It has been almost a week since my last post. A very busy time on the job has kept me away from this delectable pastime of (trying to) shape thoughts into meaningful sentences, but this weekend I intend to make up for my absence.
You know, I like the American word “dayjob,” which draws a line between one’s occupation and one’s identity. I believe the present-day corporate culture tries to make these two overlap or become completely identical and I resent that. My job is a part of me until 0500 PM during the work days, after which time I throw it off at the office coat hanger and forget all about it until the next day. On most days, anyway 🙂
Now, to come to the point, I hope that I have sufficiently gathered my thoughts on Ethan Frome to get it off my chest, while the memory of its exquisiteness is still fresh.
As I have previously mentioned, I have recently bought and read this great little book by Edith Wharton and was much impressed by its insight, level of detail and complexity of narrative, in just about 100 pages.
Written in 1911, Ethan Frome, of course (you already know your blog hostess, right? :)), deals with the impossible/forbidden love, and is remarkable in that it offers a glimpse at a most thought-provoking and disturbing solution, that is neither a dramatic death nor a cheesy happy ending.
The notable thing about Ethan Frome’s denouement is that it actually focuses on the most common but least explored real-life solution to this delicate problem – that of both parties going on living, without having transformed their affair into anything substantial, although having come pretty close to that.
Least explored, I believe, either because of its perceived dullness for the reading audiences, or because of a lack of sufficient psychological insight of the authors to be able to turn it into something suspenseful, compelling and enlightening.
In an ironic twist, however, the book ending keeps the protagonists under the same roof but under dramatically changed circumstances that, deep down, have remained hauntingly the same.
Wharton, because of her own unhappy marriage (whoever can write in an impactful manner of something they do not know?!), has delivered a very powerful tale, offering a horrifying glimpse of the poignancy and hopelessness of the impossible/forbidden love, frozen dead not by insincerity, but by social conventions, poverty and numbing irresoluteness.
You lost me, right? I’ll try to explain.
The book tells the story of Ethan Frome, a man of 52, who lives on a poor farm in the fictional village of Starkfield in Massachusetts, together with his sickly, unattractive and domineering wife. The story opens when Frome is 52 but an extended flashback sends the reader to when he was about 28.
Here is a summary of the plot from the book’s back cover, which I have already posted somewhere around the blog:
Hours before what must be their final farewell, Ethan and Mattie decide to go sledding together for the last time and subsequently hatch a plan to crash their sled into an elm tree, die, and thus never be parted and not have to face their claustrophobic and poverty-stricken lives without the single consolation of their occasional conversation, glance or touch.
In a final moment of hesitation, haunted by the ghastly image of his wife (embodying convention and guilt; a cover of his own life-long inability to take a stand and also perhaps because of a natural self-preservation instinct), Ethan steers the sled ever so slightly away from the elm tree, so that it does not crash into it headlong, thereby assuring his and Mattie’s instant demise.
As a result, both he and Mattie are seriously wounded, but they both survive. He is disfigured for life and she is completely paralysed from the neck down.
Thus, Mattie remains for ever part of the Frome household at Starkfield, confined to her bed or to a chair, and tended to like a baby by Zeena, who, excited by this possibility to be important and take her revenge over Mattie (and over Ethan, who she believes had robbed her of her love and youth), has “miraculously” regained her health back.
Ethan, aided by the very harsh and long Starkfield winters that induce somberness and contemplation, slips into an almost eternal taciturnity and martyr-like endurance. He follows his joyless daily routine like a soulless robot. However, when observed by the prologue narrator while he believes no one is watching him, his facial expression reveals his deep, hopeless and resigned anguish at his plight, exacerbated by Mattie’s growing selfish, whiny and constantly bickering with Zeena. (Enduring and supporting two snappy women for life is truly a feat for a martyr’s wreath, I’d say…)
The reader is not explicitly told about Ethan’s feelings for Mattie some 24 years after the sledding accident, but I believe it is obvious that they have remained a pale and distant memory, rendered the more painful because of Mattie’s proximity and the complete change of the circumstances about her.
In the same time, however odiously portrayed, one cannot help but feel some compassion for Zeena, whom Ethan asked to marry to relieve his loneliness on his poor farm, but later stopped loving. She may not have had the easiest character, but as a human being, she had surely had her hopes of love and togetherness that had failed to materialise with no chance of amendment. So her constant illnesses were her way to protest against that and claim attention.
Her behaviour estranged Ethan even more, but outwardly he kept doing his best to work the farm, cater to his wife’s medical needs and help around the house. Thus, while numbed by his repetitive, suffocating and joyless existence, he met Mattie, who started embodying for him happiness, togetherness and warmth, while imparting joy to his most ordinary activities.
Ethan’s sensitive nature was bleeding for love and, naturally enough, he found what he was looking for in the closest person around – Mattie. While the reader is definitely convinced of their mutual attraction and emotional affinity, we see her portrayed as shallower and more flirtatious compared to him. We are even made wonder whether these two would have attracted each other in different, less solitary circumstances.
Here is one of Wharton’s major points, in line with the school of thought of her time – that people are products of their environment, which has a deep, relentless and almost fatal impact on them. So just like Ethan’s character and personality were the result of his having spent “too many winters in Starkfield,” his love of Mattie was pre-destined by the circumstances of his life combined with his unsatisfied love instinct.
Ethan is a good and moral person – a decent fellow, but devoid of determination and willpower, both by predisposition and because of the earlier circumstances of his life – having had to renounce his studies to take care of his sick mother, etc.
Being crushed and not having been able to take a stand for himself his whole life, he accepts Mattie’s melodramatic idea of suicide, because it offers an instantaneous solution to a problem he is not prepared to face. However, his habitual passivity and hesitation brings this endeavour to a failure, sentencing both him and Mattie to a crippled existence and a horrible living death. People are the playthings of circumstances, that’s the point, more or less.
The book’s message is very similar to that of short story Flotsam and Jetsam by Somerset Maugham, where a person has to stay at the home of a manager of a British Empire outpost in the West Indies because of an illness, and there observes the withered beauty and slight insanity, complete with a nervous twitch, of his wife. Turns out she got that at the time her husband killed her lover while he and his wife were trying to elope.
Both stories, although dealing with a subject that holds great potential for corniness, are actually not sentimental or mawkish at all. Being written by a woman, Ethan Frome is more detailed and emotional, more subtle, while Maugham’s tale is more pithy and abruptly told, but both are blood-chillingly matter-of-fact and real, with no mercy for the protagonists and no desire to portray them in a likable manner whatsoever.
Ethan Frome closes similarly to the way it opens – with the tale of the prologue narrator, some 24 years after the sledding accident. A woman tells the narrator she believed Ethan might have lived, had Mattie died, but the way things were now, all the three members of the Frome household were as good as those Fromes of olden days buried in their garden, if not worse, because the dead Fromes had at least found rest and the women lying six feet under were at least holding their tongues.
Such an ironic everyday quip is perhaps the most brutal part of the entire tale, as it totally annihilates the emotional significance of Ethan’s and Mattie’s relationship some 24 years ago, making it appear tasteless and pathetic. And so it probably was – a lame attempt at happiness of two lives – unlived and inept, if I may quote my own translation of poem Dismal Chant by Dimcho Debelyanov…
But pathetic though it was, it meant everything to Ethan and Mattie who had no resources to resist, and letting go of each other meant slipping back into the black and sticky flow of their joyless and hopeless routines.
So, dear Reader, maybe it’s like this – being struck by the impossible/forbidden love is probably very predictable in certain circumstances, all too human and not that uncommon, given the attention it receives by fiction.
Not acting on it may be a huge source of suffering and frustration, stemming from obsessive thoughts of the happiness that one might have missed and from blaming oneself that had one been more this or that, had they just this once done or not done something, everything would have been different.
Acting on it, on the other hand, is like playing Russian roulette, with one chance of it ending well against many more of it ending badly. Although I cannot recall having ever read anything on that, the story ending well is probably not unequivocal and can have nuances tinging it with sadness, irony or senselessness.
The story ending badly, on the other hand, is a fertile ground for all sorts of trouble, with the living death, as presented by the Ethan Frome ending, probably the worst of all.
Turns out that all those who have nosedived after a flight on the Icarus wings of happiness, but have escaped both the actual and the living death, have actually had a lucky escape, however bereaved and shattered they might be feeling.
The funny thing is that knowing this with one’s mind would not help one resist an acute sense of bereavement, so they might end-up feeling like Ethan Frome on a considerably less severe fate.
Since I know of nothing capable of miraculously curing the Ethan Frome feeling, I propose to end this post with a musical contemplation that for me has become its aural epitome ever since I’ve read the book.
I have been familiar with this piece since I was about 15 and its poignant, gently flowing and seemingly endless sorrow, presented in a very collected and dignified manner, not with emotions all over the place, has always deeply moved me.
Before I got the tango CD, I had been listening to this a lot in my car and its slow and meditative nature was blending perfectly with the grey May skies and the drizzling rain of Sofia, offering me a luxurious refuge from the ugliness and hustle and bustle outside.
It is the second part, Lento, of String Quartet in F Major, op.96, called “American,” by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak – written while he was heading the New York Conservatory but was terribly homesick.
So I believe this music excellently and very gently portrays this undulating, ever-present pain, that sometimes feels like it has completely gone away, but at other times returns as bitter and fresh as ever.
The back-and-forth viola accompaniment, the great dynamics (meaning shifts between soft and loud) of the melody and the dialogue between the cello and the violin on the main theme, all help create this feeling of an all-permeating gentle sorrow, that has probably been the leading emotion of Ethan Frome’s life.
I’d like to treat you to something else too – an exquisite poem by Adam Asnyk (1838-1897). I have become acquainted with the translations of about 10 of Asnyk’s works and all of them are sublime; I am so happy I have found them.
This one, called No, Nothing Happened There Between Us Two*, is also somehow very pertinent to Ethan Frome and his story with Mattie, in the sense that they have never discussed it openly and have never, except for the suicide pact, hatched plans to act on their feelings behind the back of Ethan’s wife.
In the same time, their mere presence and closeness had tinged with hope and colour all their surrondings, much like in the poem, where the protagonists avow that nothing had happened between them, except for the emotions they had shared on the backdrop of beautiful natural surroundings. In this way, they however suggest that everything had happened between them, because memories of their happiness emanate from all the surroundings they had previously rejoiced in.
Nothing really, which is everything, exactly like the Ethan Frome story…
No, nothing happened there between us two.
Confessions none, no secrets to reveal.
No obligations had we to pursue,
But for the springtide fancies so unreal;
But for the fragrances and colours bright,
That floated freely in the mirthful air,
But for the singing groves by day or night,
And all the green and fragrant meadows there;
But for the brooks and waterfalls up high
That cheerfully sprinkled every gorge and dell,
But for the clouds and rainbows in the sky,
But for the nature’s of all sweetest spell.
But for the lucid fountains we did share,
Wherefrom our hearts would drink delights so true,
But for the primroses and bindweeds there,
No, nothing happened there between us two.
*Translation by Jaroslaw Zawadzki, 2007