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Festive Re-Reads: Ethan Frome By Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome is not your typical festive book. There are no fabulous parties or thawed hearts, no warming morals about the power of togetherness realised with a fireplace crackling somewhere in the background. In fact, Edith Wharton’s 1911 novella is a melancholy, mean little story, as chilly in tone as the lonely Massachusetts landscape with its “sheet of snow perpetually renewed from … pale skies”. And yet, there’s something in it that makes it a perfect read for those slushy days between Christmas and new year. Perhaps it’s the length: short enough to be consumed in one or two sittings, gulped down like ice water. Perhaps it’s the growing sense of foreboding, ideal for those who prefer their December reading to be of the truly bleak midwinter variety (or anyone in need of a palate cleanser after all that yuletide indulgence).

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Photograph: Wordsworth ClassicsMostly, though, it’s because of the seasonal setting. In the remote New England village of Starkfield, winter’s beautiful torpor rules everything. It shapes moods, hastens life-altering decisions, and provides the perfect stage for a tragedy that couldn’t happen at any other time of the year. Its “torrents of light and air” by day and “silver-edged darkness” by night cast a penetrating spotlight over the area, rendering the actions of its inhabitants as crystalline as the flakes that continually coat the ground.

The story is told like Wuthering Heights in miniature, minus its ghosts and children. A stranger comes to town, working on a job connected to a nearby powerhouse that generates electricity. He is immediately intrigued by Ethan Frome: a taciturn “ruin of a man” with lopsided shoulders and a scarred gash on his forehead who was involved in some sort of “smash-up” two decades previously. He seeks the story of Frome’s sorry circumstances in fragments from others but doesn’t get the full explanation until he enlists Frome’s services in driving him to and from the train station. One day, when the snow is heaped in white waves, a storm prevents this unnamed narrator from getting home. Instead, he must bed down for the night at Frome’s house and encounter its unhappy history up close.

At its heart, Ethan Frome is a story about being trapped by circumstance. As such stories so often are, it is therefore largely about yearning for what you cannot have. Bookended by the present, the bulk of the narrative relays Frome’s early life, which has been progressively whittled down and gated in. As a young man, Frome’s educational aspirations are curtailed first by an injured father and then a sick mother. He marries his cousin Zeena out of a sense of duty after she comes to care for the latter and eventually falls sick herself. They in turn enlist the help of Zeena’s cousin Mattie Silver who has no parents, no money, and nowhere else to go. Worn down by Zeena’s bitterness and hypochondria, Frome falls in love with the beautiful, sprightly Mattie – her own sentiments equally unspoken and equally reciprocated. The fact that this cannot end well is clear long before the overly portentous breaking of a red glass pickle dish at dinner.

If all of this sounds a little heavy-going, it is saved by the lightness and acuity of Wharton’s writing. In fact, there is a glorious melancholy to its scant 100 or so pages. It has everything in there: thwarted ambition, terrible longing, actions that can’t be undone, the kind of claustrophobia that can be exerted by a single person or held in an entire community. Above all, it captures the atmospheric intensity held in this land of ice where everything crunches and glitters and hurts, the cold muffling footsteps and feelings. It is a snow globe of a story, its characters held in stasis until someone new comes along to shake it up, setting the past swirling again.

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