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ON THE AUTHENTICITY OF ETHAN FROME
Because Edith Wharton came from a level of society so far removed from the poor country people who populate Ethan Frome, critics have regarded her so-called "New England folk tale" with considerable skepticism. A highly regarded scholar, Alfred Kazin, wrote:
[Ethan Frome] was not a New England story and certainly not the granite "folk tale" of New England its admirers have claimed it to be. [Mrs. Wharton] knew little of the New England common world and perhaps cared even less. The world of the Frome tragedy is abstract. She never knew how the poor lived in Paris or London; she knew even less of how they lived in the New England villages where she spent an occasional summer.
On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, 1942
Not all critics are as harsh as Kazin. Grace Kellogg, for example, agrees that Ethan Frome is not a New England story. In her opinion, the story was probably based on a French folktale, which Edith Wharton tried to transplant to Massachusetts. If the setting were the Alps,
Ethan's character, which has been called too much of "granite" for the New England scene, orients itself at once on a bleak, isolated mountainside. Zeena's extraordinarily narrow, impervious nature finds a natural habitat there. As for Mattie, with her light gaiety, her innocence and purity and evanescent sweetness- she is the star-shaped blossom of edelweiss.
The feeling of isolation which obtains, basic to the story despite all statements of country dance, village slide, friendly neighbors, a city not too far away, is now accounted for....
...That Starkfield "bobsled" has struck in many a critical craw.... [It's] a clumsy almost ludicrous vehicle, this New England bobsled, devoid of tragic dignity. The toboggan of the folk tale offers no such embarrassment.
The Two Lives of Edith Wharton, 1965
ON STYLE AND SYMBOLISM
Critic Blake Nevius writes with admiration of Edith Wharton's use of vivid details:
...they arise directly and easily, and always with the sharpest pertinence, from the significant grounds of character and situation.... Every reader will recall some of them: Mattie's tribute to the winter sunset- "It looks just as if it was painted"; Ethan's reluctance to have Mattie see him follow Zeena into their bedroom; the removal of Mattie's trunk; the watchful, sinister presence of Zeena's cat disturbing the intimacy of the lovers' evening together by appropriating her mistress' place at the table, breaking the pickle-dish, and later setting Zeena's rocking chair in motion. Zeena may not be a sympathetic character, but there is a moment when she makes us forget everything but her wronged humanity. As she confronts the guilty lovers, holding fragments of her beloved pickle-dish, her face streaming with tears, we have a sudden and terrible glimpse of the starved emotional life that has made her what she is. The novelist's compassion can reach no further.
Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction, 1953
The broken pickle-dish has attracted considerable critical comment. It has been viewed symbolically in many different ways. This idea from Richard H. Lawson:
The warmth of the evening is brought to an apprehensive end by the accidental breaking of one of Zeena's sacred, never-used pickle-dishes. That the pickle-dish, a wedding gift, has never been used makes it a strong symbol of Zeena herself, who prefers not to take part in life. The depth of Zeena's reaction to its being broken is revealed by her angrily twitching lips and by "two small tears... on her lashless lids."
Edith Wharton, 1977
Critic Margaret B. McDowell considers the pickle-dish an ironic symbol, closely related to other ironies in the book:
Zeena is not seen simply as part of Ethan's curse... but as a deprived woman who grieves over lost beauty when the cherished red pickle-dish she has saved since her wedding is used by Mattie and broken.
The book is fraught with such ironies: the dish that is treasured is the one that is broken; the pleasure of the one solitary meal that Ethan and Mattie share ends in distress; the ecstacy of the coasting ends in suffering; the moment of dramatic renunciation when Ethan and Mattie choose suicide rather than elopement ends not in glorious death but in years of pain. The lovely Mattie Silver becomes an ugly, querulous woman cared for by Zeena, who, again ironically, finds strength and companionship by caring for her former rival.
Edith Wharton, 1976
We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.
Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts