Wharton, Edith 1862-1937
Wharton, Edith 1862-1937
(Full name Edith Newbold Jones Wharton) American novelist, short-story writer, poet, memoirist, autobiographer, travel writer, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome (1911) through 2005.
A mainstay of high school English curriculums due to its relative brevity, vivid symbolism, and concise language, among the many factors that recommend it to a younger readership, Ethan Frome (1911) remains among Wharton’s most recognizable and widely read novels. Best known as a novelist of manners, Wharton chronicled the cruel excesses of American genteel society both at home and abroad at the beginning of the twentieth century in works ranging from The House of Mirth (1905) to The Age of Innocence (1920) and The Buccaneers (1938). Her carefully crafted, psychologically complex fiction also reflects a concern for the status of women in society and for the moral decay she observed beneath the outward propriety of the social elite. Noted for its gloomy depiction of wintry, rural New England, Ethan Frome explores the effects of poverty, isolation, and the pressures of conformity on individuals struggling to transcend societal expectations and find love and fulfillment. Though sometimes derided by reviewers as a morally bankrupt and pessimistic book, Ethan Frome has been reassessed by recent critics as a well-crafted and perceptive investigation of the human condition.
Wharton was born into a wealthy New York City family on January 24, 1862. She was privately educated by a series of governesses and tutors both at home and abroad, who schooled her in foreign languages and European culture. As a child, she displayed a marked interest in writing and literature, from which her socially ambitious mother attempte to dissuade her. Nevertheless, Wharton finished her first novella at the age of fourteen and anonymously published some verse in the Atlantic Monthly four years later. As an upper-class initiate, she witnessed the shift of power and wealth from the hands of New York’s established gentry to the Industrial Revolutions nouveau riche, whom she considered to be cultural philistines obsessed with status rather than character and upon whom she modeled many of her most memorable fictional characters and situations. In 1885 she married the Boston banker Edward Wharton, who shared few of her interests or opinions and never understood her affinity for literature. Assuming the public responsibilities of society matron during her marriage, Wharton traveled widely with her husband and maintained fashionable homes in Manhattan, Newport, and Paris. However, she gradually grew dissatisfied with society life and disillusioned with marriage, so she sought personal fulfillment by writing in private. Many of these early poems and stories first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine, and her best fiction of the period was collected in The Greater Inclination (1899), whose critical reception not only surprised her but also steeled her resolve to hone her literary skills. Subsequently, Wharton published the novel The Valley of Decision (1902), the story collection The Descent of Man (1904), and The House of Mirth, which established her critical and popular reputation as a leading writer of the era. Wharton professional success, along with her husband’s eroding sanity and marital infidelity, prompted her in 1907 to take up permanent residence in France and in 1913 to divorce her husband, which greatly pained her. Once she settled in France, however, Wharton produced some of the most notable works of her career, including the short story collections The Hermit and the Wild Woman (1908), Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910), and Xingu and Other Stories (1916) as well as the novels Ethan Frome,The Reef (1912), The Custom of the Country (1913), and Summer (1917). During World War I, Wharton organized war relief efforts for refugees, for which she earned the French Legion of Honor, and wrote propaganda for the Allies as well as the undistinguished war novels The Marne (1918) and A Son at the Front (1923). Following the armistice, Wharton resumed her literary career, and in 1921 she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Age of Innocence, which she followed with The Mother’s Recompense (1925) and the best-selling Twilight Sleep (1927). During the last decade of her life, Wharton continued to write short stories and novels, many of which reflect her growing disillusionment with postwar America and the Jazz Age, most notably the novels Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and The Gods Arrive (1932). In 1934 she published her autobiography, A Backward Glance. Wharton died at St. Bricesous-Foret on August 11, 1937, leaving behind the unfinished manuscript of her final novel, The Buccaneers, which was published in 1938.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
Ethan Frome begins with a frame narrative told by a young, unnamed narrator who has come to the small, isolated New England village of Starkfield to work at a local power station. He notices a man named Ethan Frome and learns that the old man had been crippled by a sledding accident twenty-four years earlier. One night the narrator is stranded at the Frome farm due to severe weather and begins to uncover more about the man’s background. The story flashes back to Frome’s life before the sledding accident, chronicling his unhappy marriage to the hypochondriac Zeena. When the couple hires Zeena’s cousin, the vivacious Mattie Silver, as a maid, Frome develops romantic feelings for her. He soon believes that his love might be reciprocated, and he dreams of running away with her. Zeena suspects her husband’s desires and decides to send Mattie away to an uncertain future. Desperate to stay, Mattie encourages Frome’s affection. The brokenhearted Frome rejects a plan to borrow money and run away with Mattie, agreeing instead to send the young girl away. He suggests to Mattie that they take a sled ride together before parting. Upon reaching the bottom of the hill, they share a kiss. Mattie then proposes that they take another ride down the hill, this time steering the sled into a tree to commit a double suicide. Frome agrees, but at the very last moment he veers away from the tree and avoids a head-on collision. Although they survive the accident, both are permanently crippled. As the story returns to the present time, the narrator learns that Mattie is a demanding invalid, Zeena is her embittered caretaker, and Frome is forced to provide for both women, who resent him.
Themes of repression and isolation play a prominent role in Ethan Frome. The setting of the remote Frome farm during a harsh New England winter reflects the emotional impoverishment, intense loneliness, and profound inarticulateness of the troubled couple, Ethan and Zeena. Because the characters are unable to communicate with one another, they bury their passions and resist self-examination. Bowing to stifling societal expectations, Frome remains in a loveless, soul-deadening marriage and feels guilty when he yearns to break free and escape the isolated Starkfield with the spirited Mattie. Moreover, at the end of the novella, Frome is essentially trapped in the decaying farmhouse with two women who cannot forgive his betrayal and perpetuate his guilt over his impulsive attempt to run away from his obligations. Critics have underscored the symbolic significance of the pickle-dish as representative of Zeena’s emotional repression; the dish had been given to her as a wedding gift, and her reaction to its breaking by the cat and its concealment by Frome is one of the few instances of unadulterated emotion in the story. Commentators have asserted that her grief over the shattered state of her marriage is manifested through her reaction to the destruction of a simple household object. Another major theme of Ethan Frome is determinism. Similar to the strict fatalism of Calvinist doctrine, the concept of determinism arose from the widespread influence of Darwin’s theories in the late nineteenth century. Accordingly, anxiety over the seemingly random power of the natural world is manifest in the depiction of Starkfield, which is often associated with recurring images of darkness and brutal frigidity. That the lives of its citizens are fraught with strife seems to be predetermined by the bleak physical environment that surrounds them.
Upon its publication Ethan Frome was greeted with mixed reviews, and it was later subjected to a scathing assessment by critic Lionel Trilling, who called it a “dead book” with no moral basis. Trilling was so influential at the time that other critics rejected the book as well. Another contemporary of Wharton’s, Frederic Taro, even went so far as to describe it as brimming with such “utter remorselessness” that he characterized the novella as “endlessly gray with blank despair.” Yet over the years, commentators have begun to rehabilitate the novella’s critical reputation, re-examining the story from various perspectives, providing socioeconomic, psychological, and theological interpretations of the novella. In particular, Wharton’s personal interest in Calvinism has been viewed as a crucial element in the story’s construction. Commentators have linked Wharton’s religious views and her relationship with her parents to thematic concerns in Ethan Frome. Recent critics have also discussed the story as a work of modern tragedy. Stylistically, scholars have focused on Wharton’s use of the framing device and the function of the narrator in the story. Regarded as perhaps Wharton’s best-known work of short fiction, Ethan Frome has been perceived as an insightful yet grim depiction of human tragedy.
Verses (poetry) 1878
The Decoration of Houses [with Ogden Codman] (nonfiction) 1897
The Greater Inclination (short stories) 1899
The Touchstone (novella) 1900; also published as A Gift from the Grave, 1900
Crucial Instances (short stories) 1901
The Valley of Decision (novel) 1902
Sanctuary (novel) 1903
The Descent of Man, and Other Stories (short stories) 1904
Italian Villas and Their Gardens (nonfiction) 1904
The House of Mirth (novel) 1905
Italian Backgrounds (memoirs) 1905
The Fruit of the Tree (novel) 1907
The Hermit and the Wild Woman and Other Stories (short stories) 1908
Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verse (poetry) 1909
Ethan Frome (novella) 1911
The Reef (novel) 1912
The Custom of the Country (novel) 1913
Xingu and Other Stories (short stories) 1916
Summer (novel) 1917
French Ways and Their Meaning (essays) 1919
The Age of Innocence (novel) 1920
The Writing of Fiction (criticism) 1925
Here and Beyond (short stories) 1926
Hudson River Bracketed (novel) 1929
Certain People (short stories) 1930
Human Nature (short stories) 1933
A Backward Glance (autobiography) 1934
The Buccaneers (unfinished novel) 1938
Jean Franz Blackall (essay date spring 1984)
SOURCE: Blackall, Jean Franz. “The Sledding Accident in Ethan Frome.” Studies in Short Fiction 21, no. 2 (spring 1984): 145-46.
[In the following essay, Blackall suggests that details of the climactic sledding incident in Ethan Frome may be more reflective of Ethan’s nurturing nature than his repression.]
Ethan Frome and Mattie Silver agree to commit suicide by running their sled into the big elm tree at the bottom of School House Hill. But they argue over who is to sit in front:
“Get up! Get up! he urged her”; but she kept on repeating: “Why do you want to sit in front?”
