“He seemed a part of the mute, melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound, accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.” –Ethan Frome
I had always wondered why, during my “summer reading” for my high school junior English class, I was strangely drawn to this immensely sorrowful and pathetic novella. Most students revile it, or cannot tolerate its almost unjustifiable and insufferable pathos: why would a writer subject her characters to such extreme, abject suffering?
Though many people despise the story, most all of them could probably recall how it ends (no spoiler alerts here): Ethan, a passionate, spirited, intelligent young man, full of dreams and integrity, finds himself bound and caught in a “trap” that is walled, on one side, by his soured, hypochondriac wife Zeena, and on the other, by Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver, who, at an intensely pure and spiritual level, Ethan secretly adores.
But, it becomes evident that Ethan cannot have it both ways, and by the final paragraph, a chilling observation made by Ruth Hale, a partially omniscient member of the community who knows the most about the Frome’s “plight,” all the things that characterized Ethan, not the least of which is passion, dissolves almost entirely with time, and the reader begins to understand that it is because of his innate timidity, (Wharton implies that we are not to confuse this with cowardice), spiritual fragility, and inability to make decisions outside the parameters of his tiny world, that lead to the story’s nightmarish, not-so-fairy-tale ending. The Frome household, as seen from the peripheral narrator, is as cold as the snowdrifts that layer the lonely winter landscape, a blighted dwelling, the lives within becoming tenants not just of a deteriorating farmhouse, but of Wharton’s most profound cautionary tale.
One month after reading Ethan Frome, 9/11 happened. It was the first major news and national event that would cast on me a lingering, unanswered shadow of sorrow, uncertainty, and disbelief. No matter what lay in the gray areas of the political motivations surrounding and following 9/11, there is no doubt that this singular tragedy rallied the nation; except perhaps for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, or the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, never had such an event forced Americans to realize and question what really was integral to our society, with many more questions to follow. The mass rioting in response to the crisis in Ferguson, MO, is perhaps the most recent momentous example of the need to question and re-evaluate the cultural justifications of tragedies and their responses.
I return to Whartonian tragedy. In the story of Ethan Frome, everyone in the community knows what happened to the Frome household, only nobody ever really wants to talk about it; they believe that keeping silent and leaving the Fromes alone is the best and wisest decision. Yet, it is not so much pity as it is the love that stems from that pity that lies dormant beneath the quiet surface of the small Massachusetts village. All the blame and bewilderment and sadness that follows the Fromes’ personal crisis dissolves over time, much like Ethan’s personal resolve. Still, it does not cancel out the community’s love for these three imprisoned, isolated partakers of one conjoined fate. Passion actually does remain alive, but latent, much like the frozen, compacted New England soil that lies beneath the endless snowdrifts, eternally waiting for the rites of spring. Through the storytelling of the anonymous narrator, the residents of Starkfield, like Harmon Gow and Ruth Hale, and the frame structure of the narrative, Wharton gives voice to the marginalized, but far from forgotten, tough-skinned characters that are bound to a singular, haunting destiny.
How does the fictional tragedy of Ethan Frome tie into larger-scale tragedies like 9/11? One word: community. Americans, despite all of the opinions and pardoxes and conflicting values that divide us, still have a great capacity for compassion and good. Even within the smoke of questions and rumors that swirls around issues of politics and political motivations, behind even events like 9/11, there are still many people who opt to support one another, and encourage them to endure, regardless of failings and disadvantages of every kind, and even within the unspoken taboos of American culture.
But, the single greatest thing about tragedy and grief is the beauty that surrounds and emerges from it: the “glimmering” canopy of stars that domes the “gloom of the spruces” as Ethan and Mattie stroll through the uncertain darkness; the faint, gentle cascading of snow that seasons the stubborn, harsh New England earth; and, for the purposes and understanding of our own current American history, the looming towers of light that rise from a broken, modern city skyline, ushering in and encouraging the sparks of faith, hope, and love.