|A young Edith Wharton|
Ethan Frome (1911)
by Edith Wharton
I am powering through the first 20 years of 20th century literature, in doubt thanks to the combination of genre fiction and shorter length works of serious fiction that have begun to populate the 20th century section of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die. Clocking in at a scant 150 pages, Ethan Frome is more of a novella than a novel. Either way I'm not complaining. Unlike the House of Mirth, which was a fairly conventional marriage-plot type book enlivened by Wharton's awareness of Henry James' output, Ethan Frome seems more indebted to Thomas Hardy and George Eliot, with a "retro" rather than "modern" feel and characters who are far from the glamour of London/Paris/New York.
The plot of Frome revolves around the titular character and his longing for his wife's impoverished cousin (and his house mate) Mattie Silver. Like a Hardy or Eliot novel, Ethan Frome is a novel about small people living unhappy lives. Not a novel with a moral agenda in mind necessarily, but certainly not one which celebrates its dour subject matter. Like the work of Henry James, Ethan Frome foreshadows the awakening of the self-consciously "serious" novel which sees itself not as popular entertainment but as a sophisticated art. This is a move that was a half century in coming, and an event that didn't fully come into focus until after Henry James had his various statements.
Like the work of Gertrude Stein, Wharton knew of James and sought to bring his insights to bear without being transparently imitative.