“Because I—because I want to feel you holding me,” he stammered, and dragged her to her feet.1
Kenneth Bernard says that Ethan’s wanting to sit in front of Mattie on the sled is an indication of his weakness. Ethan sincerely “wants to die being cuddled and comforted, leaving to Mattie the role of protector and shelterer.”2 Cynthia Wolff supports Bernard in this interpretation,3 which accords with her own sentiment that Ethan demonstrates passivity, lack of normal sexual initiative, infantile and regressive behavior. This is a view Wolff otherwise argues by pointing out how Ethan’s vision of living with Mattie is purely domestic; Mattie would be cook and both of them caretakers.4
As regards this domestic ideal, it is instructive to juxtapose other Wharton fictions. In Summer , for example, the overtly sexual character of the relationship between Lucius Harney and Charity Royall cannot be doubted. Yet their scenes together at the abandoned house in the woods emulate conventional domestic rituals. They decorate their room with flowers and leaves.5 They share meals and drink tea together (208-210). Lucius expresses his affection for Charity by bringing her chocolate and cold water from a spring (167). In The Reef George Darrow, whose sexuality is explicit, yet demonstrates a reticence similar to Ethan’s, kissing Anna’s scarf as Ethan kisses Mattie’s sewing stuff rather than touching the woman.6 At the end, when Anna Leath hopes that a life for herself and George Darrow may still be possible, she dreams that she is sitting on the hearth beside his chair (312). It would seem that in such moments Wharton is celebrating the idea of domestic community, of what she spoke of to Charles Du Bos as the desirable condition of ‘“a sharing of all”’ between lovers, not only the sexual relationship.7
Ethan’s wanting to sit ahead of Mattie on the sled can be understood as manifesting a similar nuance in his behavior rather than as a regressive or infantile attitude. Ethan’s idea of love is nurture. He wants to sit ahead of Mattie on the sled so that he, not Mattie, will hit the elm tree first. Perhaps his solicitude is misplaced since their objective in common is to commit suicide. But throughout the scene it is Mattie who has pressed for this choice and Ethan who resists. Yielding to her insistence, he yet holds back by making a protective gesture toward her which is quite consistent with his attitude of caretaking elsewhere, as when he decides to remain with Zeena despite his love for Mattie, when he initially balks at expelling Mattie from the household as Zeena desires, and in these very moments when he worries about his horse’s going without food. Such protective attitudes may not manifest an aggressive sexuality in Ethan, but they can more plausibly be interpreted as adult sentiments than as infantile ones. Ethan’s sensibility affirms the values of home (hearth) and protectiveness.
Corroboration for interpreting Ethan’s choice as being a protective gesture is provided by a newspaper account undoubtedly known to Wharton when she devised this final episode of Ethan Frome. 8 The Berkshire Evening Eagle for March 12, 1904, reports a disastrous sledding accident on Court House Hill in Lenox, Massachusetts, in which Hazel Crosby was fatally injured when she insisted on steering the sled: “Mansuit Schmitt, the only young man in the party, had been steering the sled on its course until the accident. Miss Crosby expressed a desire to guide the sled on one trip, and the permission was reluctantly granted. She took her position in front of the party of coasters.” In this position, according to the Eagle, “Miss Crosby received the full force of the collision and it is a wonder that she was not instantly killed.”9 From this circumstantial account Wharton would have understood Ethan’s choice to sit in front on the sled as one involving greater danger. Miss Crosby, who sat forward, was killed. That Edith Wharton had intimate access to the details of this accident is a matter of local record, as reported at the time of the death of Katherine P. Spencer: “Miss Spencer was the last survivor of the five who were aboard the sled. For five years after the accident, 1904–1908, she was an assistant librarian at the Lenox Library, after which she had to resign because of impaired hearing caused by the accident. During that time, Mrs. Wharton was an associate manager at the library, and knew and consulted Miss Spencer in research for her novel.”10
8. See R. W. B. Lewis, Edith Wharton (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1975), p. 308. Cf. David H. Wood, Lenox: Massachusetts Shire Town (Lenox: Published by the Town, 1969), esp. pp. 109 and 114, n. 2.
10. Richard V. Happel, “Notes and Footnotes,” The Berkshire Eagle, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 1976, p. 20. I am indebted to Margaret M. Kennard, Librarian of the Lenox Library Association, Lenox, Massachusetts, for making xerox copies of these newspaper articles available to me.
Marlene Springer (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: Springer, Marlene. “Setting and Symbolism.” In Ethan Frome: A Nightmare of Need, pp. 76-94. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
[In the following essay, Springer offers a summary of the heavy thematic symbolism found in Ethan Frome.]
Whether Ethan’s story is a vision, a tangled web of different stories, or both, Harmon Gow believes the source of Ethan’s predicament is that “he’s been in Starkfield too many winters.” In her own comments on the novel, Wharton notes that she believed most New England fiction, and especially Sarah Orne Jewett’s, bore little resemblance to “the harsh and beautiful land” as she had seen it. The abundant description “of sweet-fern, asters and mountain-laurel, and the conscientious reproduction of the vernacular, left [her] with the feeling that the outcropping granite” had been overlooked ([Ethan Frome, ] EF , xix). Certainly the setting of the story has a rock-hard atmosphere, but it is also an ironic metaphor for the balancing contrasts that permeate the story.
The narrator tells us early on that he is struck by the contrast between the crispness of the climate and the deadness of the community: “Day by day, after the December snows were over, a blazing blue sky poured down torrents of light and air on the white landscape, which gave them back an intense glitter. One would have supposed that such an atmosphere must quicken the emotions as well as the blood; but it seemed to produce no change except that of retarding still more the sluggish pulse of Starkfield” (EF, 7).
Crystal clearness is followed by long stretches of sunless cold, and the storms of February only lead to the biting winds of March. With climate so formidable, it is easy to capitulate to routine and to be hypnotized into a “grim satisfaction in the life.” When survival against the cold is all-consuming, it is difficult to nurture intimacy. It is no coincidence that Ethan’s maiming takes place in February, that the vehicle is a sled, that the occasion for the narrator’s glimpse into Ethan’s experience is a blinding snowstorm. And if Jewett’s restful summer evenings and warm breezes can lull one into complacency, so can the raging storms so deaden the senses that monotony goes unnoticed.
Harmon Gow does not say that Ethan has been in Starkfield too long, but that he has been there “too many winters.” In his own taciturn way, Gow is expressing one of the crucial aspects of place in the novel. Everywhere there is snow. The train that the narrator is supposed to take to the plant is blocked by a freight that got stuck in a drift. His first glimpse of Ethan’s house is of a lonely New England farmhouse “huddled against the white immensities of land and sky” (EF, 15); the boundaries of the fields surrounding it are lost under the drifts. As they travel toward the station, the landscape is “chaotically tossed” by gales blowing the new snow. When he returns to have Ethan carry him home, the snow began to fall straight and steady from a sky without wind, in a soft universal diffusion more confusing than the gusts and eddies of the morning” (EF, 17). The narrator gets out of the sleigh and leads the horse through the snow until they come to Ethan’s house, all winded by the bitter cold and the heavy walking.” Even when we return in a flashback to the young Ethan, the chapter opens with the village lay under two feet of snow” (EF, 20).
We enter Ethan’s history in medias res, just as we have earlier entered the narrator’s life when he is middle-aged and passing through. Because of the imagination of the narrator, and because he has both a discerning eye and a love of nature, we know more, or at least we think we know more, of Ethan’s early environment than if we had to rely on any of Stark-field’s inhabitants to tell us the story directly. We know that even when times were better, some things remained the same—the ubiquitous snow of the frame story, for example. In the flashback young Ethan is seen looking in the church, standing outside in a “complete absence of atmosphere,” with the white earth under his feet and the metallic dome overhead” (EF, 21). Contrasting with the frigidity of Ethan’s external world is the scene inside, a room “seething in the midst of heat” (EF, 22), a room that contains Mattie, the girl who has brought heat into his life.
The snowy chill of Starkfield, the blistery winter of the interior story, is the bleak backdrop for the entangled relationships and serves as a foreshadowing of tragedy. When Mattie leaves the church with Ethan, she relinquishes the warmth of the dance to walk back toward their house, down a hemlock-shaded lane, passing a gloomy sawmill, moving through “grey and lonely” country. A farmhouse stands “mute and cold as a grave-stone.” The frozen snow crackles under their feet. Unremittingly, the snow, ice, and sleet twist Ethan’s plans and ultimately become the instrument of his destruction. His mare slips on ice and delays his trip to the village to buy glue; then the logs are coated with sleet, making them doubly difficult to load, and Ethan must give up the trip altogether. After dinner he does get to the village and hopes to beat Zeena home, only to have the sleet and rain delay him again. When Ethan must take Mattie to the train, the setting mirrors his emotions. Instead of taking the direct route to Starkfield, Ethan goes up Bettsbridge road toward Shadow Pond. It is a fantasy trip, and derisively the scenery mocks his vision: “The lane passed into a pine-wood with boles reddening in the afternoon sun and delicate blue shadows on the snow. As they entered it the breeze fell and a warm stillness seemed to drop from the branches with the dropping needles. Here the snow was so pure that the tiny tracks of wood animals had left on it intricate lace-like patterns, and the bluish cones caught in its surface stood out like ornaments of bronze” (EF , 112). But the setting is infused with the same dull melancholy that Ethan felt in his heart.” All warmth is in the past, a memory of a single summer afternoon where Ethan had joined Mattie at a picnic on this spot and had found her lost locket. Now there is only a “fallen tree-trunk half submerged in snow” (EF, 113).
