#CBR6 Review #56: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

I’ve read two Edith Wharton novels, so I’d consider myself a fan. I thought The House of Mirth, while extremely depressing, was very compelling and engaging. The Age of Innocence has been my favorite so far, because it is an elegant novel. Also, I read it for a class The Chancellor and I were in when we first started seeing each other, so…yeah. There *might* be a touch of nostalgia surrounding it. I’d never read Ethan Frome, but I remember a student complaining about having to discuss the broken pickle dish in high school. I always wondered what that was about.

As it turns out, I needn’t have wondered. Ethan Frome is a not-at-all-subtle tale of irony and broken love. Ethan is foolishly married to the hypochondriac Zeena (short for Zenobia, which reminds me of Zenobia from Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, and seriously, what is it with these American authors???) while pining for her cousin, the beautiful but empty-headed Mattie Silver. Ethan’s longing for Mattie is the stuff Twilight is made of–heavy sighs and panting and blushes and eroticized abstinence. It’s all very junior high. So of course Zeena decides the time has come to pay an actual servant girl actual wages, and she decides it’s high time Mattie was sent away. Which leads to the denouement of our story, the grand irony, and the brittle conclusion. I won’t spoil it for you. You really need to experience the WTF moment for yourself.

I am honestly rather disappointed in Wharton. She, the creator of Lily Bart and Ellen Olenska and May Welland can do no better than a forbidden love between two people who have less erotic tension than THESE TWO JOKERS?


I mean, if you’re doing the “forbidden love” motif, make it good. Edith Wharton, she the goddess divine of the most twisted Daddy fantasy I’ve ever read (have you ever read “The Palmatos”? I am no seeker of father-daughter erotica, but that is some kinky stuff right there*) can’t even get it up to give us some over-the-bra action. And for what? For the most hamfisted imagery of a broken pickle dish. A BROKEN PICKLE DISH.

My indignation knows no bounds.


*Fun story: When I was a wee sophomore in college ten years ago, I took an American literature survey course, which is where I read The House of Mirth for my research paper. My professor, a very gentlemanly older man (now retired) offered me his scholarly book, The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton as a resource. This is where I stumbled on the fragment Wharton had titled “The Palmatos,” as well as the tidbit that her husband had nicknamed her Pussy Willow. So of course when doing my paper on The Age of Innocence four years later, I made The Chancellor read it without any context or warning. He married me, though he has yet to forgive me for it.


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