Ethan Frome book review

I finished reading Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. The titular character, Ethan, is a young man who works hard on his farm but lives an unhappy, fruitless life. He lives in a town of harsh snow. His wife is constantly sick (but not really), querulous, does no work, and has absolutely no positive qualities. His wife’s lively cousin Mattie ends up moving in with them because she has nowhere else to go, and she helps out around the farm. Ethan comes to enjoy his time with Mattie and falls in love with her. He dreams of running away with Mattie, but feels morally obligated to stay to take care of his wife. His wife gets suspicious and wants to send Mattie away.

In the end, he goes sledding with Mattie and purposefully does not take the reigns of the sled with the intent to crash into a tree and kill them both, since they think they cannot go on in life without the other. But they both survive, and they both get to live together as he had dreamed, but his reality is a perversion of the dream. Now in his old age, he still lives with Mattie and his wife. But he and Mattie have horrid injuries from their sledding accident; Mattie is paralyzed and Ethan is crippled. Ethan’s household is more desolate than before. He had feared the silent winters, which is why he married his wife. But now in an unpleasant circumstance with two constantly nagging women, the townspeople say he would be better off in the silence of the grave. Ethan had justified his inaction with his morals. Because of his feelings of responsibility for his wife and refusal to cheat his neighbor of the money he would need to run away, Ethan has lived a life of suffering, constantly toiling and taking care of others— first his father, then mother, then wife, and now his wife and Mattie—  in the isolated, declining farm. He dreamed of becoming so much more, of continuing his education and learning about the sciences that had enchanted him. But I don’t think this book is a critique on morality. If Ethan felt true conviction for his morals, truly believed he was responsible for both women, then he should not have let the sled crash into the tree. Rather, this story criticizes how Ethan did not take control of his life. He neither steered the sled into the tree nor around the tree; he let the sled go on its own, let go of any responsibility, and ended up creating an even worse life for himself and the two women. Ethan thought he had been caring for people, that he was the only one that could provide for them. But on the flip side, he had been enabling those around him to neglect their own duties and responsibility for their own lives.

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