Mattie’s and Ethan’s brief stop at Shadow Pond en route to their separation is a dream-vision—one that Ethan is reluctant to relinquish. The dream goes with the setting of the sun, and the pine boles change from the red of hope and warmth to gray reality. Ethan and Mattie move toward their fateful ride. The sky is swollen with clouds, and Ethan’s eyes are also clouded.
The flashback history of Ethan over, the narrative returns to the present, and the narrator begins to allay Mrs. Hale’s fears that he had been buried in a snow drift in what was the worst blizzard of the winter. On this worst night of the year, the narrator has descended into his hell of cold and snow and has been resurrected with a new understanding of the meaning of the whiteness. Melville tells us in Moby Dick that there “lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood… [Whiteness] heightens that terror to the furthest bounds.” And again, “as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; it is for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a landscape of snows-a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink.”1
Like Melville’s white world, Ethan and the narrator’s is a world of numbing emotional deadness, of cold, of stark, all-consuming isolation, of granite outcroppings. It is hardly the Berkshire country described by Henry Ward Beecher as the “Lake District of America.” Nor is it the spring thaws of Jewett, where even in a story entitled “The Town Poor,” the atmosphere is quite different. The constrasts are striking.
Jewett’s characters, two women who are out visiting, also come upon people whose fortunes are reversed. The two poor women are living on the charity of the town, in a garret room in an isolated farmhouse:
The four cups were not quite full of cold tea, but there was a clean old tablecloth folded double, and a plate with three packs of crackers neatly piled, and a small—it must be owed, a very small—piece of hard white cheese…. Then there was a silence, and in the silence a wave of tender feeling rose high in the hearts of the four elderly women. At this moment the setting sun flooded the poor plain rooms with light; the unpainted wood was all of a golden-brown, and Ann Bray, with her gray hair and aged face, stood at the head of the table in a kind of aureole.2
The story concludes with the two visitors vowing to make amends for the isolation of the two sisters and reaffirming the community’s obligation to the poor. No such good fortune awaits Ethan; nor does he have the “refinement of character and self respect” so integral to Jewett’s more benign New England. Melville’s grim understanding of the absence of color haunts the story, and Jewett’s warm, caring New England is not here.
Ethan Frome, then, is a story of cold, of snow, of a rock-hard existence. The setting becomes a metaphor for the limited possibilities of Ethan’s physical and emotional life. It is a story of frozen passion locked in crippled bodies and devastated minds. But more than mere cold, the setting also captures the pervasive isolation of the citizens of Starkfield. As in most small towns, the inhabitants of Starkfield all know each other. The narrator also assures us that if we had spent even a brief time there we would also find the post office, and then Ethan. We would have asked who he was, and everyone would have known. Yet in Starkfield, acquaintance does not mean community. The inhabitants are not the idealized extended family. Mrs. Hale does go to visit the Fromes—and they were at one time good friends—but now she goes only twice a year. The narrator comes in to the village and quickly learns that he will always be only on the periphery of any real understanding of the inhabitants and that his understanding of the people and place will have to be drawn from scraps of information and his own inferences. He is a connection to the outside world—and his daily trips to the station emphasize this—but his journeys to and from are passed largely in silence. He rides with Ethan two hours a day for five days, but they exchange few words. (Certainly the story would have been a brief one had Ethan narrated it.) The narrator acts as our guide into the cold world, but what he sees does little to dispel our geographic chill.
The persuasive isolation of Ethan’s environment is also marked in ways other than by the weather. Thomas Hardy in Desperate Remedies voices the belief that “there’s a backward current in the world, and we must do our utmost to advance in order just to bide where we be.” Ethan works as hard as he can, but the current is too strong. He notes that “we’re kinder side-tracked here now.” The railroad, a symbol in the development of America for connection, community, and communication, has just the opposite effect on Ethan’s life. Before the railroad was built through to the Flats, people passed in front of Ethan’s house. To the old Mrs. Frome’s good fortune, when they were mending the railroad, Harmon Gow brought his stage by her place, and she had a reason for moving out of herself, at least to get down to the gate to see him. After the road was mended and the railroad built, Mrs. Frome had nothing to draw her out, and nobody came. She never could fully understand why the visits stopped, “and it preyed on her right along until she died.” Ethan attributes the worst of his mother’s troubles to the coming of the railroad, and his troubles parallel his mother’s: his mother sickens, Zeena comes to nurse; his mother dies, Ethan marries Zeena. With brilliant irony, Wharton turns the coming of the railroad, historically the advent of mobility and expansion, into a catalyst for isolation and despair.
Ethan’s situation is also a bitterly wry comment on other aspects of the American dream. Just as the railroad does not bring him wealth and escape, neither does Ethan inherit the upward mobility that is theoretically the American birthright. Instead of an ever-expanding farm, the deserved result of Ethan’s endless labor, Ethan’s house is losing to the current. The narrator first sees the house, and we are told that “the snow has ceased, and a flash of watery sunlight exposed the house on the slope above us in all its plaintive ugliness. The black wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped from the porch, and the thin wooden walls, under their worn coat of paint, seemed to shiver in the wind that had risen with the ceasing of the snow” (EF , 15). It is one of those “lonely New England farm houses that make the landscape lonelier” (EF , 15).
Ethan notes that the house was bigger in his father’s time, but he has had to take down the L (we are never told why). Loss of the L is more than relinquishing closed space; the narrator tells us that an L often serves as the very heart of a house. Moreover, it protects the inhabitants from the harsh winter mornings, as they face their morning’s work. Ethan’s protection from the snow has been given up, and the cold of the climate has come inside.
The inside of Ethan’s house offers little contrast to the barren outside. The kitchen is cold, requiring that inhabitants huddle near the stove. The furniture is rough wood, the furnishings sparse: Three coarse china plates and a broken-nosed milk jug had been set on a greasy table scored with knife-cuts, and a couple of straw-bottomed chairs and a kitchen dresser of unpainted pine stood meagerly against the plaster walls” (EF, 128).
The food is equally unpalatable—the remains of a “cold mince pie in a battered pie dish.” The women blend well with the surroundings. Zeena is wearing a slatternly calico wrapper and has a broken comb in her thin grey hair. Her skin is sallow; her eyes “reveal nothing and reflect nothing.” Mattie is also bloodless and shriveled, amber skinned rather than sallow, her hair also grey. Her eyes, rather than blank, have a bright witchlike stare. Her body has a limp immobility. Even the hearth fire has gone out. The American dream has vanished.
Wharton’s use of a setting here has often been called too heavyhanded, obvious, and unremittingly bleak. There is little question that if one reads the frame alone, the charges have some validity. But the cold squalor of Ethan’s later life gains poignancy through the relief we are offered by the story itself; the pain of his existence is intensified by our knowledge of what has been. Before the L was lost, Ethan’s environment was sparse but not desolate.
Wharton, then, skillfully uses the New England winter as a metaphor for Ethan’s life, both past and present. We are never allowed to forget the chill of his life, and the snow creates the physical atmosphere for the mental anguish of the story. Other elements in the scenery are also used symbolically. Trees, for example, figure prominently, and not only as the ultimate instrument for destruction. We are told early on that the elm is dangerous and should be cut down. Ruth and Ned were nearly the victims: “Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum came just as near running into the big elm at the bottom. We were all sure they were killed” (EF, 35). The prediction of danger proves to be despairingly correct. But in addition to the most obvious use of the elm, references to other natural objects build a pattern of imagery that defines the freedom and passion of Mattie and Ethan when they are outside versus the stifling morality and deadness they suffer when they are inside the house. For example, two black Norway spruces provide the setting for the lovers’ passion and their subsequent death pact. When they join each other, often after the church social, they stand “together in the gloom of the spruces, an empty world glimmering about them wide and grey under the stars” (EF , 34). Though unspoken, their mutual passion is intense, and the dark spruces provide the shelter for their feelings: “It was so dark under the spruces that he could barely see the shape of her head beside his shoulder. He longed to stoop his cheek and rub it against her scarf. He would have liked to stand there with her all night in the blackness” (EF, 34).
Later in the story, in Chapter 9, they again stand together, and though only three days have passed, their love has moved from inarticulated feelings to avowals of passion. Ethan guides Mattie toward the Norway spruces (EF , 120), and they realize that this is the place where Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum had kissed each other, a sight Ethan had happened upon just after Andrew Hale had turned down his request for the money that would have freed him to go with Mattie. Ethan’s initial telling of the incident under the spruces, done on the one evening they spend alone together, does not move them into the intimacy Ethan had hoped for, but this time the mention of the kiss acts as a catalyst for Mattie’s own feelings, and she kisses Ethan and pleads that they not separate. With the dark spruces silently watching, Ethan and Mattie agree to die together.
Even on the rare occasions when the trees bring cheerful recollections, Ethan sees them as a mockery of his situation. The night he ponders leaving Zeena, his emotions go from exhilaration to despair: first he hopes to leave, then he decides that he will never have the money. He moves to the couch, and tears come to his eyes. As he goes deep into himself and his sorrow, he looks out the window to see a “moon-suffused sky. A crooked-tree branch crossed it, a branch of the apple-tree under which, on summer evenings, he had sometimes found Mattie sitting when he came up from the mill.” But rather than these memories giving relief, they only serve to sharpen the pain: “it seemed as though all the beauty of the night had been poured out to mock his wretchedness” (EF, 99).
Trees of summer are mocking; trees of lovers, equally derisive. Constantly, they are remembrances of things past, reminders of the prison he is in, or foreboding symbols of the destruction to come. The big elm threatens death and does maim. The dark spruces provide shelter for Mattie and Ethan who must hide their love, while providing cool shade for Ruth and Ned who can be open with theirs.
Trees, too, are Ethan’s main source of livelihood—but it is a livelihood of back-breaking labor after the trees have been cut. The phallic implications of the felled trees are very clear, symbolizing the impotence Ethan feels when he is refused immediate payment for the trees, thus cutting off his only avenue of escape. Equally double-edged is the fact that Ethan connects Mattie’s hair, “soft yet springy” as he presses his lips to it, with the “faint woody fragrance of fresh sawdust in the sun” (EF, 107-08). He longs to tell her that her hair “smelt of the woods” (EF, 114). Ethan is to feel the “soft and springy” hair once again at the bottom of the elm.
In conjunction with the tree imagery that is integral to the setting, Wharton also makes skilled use of butterflies, birds, even small animals, to define her characters and weave a complex structure into the story. For example, Wharton connects Mattie and Ethan’s summer happiness with “surprising” a butterfly in the winter woods (EF , 113). When Ethan has to tell Mattie she must go, her lashes “beat his cheek like netted butterflies” (EF, 89).
The bird imagery in the story is even more pronounced. Mattie is associated in Ethan’s mind with the lightness of birds in spring and with his pos-ssibilities for happiness. As Ethan and Mattie are talking about the dangers of the elms, Ethan notes that “the motions of her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird in the branches” (EF, 35), and he ponders his frustration; he has no right to express his feelings, and he can only guess at hers. Like a bird, she is as elusive as his happiness. When they are sharing their evening together, Ethan again associates Mattie and his happiness with her with birds: “her hands went up and down above the strips of stuff, just as he had seen a pair of birds make short perpendicular flights over the nest they were building” (EF, 69). Later, when Zeena has told Ethan that Mattie must leave, and Ethan is walking into Starkfield, all of his surroundings are alive with her presence. Realizing that his world depends on her, he determines to try to do something: “Once, in the stillness, the call of a bird in a mountain ash was so like her laughter that his heart tightened and then grew large; and all these things made him see that something must be done at once” (EF, 103).
What is done, of course, is much different than what Ethan anticipates here. Each of the bird references in the story is followed closely with a reference to Zeena and to Ethan’s ties to her. When the thread of imagery runs to the fateful sleigh ride, Wharton skillfully binds her story together by references not to birds this time but to another helpless creature in the New England winter, field mice. The language Wharton uses to describe the sounds Ethan hears are reminiscent of the bird associations with Mattie—and, one could say, are more appropriate for birds than mice. After the crash, Ethan hears a “small frightened cheep like a field mouse” (italics Wharton’s). Then he registers that the felt rather than heard the twittering.” Moments later he understands that the “twittering came from her lips” (EF, 125).3
References to trees, birds, and mice, therefore, are all image patterns connecting Mattie, and Ethan’s love for her, with the natural freedom of the outdoors. In contrast, and a natural enemy to both birds and mice, is Zeena’s domestic cat. Always inside, it is a sinister presence that continually appears as Zeena incarnate to remind Ethan of his duty and to act as a perverse counter to Ethan’s happiness. The references to the cat are numerous and almost too obvious. The first mention of the cat occurs when Zeena has left to seek another medical opinion, and Ethan and Mattie are looking forward to an evening together. The kitchen scene is one of comfortable well-being, and the cat is dozing in the chair. When Ethan returns in early evening, the cat is still dozing by a bright fire. The symbolism intensifies as Mattie nearly trips over the cat as it rubs against her leg, and Ethan becomes suddenly jealous (EF, 61). Mattie reassures him that he is the source of her good mood, but the mention of Zeena quickly dispels that. The “cat, unbidden, jumped between them into Zeena’s empty chair,” and the connection is broken. The presence of the cat, next described as “greedy,” quickly throws a pall over their brief happiness and becomes a catalyst for their tragedy: “The cat, unnoticed, had crept up on muffled paws from Zeena’s seat to the table, and was stealthily elongating its body in the direction of the milk-jug, which stood between Ethan and Mattie. The two leaned forward at the same moment and their hands met on the handle of the jug. Mattie’s hand was underneath, and Ethan kept his clasped on it a moment longer than was necessary. The cat, profiting by this unusual demonstration, tried to effect an unnoticed retreat, and in doing so backed into the pickle-dish, which fell to the floor with a crash” (EF, 62).
After supper, the cat continues to plague them and embody Zeena. Mattie first sits in Zeena’s chair, only to realize that she assumes Zeena’s aura when she is in her place; she quickly moves. “The cat, who had been a puzzled observer of these unusual movements, jumped up into Zeena’s chair, rolled itself into a ball, and lay watching them with narrowed eyes” (EF, 66).
The scene before the focus shifts to the cat is one of steadily building, though always unspoken, passion. Ethan and Mattie talk around their day, both independently aware of the warm tensions they share. They discuss briefly Zeena’s attitude toward Mattie, then flee into avoidance, not thinking about it anymore. Ethan builds his courage and continually reaches for the “stuff” Mattie is working on, seeking a physical connection to her. She does not move her head as the emotional currents travel down the material, until the cat jumps to catch a mouse: “The cat had jumped from Zeena’s chair to dart at a mouse in the wainscot, and as a result of the sudden movement the empty chair had set up a spectral rocking” (EF, 70). Ethan’s mood is broken; he returns to the harsh reality of his life, and Mattie feels the shift. Rather than try to reestablish the connection, something both of them realize is hopeless, Ethan begins to put out the fire (both literally and figuratively), and Mattie drags the cat’s bed toward the stove. Zeena has triumphed.
The next morning, Ethan feigns indifference to Mattie in front of Jotham Powell, and this time he throws scraps to the cat, who, instead of purring, is “growling at the weather” (EF, 73). But Ethan has symbolically made his choice. The next scene appears derisively calm. The table is carefully laid, the fire is burning, and the cat is dozing; but Zeena is home.
We next see the cat after Zeena has told Ethan that Mattie must leave. Ethan returns to the kitchen, and the cat, which had been curled up on Mattie’s lap, leaps away and abandons Mattie, in favor of Zeena. The cat ingratiates itself now with Zeena, and Zeena throws it a scrap of meat from her plate (EF, 91), imitating the exact gesture Ethan had made when he had been pretending indifference to Mattie in front of Jotham.
The cat continues to be the structural connection throughout this crucial scene. Ethan and Mattie are in a desperate dance of desolation over their impending separation, the kitchen warmth only exacerbating their pain. Zeena leaves to look for medicine, and the cat returns to its fateful place in Zeena’s rocking chair, assuring the couple of Zeena’s presence even in her absence. Zeena returns to the room with the broken pickle-dish, and Ethan, with more truth than he knows, blames the destruction on the cat trying to catch a mouse that had been in the kitchen all last evening. Zeena credits the cat with intelligence but not enough to repair the broken dish. Mattie confesses, Zeena cruelly berates, Ethan retreats.
As the moment for Mattie’s departure draws nearer and nearer, Zeena’s behavior with her cat continues to reinforce the sense of her determination and, by association with Ethan’s parallel gestures, his corresponding lack of it. Zeena gets up on the morning of Mattie’s departure full of “unusual alertness and activity” (EF, 101). She feeds the cat, once again with leftover scraps, this time symbolically from the pie that Mattie had baked. When we last see Zeena before Ethan leaves to take Mattie to the station, she is in her rocking chair by the stove, a place she settles into after feeding the cat. When she reappears, almost 24 years later, the cat is gone; the battered pickle-dish remains.
The presence of the cat, then, is an important structural device for the story. While associated with warmth and well-being when on Mattie’s lap, it is only a temporary resident there. It is Zeena’s cat and is Zeena’s essence. When Ethan throws it food, he does so deliberately to feign indifference to Mattie. Its sudden movement causes the dish to break and becomes the vehicle for catching Ethan in a lie. It chases a mouse and causes Zeena’s chair to rock, recalling her presence and foreshadowing the crippled mouselike figure that wakes at the bottom of the elm.
Wharton has numerous other image patterns in the story, less dominant than the cat-mouse imagery. Flowers and plants, for example, though usually a symbol of bountifulness and nature’s replenishment, in this novel of “granite outcroppings” only serve to emphasize the harshness of the land and of the lot of the people on it. When Ethan walks Mattie home, aglow with the warmth of her presence, his euphoria, his feeling of walking “as if they were floating on a summer stream” (EF, 38), is broken as he approaches the house and sees that a “dead cucumber-vine dangled from the porch like the crape streamer tied to the door for a death” (EF, 39). Ethan quietly wishes it were a wreath for Zeena and has a vision of her corpselike, her mouth open, her teeth out, as he walks by the “rigid gooseberry bushes” and tries to find a key into his own barren house.
Geraniums, too, figure prominently as reflections of the personalities of the two women in Ethan’s life and are always noted in the presence of the cat, Zee-na’s surrogate. When aligned with Mattie, they underscore Ethan’s happiness with her: “The sun slanted through the south window on the girl’s moving figure, on the cat dozing in a chair, and on the geraniums brought in from the door-way, where Ethan had planted them in the summer to ‘make a garden’ for Mattie” (EF, 50).
Later, Mattie and Ethan are enjoying their evening together, while the cat is “watching them with narrowed eyes,” the “faint sharp scent of the geraniums mingled with the odors of Ethan’s smoke” (EF, 66). However, the “sharp scent” turns increasingly sour, as Mattie, now depressed that the evening is over, moves the cat’s bed and lifts “two of the geranium pots in her arms, moving them away from the cold window. He followed her and brought the other geraniums, the hyacinth bulbs in a cracked custard bowl and the German ivy trained over an old croquet hoop” (EF, 71). What had been a pleasant summer garden now becomes the winter of their discontent.
After Zeena has returned from her trip, the setting is the same, but the scene is much different. With the cat in the rocking chair, the “heat of the fire was beginning to draw out the faint sharp scent of the geraniums” (EF, 92), recalling their former evening of joy. But now, Ethan and Mattie are clinging together desolately, and Ethan is dragging himself wearily to his feet, as Zeena returns with the broken pickle-dish.
When Mattie is packed and leaving, Zeena makes the final comment on the underlying symbolism of the flowers. Walking over to the window, she snips two or three yellow leaves and comments, “Aunt Mar-tha’s ain’t got a faded leaf on ’em; but they pine away when they ain’t cared for” (EF, 102). Ethan’s careful planting and his and Mattie’s moving them away from the window could not protect them from Zee-na’s withering touch.
Another integral part of the symbolic scenery of the novel is the object of the cat’s destruction, the pickle-dish. Pickles, which come from cucumber vines, reminding us of Ethan’s crape streamer, with their connotations of shriveled sourness are first mentioned by Zeena when she asks Mattie to save her empty medicine bottle and get the taste out of it for pickles (EF, 49). With more prescience than she knew, Aunt Philura Maple had given Ethan and Zeena a red glass pickle-dish for their wedding. Sadly, Zeena cherishes it in the only the way she knows how, by putting it on top of the china closet, out of reach, and out of harm’s and life’s way. Like the rest of her soured and stifled life, she only takes it down during spring cleaning, and then she “always lifted it with my own hands ‘so’s’ t shouldn’t get broke” (EF, 93).
Mattie, conversely, has not lived her life on a shelf and, even while knowing she is touching forbidden fruit, takes the dish down to make a special table for Ethan. When the cat knocks the dish off, Mattie realizes immediately the importance of the breakage, while Ethan, significantly, does not even remember that the dish was a wedding gift. Ethan replaces the dish, broken but fragilely pieced together, and reassures Mattie that he has a plan for fixing it. He will get glue and repair it tomorrow, trust that Zeena will not notice it until next spring cleaning or at least for several months, and in the meantime will find a replacement in Shadd’s Falls or Bettsbridge. Like all of his other dreams, this one too is fated to fail, and even more painfully so since he comes so close. He gets the glue but only after going to several stores, a delay that costs him the opportunity to repair it before Zeena returns. Zeena, looking for powders for her illness (again linking medicines with the pickles), finds the broken dish and, pathetically explaining its significance to her, links its fate with that of Mattie. Holding the shattered dish, she makes it a symbol for the wreckage of her life and what she intuitively knows is the loss of Ethan to Mattie: “‘You’re a bad girl, Mattie Silver, and I always known it. It’s the way your father begun, and I was warned of it when I took you, and I tried to keep my things where you couldn’t get at em—and now you’ve took—from me the one thing I cared for most of all.’ She broke off in a short spasm of sobs that passed and left her more than ever like a shape of stone” (EF, 94). The “shape of stone,” like the granite outside, carries the broken glass out of the room “as if she carried a dead body.”
The sexual significance of the pickle-dish also cannot be ignored. In his excellent analysis of the meaning of the dish, Kenneth Bernard argues that the dish is emblematic of Ethan’s and Zeena’s sexual life (Bernard, 178-84). The dish is Zeena’s most prized wedding gift. She relegates it to ceremonial, not functional use. She has never yet found the occasion for ceremony. Mattie uses the pickle-dish, with its phallic contents, and it gets broken, never to be the same again. Zeena, understanding this intrusion for the irrevocable sacrilege that it is, cries out her own loss but never accepts the blame. For Zeena, the source of the sterility of her marriage will always lie in other people. She, in giving the empty medicine jar to Mattie to use for pickles, symbolically, albeit unwittingly, passes her sexuality on to Mattie—but Ethan’s impotence makes the gesture a useless, broken one. The cucumber vine at the entrance to Zeena and Ethan’s house is indeed a very dead one.
The red pickle-dish, then, when used by Mattie symbolizes life, vitality, warmth, security; in Zeena’s hand it is repression, distance, covetousness, manifested in cold glass. This symbolic contrast of the two women is used by Wharton in several other image patterns throughout the novel. The red of the pickle-dish, which only comes to life with Mattie, is clearly Mattie’s color. Ethan can easily discern which of the church dancers she is by the “cherry-colored” fascinator on her head (EF, 23). Or, when they arrive home that night to meet the resentful Zeena, Mattie has the “colour of the cherry scarf in her fresh lips and cheeks” (EF, 40). On the evening of her arrival, she had first appeared with a ribbon at her neck, eliciting a sarcastic stare from Zeena (EF, 58). Mattie also wears a streak of crimson ribbon the night of her dinner with Ethan; the ribbon “transformed and glorified her.” At the only other time of real happiness for the couple, the summer picnic, Mattie has on a pink hat; and on her moving day, during the sleigh ride, Mattie has on her red scarf. At all the major events of their courtship—the meeting, the picnic, the dinner, the last ride—Mattie has on red; Zeena by contrast wears ugly yellow flannel (EF, 42). When the narrator sees the two women more than 20 years later, Zeena is still in a “slatternly calico wrapper.” Mattie’s red ribbons are gone; her hair is grey.
The gray hair that Mattie and Zeena share at the end of the novel is a blending of the color patterns that have appeared throughout the story. Always there is a contrast between the light, bright, hot, red world of Mattie, and the grey, dull, cold world of Zeena and Starkfield. The opening paragraph of the internal story sets this stage: “The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations” (EF, 20). What could offer the clarity of black and white in Ethan’s world always blends to grey. The black shade of the Varnum spruces becomes grey under the stars (EF, 34). The open country stretches “grey and lonely under the stars” as Ethan and Mattie wind their solitary way homeward (EF, 37). As Ethan looks out the window on Mattie’s last day, he sees the grey fields (EF, 100).
It is this greyness that permeates all of Ethan’s environment and reflects his inability to see clearly or act decisively. The opaqueness turns to clear black only when Ethan and Zeena first openly express their anger. As Ethan lights the candle in his bedroom, “Zeena’s face stood grinning out against the uncur-tained pane, which turned from grey to black.” But the clarity is too late, the habits of inertia too strong, the implications of this anger too terrifying to face. The greyness wins; Zeena and Mattie are blended together when the narrator meets them, Zeena with “her thin grey hair … drawn away from a high forehead,” and Mattie, “her hair as grey as her companion’s, her face as bloodless and shriveled” (EF, 127).
The grey atmosphere of Starkfield is occasionally broken by red dawns and hearth fires, but rather than warmth and hope they offer only a disdainfully ironic comment on Ethan’s life. The “cold fires of Orion” outline the dimensions of Ethan’s dilemma, as his existence seems stifled by the oxymoron that is his life. Standing outside the church, Ethan can only observe the “volcanic fires” of the heaving dancers. Mattie’s coming to his house is “like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth.” Ethan and Mattie return from the dance to a fire that has been out long ago; it becomes warm and inviting again only when Ethan and Mattie are alone before it. When the narrator is invited into Ethan’s kitchen, the fire is out, and Mattie is whining about the cold.
Just as the hearth fire promises only illusionary warmth, so the sun gives little consolation. The sunset is “cold red” (EF, 26). The sun does rise bright in the sky, and Mattie’s face becomes a part of the sun’s red, but her reflection only intensifies the lonely helplessness Ethan feels. Finally, he awakes after his night of mourning for Mattie, and the chill of the winter dawn is in the room—the red sun is on the grey rim of the fields, rising on what is to be Mattie’s last day (EF, 99-100).
Watching over all of Ethan’s world is another recurring symbol that Wharton uses to comment on Ethan: Orion. Already noted is the reference to Orion’s cold fires, and it is Orion that Ethan explains to Mattie as he subconsciously courts her on their walks together: “That’s Orion down yonder; the big fellow to the right is Aldebaran, and the bunch of little ones—like bees swarming—they’re the Pleiades” (EF, 26). Orion is an apt symbol for Ethan, with its connotations of failure and lost dreams. Ethan’s guardian star, according to mythology, was originally a great hunter, a young man of huge stature and impressive beauty. He fell in love with the daughter of the king of Chios. The king promised him his daughter but kept delaying the match until Orion, frustrated and drunk, attacked the maiden. For his rashness he was blinded, but his sight was later restored by the rays of the sun. Another element of the myth has Orion pursuing the Pleiades, the daughters of Atlas, but always being thwarted. Zeus took pity on the women and made them stars. Orion, as a constellation, has persistently continued his unsuccessful chase.
Aldebaran, the second star Ethan mentions, is equally foreboding. While it is the brightest star in the constellation Taurus, it also follows the Pleiades in useless pursuit. To complete the ominous star pattern, Wharton also has Ethan look straight into the heavens immediately after the crash and vaguely try “to reckon whether it was Sirius,” the brightest star in the sky and the dog star who celestially follows the ill-fated Orion.
Orion and his followers, then, form a symbolic cluster that overshadows Ethan’s life. He describes them to demonstrate his learning to Mattie, with a poignant echo of his thwarted hopes for an education. Orion is his guardian as Ethan looks into the church that bright winter night (the time when the constellation is most prominent), once again an observer to the possibilities within; and Sirius stares at the maimed bodies at the front of the elm. In a deft touch Wharton ties the fate of the constellation to the fate of the lovers by naming Mattie’s father Orion, whose failure and death bring Mattie to the Frome farm in the first place. Mattie and Ethan are indeed star crossed.
