent in that tranquil place was as faint as the remembrance of a dream. The only reality was the wondrous unfolding of her new self, the reaching out to the light of all her contracted tendrils.
Summer, then, is a bold, beautiful novella, not just of a woman’s sexual awakening but also of class differences and the paucity of choices available to women. From the outset, Charity is made aware of her origins, a fearful place called the Mountain whose residents are steeped in poverty and allegedly lack morals. Mr Royall makes no qualms about deriding Charity’s mother, branding her a loose woman. Having never met her mother or even visited the Mountain, to Charity it’s a place that signifies menace and terror but at the same time she remains a bit curious.
In sharp contrast, Lucius Harney is a cultured, well-educated man and in the course of their passionate tryst, Charity often realizes how out of depth she is with a person of Lucius’ class – she is pretty enough to attract him, but naive and unworldly otherwise. Charity also experiences jealousy whenever she thinks of her peer or rival Annabel Balch, who may not be as stunning as Charity, but has the benefits of class and privilege that are beyond Charity’s grasp.
As with Wharton’s novellas, in Summer too, there is an undercurrent of darkness that lurks beneath the façade of a joyous, carefree, sizzling summer and Charity’s fate is sealed in a way that may not be as cruel as the one dealt to Ethan Frome, but still a situation that suggests an uneasy compromise.
Ethan Frome and Summer and deviate from the Wharton’s New York novels in many aspects – both these novellas focus on the working class set in provincial towns as opposed to the wealthy upper and middle class milieu of New York. But in terms of the weight of emotional power they remain on an equal footing. Both these tragic novellas are potent in the way they depict repressed desires that have far reaching consequences on the fates of their protagonists.
6 thoughts on “Ethan Frome & Summer – Edith Wharton”
I have read both but for some reason I didn’t connect them as sister novellas or shadow novellas. It’s all clear now. A perfect connection. ❤
Indeed, they are pretty different and yet share quite a few similar themes 🙂
I loved reading both novellas. They are companion books as you have rightly pointed out. Both are set in New England and portray the working class as opposed to the aristocratic elite of NYC. Both are tragic and heartbreaking. ‘ Winter’ could be an alternate title to “ Ethan Frome”. Edith Wharton is my favorite author. I love her short stories too.
They are both wonderful, aren’t they? I love Edith Wharton too. Her short stories are excellent I agree, I read The New York Stories published by NYRB Classics and plan to read her ghost stories in the near future.
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