Mattie, Ethan, and Zenobia also have significant names. Mattie’s name is the feminine of the Hebrew name Matthew, literally “gift of Jehovah”—exactly what Ethan sees her presence in his life to be. Zeno-bia, by contrast, derives from the Latin meaning, “pertaining to Jupiter” or Zeus. According to legend, she was the daughter of Zeus. She was also a third-century queen of Palmyra who conquered Egypt. Her ambition outran her prudence, and she was defeated and brought as a prisoner to Rome. Her name has now become a symbol of ruthless arrogance. Ethan’s own name is bitingly ironic. Like Mattie’s, it comes from the Hebrew and means “firmness and strength”—the two qualities that could have given Ethan his “gift from Jehovah.”
Last names, too, are emblematic: Ethan’s “Frome” reminds us of Ethan’s need to escape, to be “from” Starkville but not “in” the bleak town. Zeena is aptly from the Pierce family, a name connoting sharpness and wounding. Mattie, of course, is Silver—twinkling, promising, sparkling. Again, the underlying irony enhances the tragedy.
Wharton uses all of these symbols to weave a tight structure for her story, holding together the disparate characters and strengthening the sense that they are inescapably entangled in a tragic web where every attempt at escape is only a fierce struggle that further entangles, further traps. Ethan wants to go to school, to escape the boredom of Starkfield; his mother’s illness and death rein him in. Mattie offers him a glimpse of what could be, only to become what might have been. The narrator sees what is and will be until the principals are dead.
Helge Normann Nilsen (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Nilsen, Helge Normann. “Naturalism in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.” In Performances in American Literature and Culture: Essays in Honor of Professor Orm Øverland on His 60th Birthday, edited by Vidar Pedersen and Eljka Švrljuga, pp. 179-88. Bergen, Norway: University of Bergen, 1995.
[In the following essay, Nilsen reflects upon how the literary theory of naturalism may have informed Wharton’s creation of Ethan Frome.]
Both as a theory about reality and a literary practice, naturalism presents a materialistic and agnostic world view. As a philosophic doctrine it has been defined
as the theory that the whole of the universe or of experience may be accounted for by a method like that of the physical sciences, and with recourse only to the current conceptions of physical and natural science; more specifically, that mental and moral processes may be reduced to the themes and categories of the natural sciences. It is best defined negatively as that which excludes everything distinctly spiritual or transcendental.
(Baldwin 1960, 137-38)
In other words, nothing exists but physical matter, movement and change without human meaning or end. Life itself is a chance product of the environment. The world, society, human beings, events; all can be explained in terms of material causes and conditions. Mechanistic determinism reigns, and the various kinds of social and moral con-ditioning that people are subject to are also a type of observable, determining forces.
The fiction of Edith Wharton is strongly colored by this world view. Her friend Egerton Winthrop intro-duced her at an early age to the thinkers whose works lay behind the naturalistic movement in literature. In this way she was introduced to
the extraordinary world of Darwin and Spencer, Huxley and Haeckel. It was to Winthrop that she owed such understanding as she reached not only of the theory of evolution, but of the naturalist theory of the implacable power of the environment. Those fictional figures of hers who struggle pathetically and unsuccessfully against their stifling surroundings are belated offspring of the tutelage of Egerton Winthrop.
(Lewis 1957, 56-57)
Later in her life Wharton visited churches and seemed to harbor religious sentiments:
Those who had known her from old in tight possession of another doctrine, her brain swept clear of any cobwebs of mystification, in all the severity of her rationality—it was natural for them, marking these signs of change, to take them as betokening a slipping and sliding of her assurance that could only end in one way, at one point of rest.
(Lubbock 1969, 235)
The point of rest refers to Christianity, but Lubbock insists that Wharton, in spite of having tender sentiments towards churches, never abandoned her naturalistic world view.
In her fiction she takes mechanistic determinism as her starting point and sets about demonstrating how the theory works in practice, what happens to her characters and the reasons why. Her approach is in keeping with the theory of the experimental novel developed by Zola, the father of naturalism. Here, the novelist works like a scientist, introducing characters into a given physical environment and “observing” what happens to them. Under the chosen conditions a set of outcomes, usually tragic, are shown to be inevitable. In Ethan Frome Wharton may concern herself more with the presence and influence of nature than Zola would have done, but the method is the same. Given their time, place and circumstances, the characters in the novella cannot avoid their fate. In classic naturalistic, pessimistic fashion they become victims who cannot control their own lives. The plot itself is deterministic, and effect follows cause in an unbroken downward curve ending in disaster. The characters may have a free will in principle and be differently equipped for the struggle for survival, but they are ultimately subject to the workings of outside forces and not free agents in any meaningful sense.
In addition to determinism it has been suggested that three features are essential to a definition of American literary naturalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These are survival, violence and taboo (Walcutt 1956, 20 ff.). The Darwinian survival struggle is represented in the muted but fierce battle of wills between Ethan and his semi-invalid wife Zeena. As for violence, it does not occur on the personal level, but is very much present in nature. Impersonal forces and blind chance are violent in themselves, as seen in the upheavals of nature and climate and in the catastrophic sledding accident at the end. Taboos are broken, though not in the most typical naturalistic way of describing the squalid and seamy sides of life. Wharton’s coolly disillusioned presentation of nature and life is a different, but quite as shocking violation of the Victorian taboo on atheism and agnosticism.
Carefully observing cause and effect, the author assembles the evidence and builds her case. Three forces dominate: the natural, the economic and the social, and Wharton demonstrates how her characters have no hope of rising above their circumstances. The first chapter opens with a paragraph that sets the tone for the whole story, presenting the overwhelming impact of nature in winter:
The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.
The harsh climate oppresses people and limits their options severely. The universe itself is neutral or hostile towards human concerns, as suggested by the imagery of iron, ice and cold. In relation to this, the activities and lives of mere human beings become insignificant and pathetic. The destinies of the main characters illustrate perfectly Wharton’s somber vision. Moreover, her determinism embraces all of the characters, also those who might be regarded as winners in the Darwinian struggle. The young Dennis Eady is the son of a successful grocer and stands to inherit a thriving business, but the story also contains a glimpse of him as an old man. In the end he, like everyone else, will succumb to old age and death. The author’s emphasis is never on freedom or choice, but always on limitations and constraints.
In a tale such as this the plot demonstrates the inexorable march of cause and effect. It originates in the struggle for self-preservation of Zeena when she realizes that she may lose her husband to Mattie, a young woman and relative who lives with them and helps with the housework. This plot, driven by Zeena’s indomitable will, is hinted at in the beginning when we are told that she is the one who has suggested that Mattie should go to church dances. Zeena’s motive here is that the girl thus might meet a man and no longer be around to tempt Ethan.
Zeena’s strategy for getting rid of her rival and keep her provider is skillful and decisive. Her arguments appear to be reasonable and well-founded when she maintains that Mattie is too inexperienced to do the housework properly. She also points out that she cannot trust the girl to take care of her because she may marry Dennis Eady and leave the Frome farm. Zeena is a hypochondriac who uses her illnesses, real or imagined, to further her own interests. That her sickness is largely imaginary becomes evident after Ethan’s and Mattie’s accident, when she turns out to be stronger than one would have expected. From the start she has made up her mind about Mattie and has arranged for a new, hired girl to take her place. The two others, who fall in love with each other, are taken by surprise and are outmaneuvered.
Zeena’s meanness is very real, but Wharton makes it clear that she cannot really be blamed for securing her own interests, given her situation, with no other means of support except her husband. This is in keeping with the general situation for women at the time. The alternatives for Zeena are unthinkable: destitution and charity. As for Mattie, she has to rely on the goodwill of relatives and ends up as an unpaid maid in Zeena Fromes’s household. Both women are victims of the traditional female role, which the story shows as another burden or determining force.
Wharton’s dramatic irony is an important vehicle for the expression of her pessimism. When Zeena goes away to Bettsbridge to see a new doctor, the arrival of Mattie’s replacement, the hired girl, is imminent, but Ethan and Mattie are blissfully unaware of this fact. The happy evening that the two spend together in the house is only a moment in a fool’s paradise, serving to emphasize the tragedy that follows. The love between them is also frustrated because of Ethan’s passivity, scruples and misplaced conscience. He is no match for Zeena and her scheme of pleading serious illness to gain her ends.
Throughout the story the author keeps contrasting Ethan’s and Mattie’s hopes for love and joy with the implacable forces arraigned against them. Together they appreciate the beauty of nature and enjoy walking home after a church dance. But the world around them is not very promising: “They stood together in the gloom of the spruces, an empty world glimmering about them wide and grey under the stars” (85). Even more eloquently, the headstones in the little Frome graveyard mock Ethan’s aspirations. They seem to tell him that his efforts are futile, that he will never get away from or manage to change his circumstances for the better. He is indeed trapped, like those who have gone before him.
In a similar way, Zeena herself assumes the proportions of an unavoidable fate blocking his way as she stands in the doorway, a forbidding presence for the two lovers arriving at the house this winter night:
Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast, while the other held a lamp. The light, on a level with her chin, drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wristbone of the hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face under its ring of crimping-pins.
The presence and influence of this deceptively frail woman are just as imposing as nature itself or the existing economic restraints. The ominous nature of her decisiveness is further underlined by the description of the kitchen, which seems like a cold vault, an abode of the dead. These references foreshadow the disastrous denouement of the tale. Wharton also emphasizes the ironic contrast between the beauty of nature and its very real menace to human well-being and happiness. The next day the winter morning is crystal clear, the sun is burning in a pure sky, and the shadows are dark and blue and “beyond the white and scintillating fields patches of far-off forest hung like smoke” (91).
The economic and social determinants are also fateful enough. Mattie has been left penniless after her father died a criminal and a bankrupt and her mother died of the shock and scandal. These events hint at the brutal economic forces at work in early American capitalist society. Mattie has also not received any education that could have enabled her to acquire a decent job. Similarly, Ethan and his mother have been victimized by socio-economic circumstances and illness. His father died in an accident and Ethan had to take over the Frome farm. He was made poor, however, by the fact that his father had become half-mad and had given away his money before he died. When a new railway was laid, the traffic on the road near the farm ceased and an unfortunate isolation was established. As a result, Ethan’s mother became mentally disturbed and stopped talking altogether. When she was dying Ethan’s cousin Zenobia, or Zeena, came to nurse her, and because of his own extreme loneliness caused by the isolation, Ethan appreciated Zeena’s company and talk more than he would have done under normal circumstances. To avoid the total isolation he saw looming ahead during the coming winter months he made his fateful proposal of marriage to Zeena.
Later, Ethan had reflected that this would not have happened if his mother had died in the spring rather than in winter. Thus he also became a victim of chance, or ill luck. The marriage to Zeena turned out to be the main obstacle to the fulfillment of Ethan’s plans and wishes. He wanted to move to a town and become an engineer, but Zeena’s hypochondria and pride made her unwilling to live in a bigger place where she would not be noticed. At the same time it is suggested that she has valid reasons to seek security above all else. Life in a town would mean more opportunities and diversions for her husband, whereas she would have less status and power. In this, as in the problem with Mattie, Zeena knows where her interests lie and acts to secure them. In Starkfield, their small rural community, her many afflictions are admired by the other women, many of whom are also obsessed with illnesses and symptoms.
With Zeena away, Ethan and Mattie plan a happy evening together, and to begin with things go well. However, the cat disturbs them. It seems to represent Zeena in some way, and a fate that is bent on thwarting the two lovers’ intentions. It leaps upon the table, upsetting its mistress’ pickle dish so that it breaks, and then lies in her chair, watching the two lovers through narrowed eyes. Zeena herself is present in the spirit, so to speak, and Mattie begins to feel uncomfortable sitting in Zeena’s chair a while later. At this moment, Ethan experiences an upsetting kind of vision, or image: “It was almost as if the other face, the face of the superseded woman, had obliterated that of the intruder” (107).
After Zeena’s return the battle of wills between the spouses is out in the open. Ethan is made furious by the resolute manner in which Zeena tells him about the impending arrival of the hired girl, and a quarrel ensues. Now the brutal, underlying realities of their relationship are revealed: “Through the obscurity which hid their faces their thoughts seemed to dart at each other like serpents shooting venom. Ethan was seized with horror of the scene and shame at his own share in it. It was as senseless and savage as a physical fight between two enemies in the darkness” (120). In the elemental power struggle the beasts within bare their fangs, and there are echoes in this passage of naturalistic writers like London and Dreiser and their interest in atavism, or regression under stress. In Sister Carrie, for example, Hurstwood is shocked by the icy reaction of his wife after she has learnt of his affair with Carrie and decides to divorce him. She takes both his property and his children, in her eye there is a “cold, steely determination” and she looks at him like “a pythoness in humour” (Dreiser, 238-39). Similarly, Ethan Frome regards his wife with a new fear and distrust, a creature that has been transformed into “a mysterious alien presence, an evil energy secreted from the long years of silent brooding” (123).
The naturalistic knowledge and awareness of the hazards of working-class life are also present in the tale. Gloomily, Ethan contemplates the probable fate of a Mattie left alone to fend for herself:
Despair seized him at the thought of her setting out alone to renew the weary quest for work. In the only place where she was known she was surrounded by indifference or animosity; and what chance had she, inexperienced and untrained, among the million breadseekers of the cities? There came back to him miserable tales he had heard at Worcester, and the faces of girls whose lives had begun as hopefully as Mattie’s.
This passage reminds a reader familiar with American naturalism of, for example, a work such as Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and its heroine’s descent into prostitution and death. These are the realities of Ethan’s world that he has been spared from thinking about till now. But he is awar of them and is determined to save Mattie from such horrors. He thinks of going West with Mattie and starting a new life, but the circumstances are simply too unfavorable. The trap is closing on him, the situation that most Wharton protagonists find themselves in eventually. The author compares him to a handcuffed convict, a man facing imprisonment for life. In view of this it is curious that a prominent Wharton critic should argue that the author “believed that men and women were largely responsible for their own happiness or despair, and that the gods who are supposed to make mischief among us are but figments of our collective imagination” (Wolff 1992, 108). Judging from Ethan Frome and other fictions by Wharton the opposite seems to be the case.
The desperate Ethan, casting about for a way out, decides to ask Mr. Hale, owner of the saw-mill, for a fifty-dollar advance on his lumber delivery. He plans to say that he needs the money because of Zeena’s poor health. However, on his way he meets Mrs. Hale, who speaks kindly to him, and his resolve weakens. His New England scruples put a stop to his plans, and he feels that he is unable either to deceive the Hales or abandon Zeena to her fate. Reversing himself, he has to face reality. He is a poor man whose desertion might spell the end for his wife, and he does not have it in his heart to deceive old friends and neighbors who have always trusted him. The bitter irony is that his conscience, which is supposed to be a force for good, indirectly leads to his and Mattie’s suicide pact at the end of the story and the final, tragic fate that befalls all of the three main characters. Mattie is reduced to a cripple, and Ethan is permanently injured after the fateful collision between their sled and a big elm tree that they believed would end their lives. The bitter ending has occasioned a criticism to the effect that the story is cruel. Wharton is charged with a “limitation of heart” which amounts to a “literary and moral deficiency of her work” (Trilling 1962, 138). But this amounts to blaming the author for the unhappy events that she has described. Her narrative is said to be deficient because it does not make the disastrous fates of its characters mean-iingful in some larger, perhaps metaphysical sense. But Wharton’s point is precisely that no meaningful context is to be found, though this does not mean that her tale lacks such a dimension. It emerges in its awareness of the inequalities and injustices of socioeconomic circumstances.
The ultimate irony of Ethan Frome is that the two unhappy lovers do not even succeed in escaping through death, but live on in a far more miserable state than ever before. Mrs. Hale utters the last words of the novella, suggesting that the three would be better off dead than alive, and this thought is entirely in keeping with the tone of the story. For the Fromes, and many others in similar circumstances at this period in American history, there can be no happiness or fulfillment in life. The naturalistic gloom is unrelieved. At the same time Ethan Frome is in itself a powerful protest against the prevailing socioeconomic conditions of the times. It is a protest regarded as futile, but made despite everything. It is as if Wharton is saying that even if man is a helpless victim, one must yet protest and take a stand against the injustice and indifference of society and the universe.
Baldwin, James M. ed. 1960. Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith.
Dreiser, Theodore. 1969 (1900). Sister Carrie. Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co.
Lewis, R. W. B. 1957. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row.
Lubbock, Percy. 1969 (1947). Portrait of Edith Wharton. New York: Appleton.
Trilling, Lionell. 1962. “The Morality of Inertia.” Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Irving Howe. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice.
Walcutt, Charles C. 1956. American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Wharton, Edith. 1990. Novellas and Other Writings. New York: Viking.
Wolff, Cynthia G. 1992. “‘Cold Ethan’ and ‘Hot Ethan.’” Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. Ed. Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmit. New York: Garland Publishing. 97-114.
Jennifer Travis (essay date autumn 1997)
SOURCE: Travis, Jennifer. “Pain and Recompense: The Trouble with Ethan Frome.” Arizona Quarterly 53, no. 3 (autumn 1997): 37-64.
[In the following essay, Travis examines the nature of the consuming pain manifest throughout Ethan Frome and how readers of Wharton’s era might have reacted to its depiction.]
In an early review of Edith Wharton’s novel, Ethan Frome (1911), critic Edwin Bjorkman describes the novel as “so overwhelming that the modern mind rebels against it as a typical specimen of human experience.”1 The pain it produces in its reader, he suggests, is so profound the reader must read it as something other than itself; she must abstract the experience of the characters into a larger social critique: “if it had no social side, if it implied only what it brought of suffering and sorrow to the partakers in it, then we could do little but cry out in self-protective impatience: ‘Sweep off the shambles and let us pass on!”’ (296). It is the feelings of pain and suffering produced in the novel’s readers, indeed, displayed in the novel itself, that led Lionel Trilling some forty years later to dismiss the then widely popular novel by saying, “I am quite unable to overcome my belief that Ethan Frome enjoys its high reputation because it still satisfies our modern snobbishness about tragedy and pain.”2 Trilling rejects the novel’s public and critical acclaim, at once acknowledging its acute rendering of pain, but nonetheless, remaining unhappy with its effect: “It is terrible to contemplate, it is unforgettable, but the mind can do nothing with it, can only endure it” (139). Indeed, like Trilling, Irving Howe maintained that Ethan Frome, “a severe depiction of gratuitous human suffering in a New England village, is a work meant to shock and depress; it has often been criticized, wrongly, for being so successfully the tour de force Mrs. Wharton meant it to be—that is, for leaving us with a sense of admiration for the visible rigor of its mechanics and a sense of pain because of its total assault upon our emotions.”3 The novel had garnered some praise by critics for its narrative technique, its style, its “mechanics,” but the most urgent concerns to emerge, from the novel’s reception immediately following its publication into the first fifty years of critical dialogue, had to do with the problems of suffering the novel witnessed as well as produced.4
Critical responses shortly following the novel’s publication anticipated the discomfort literary critics like Trilling and Howe would later voice: what, the early critics asked, is the effect of pain and suffering in a literary work? Although Bjorkman had praised the novel, exclaiming, “Mrs. Wharton has passed from individual to social art; from the art that excites to that which incites” (299), other reviewers were not as receptive. In the Bookman, reviewer Frederic Taro cautioned: “It is hard to forgive Mrs. Wharton for the utter remorselessness of her latest volume, Ethan Frome, for nowhere has she done anything more hopelessly, endlessly gray with blank despair.” Taro, foreshadowing Trilling, questioned the end to which this suffering is put, finally concluding that “Art for art’s sake is the one justification of a piece of work as perfect in technique as it is relentless in substance.”5 A critic for the North American Review who was more sympathetic, if not with the novel than with Wharton herself, speculated that “there is a certain inexorableness about Mrs. Wharton, as if she herself were constitutionally opposed to happiness, as if she were somewhat compelled to interpret life in terms of pain.”6
The problem of representing pain had been a problem for literary criticism not only of Ethan Frome but about literature more generally. Perhaps, as Trilling had suggested, pain was quintessential literary subject matter. More recently, Elaine Scarry has described, in The Body in Pain (1985), what she takes to be the intimate relation between pain and the imagination in this way: “pain and imagining are the ‘framing events’ within whose boundaries all other perceptual, somatic, and emotional events occur; thus, between the two extremes can be mapped the whole terrain of the human psyche.”7 If the novel may be considered one terrain in which pain dwells, perhaps then literary criticism could be described as a mapping of this landscape. Indeed, one could trace a cartography of critical response to pain and artistic production back to Aristotle, for whom the pleasure of tragedy, and the paradox of suffering rendered “entertaining,” was a central question.8 The problem posed by Aristotle became, in manifold guises and to differing degrees, the issue posed again and again for those seeking to explain the centrality of pain in art, from Edmund Burke and Nietzsche up to and including some of Wharton’s most vocal critics, Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe. Perhaps the questions about pain and the imagination, questions posed by a long history of writers and theorists, might be summed up by what now seems a familiar observation, one offered by a critic in the Nation, who declared of Wharton’s Ethan Frome : “the wonder is that the spectacle of so much pain can be made to yield so much beauty.”9
Inquiries about the spectacle of pain were not confined to an Aristotelian philosophical tradition, however; such concerns defined a discipline of literary scholarship shortly before the publication of Ethan Frome. The critical reception of the novel, which puzzled over the function of emotional pain, followed a heated dispute within a growing profession of readers questioning the extent and place of the critic’s engagement with the emotions. Although one could argue, as I have suggested, that a critical debate on suffering and artistic production has been part of the reception of Western art throughout its history, I want to highlight, for the moment, a particular juncture in this critical history: the emergence of literary criticism as an institutional discipline, when deliberations about the object of disciplinary study and questions about the status of the emotions were scrutinized.
In his study, Professing Literature (1987), Gerald Graff has characterized the institutional debate over the nature of literary study as one between scholars who advocated a scientific approach to literature (distinguished by its discernment of facts) and an emerg-iing group of critics who campaigned for aesthetics (the subjectively sentient).10 The debate hinged upon a perceived danger among university scholars in the humanities that criticism was moving away from the objective material of empirical fact into the wholly subjective and speculative domain of feeling. In his address as President of the Modern Language Association in 1896, Calvin Thomas strongly advocated for a middle ground between the two. His lecture entitled “Literature and Personality” argued that it was not “a betrayal of the scientific spirit to use one’s judgment,” and concluded that “literary criticism is rightly conceived… as the science of the emotional effects produced by literature.”11 Thomas and his supporters looked to reconcile what was perceived to be the scientific enterprise of the scholar with the aesthetic questions of the critic. Indeed, it was something like the science of affect that Thomas argued the literary critic was becoming trained to discern. As scientists of affect, I would argue, literary scholars, increasingly in competition with social scientists could assert their own import. Literature and science were not only in competition over authority for moral instruction, but also, as several recent critics have noted, over which would “define knowledge itself”12 The literary critic took his role as a scientist of the emotions: one acutely able to ask questions of the interior life and to render emotive issues visible. James Taft Hatfield, President of the Central Division of the Modern Language Association, opened his talk at the 1901 conference in this way: "We may surely congratulate ourselves, not alone as scholars, but also as citizens, that the Modern Language Association of America has united in harmonious and effective cooperation a large majority of the real leaders in important fields of study. Our association is a representative body in the fullest sense of the word; its members show a growing interest in each other’s work, and in the progress of science as a whole.”13 Literary criticism could offer something like a meeting ground for the subjectively sentient and the empirically evident, and it was upon this common territory, according to at least some of these early critics, that a “representative body” of scholars, if not by extension, a nation of citizens, could thrive.
For those literary critics advocating disciplinary redefinition, aesthetic questions affirmed an intimate connection between art, material, and often, in turn, political life: “I hold, then,” concluded Hatfield’s address, “that our first duty and highest function, even as an organization of linguistic specialists, is in relation to the total life of the commonwealth, is political, and that this deep note should be the first sounded at every political gathering: we must place enlightened, trained intellect at the direct service of the state, as the only solvent of the problems of municipal misgovernment, corporate greed, and the tyranny of manual labor.” Perhaps the scientists of affect could effect political life.14 Of course, not every member of the Modern Language Association felt this urgent calling. Bliss Perry, who would go on to write one of the early full-length studies of American literature, took a more moderate view about the potential of “linguistic specialists,” for instance, arguing that: “The study of fiction attests [to] the significance of the mass of conversations, thoughts and feelings, which that art has recorded for us, and indirectly gives witness to the desire of teachers of English to bring their work into relation with life, to make it bear upon the actual.”15 It is precisely around this newly emerging vision critics had of themselves as mediators between the contemporary art of “thoughts and feelings” and their “relation” with political life that, I want to suggest, the critical dilemma surrounding Edith Wharton’s novel takes shape. For critics of Ethan Frome, the rendering of pain and the problem of discerning its “ends” was an intricate puzzle, one in which readers were caught in its unraveling. Whether or not one would agree, for instance, with Trilling’s condemnation of the novel for what he called its advocacy of “the morality of inertia,” the lack of agency for moral decision-making, or whether one subscribes to the more recent psychoanalytic interpretations, it is precisely the reading of pain as a requisite strategy that is of interest, particularly at a time when to be such a reader of pain, I will argue, was quickly becoming a substantive cultural skill.16
The Secularization of Suffering
Ethan Frome acutely renders and continually returns to emotional and bodily pain; it is important to note, therefore, that Ethan’s disfigured body is the tool by which the novel presents suffering. Ethan’s figure, although “but the ruin of a man,” initiates the narrator’s inquiry (and in turn ours) into the dimensions, the conditions, and the domain of suffering; indeed, it is Ethan’s body that is the object of curiosity from the novel’s start: his “lameness check[ed] each step like the jerk of a chain.”17 Yet, that body drops away as a reference point when the story flashes back twenty-four years, and we follow young Ethan hasten “at a quick pace” to meet his wife’s cousin, Mattie Silver (11). It is not, we discover, the elder Ethan’s wounded limbs that form the primary source for his pain. Harmon Gow, a neighbor, early on tells the narrator that “sickness and trouble” have filled Ethan’s plate “since the very first helping” (5). Ethan’s wounded limbs, the reader learns, are the perpetual symbol of wounded feelings, and the problem of long-dormant feeling is at the heart of Ethan’s troubles.
Perhaps Ethan Frome is merely a legacy of its most immediate forbearer, the sentimental novel that made suffering intelligible and pain visible to a mass culture in the United States at mid-century. What, then, is Trilling’s source of anxiety about bad art other than he must contemplate the pain that the novel presents yet cannot manage it? If his criticism relies on an Aristotelian tradition of catharsis, it also emerges from the sentimental novel, which in America took a decidedly moral rather than aesthetic stance with regard to pain (although the dimensions of the suffering presented in the sentimental novel is, as I will discuss, of a different kind).18
Although Trilling and other critics in the mid-twentieth century may not have turned their attentions to the sentimental novel of the mid-nineteenth, sentimental literature provided the most direct con-nnection to what Trilling longed for: a causal link between the “artistic” presentation of pain and its effective relations.19 Such novels, written in the mid-nineteenth century, primarily by women authors, deliberately sought to develop empathy in their readers, to point readers beyond the confines of the novel, instructing their readers in how to live and lead moral lives. Ann Douglas in her well-known critique, Feminization of American Culture (1977), has argued, for example, that such novelists replaced clergy as the voices of moral authority in nineteenth-century America.20 Certainly since Douglas’ evaluation of the sentimental novel, sentimentalism has been a source of extensive critical debate concerning the agency, effect, and influence of these authors and their novels; indeed, the connection between sentimental literature and its “cultural work” has been scrutinized not for its lack of “effect” (the criticism Trilling levels at Wharton) but precisely because of its extensive efficacy in American culture, from its influence in the abolition movement to its contributions to the consumer marketplace. A sentimental novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), for instance, could elicit sympathy for suffering slaves and call its readers into the joint enterprise of feeling (feeling that might result in action).21 At the very least, the sentimental novel helped to demonize bodily pain and punishment, and the master who inflicted them, in the cultural psyche. Richard Brodhead has argued persuasively in “Sparing the Rod,” for example, that the sentimental novel functioned to instill what he calls “disciplinary intimacy” in its readers; reading novels restrained and trained readers in the place of physical punishment.22
Certainly the wide emotive scope envisioned by a novel like Ethan Frome (in which not only the male body, but male feeling and its expression, come to be central), owes some debt to the emotive landscape of the sentimental novel.23 Yet, while the sentimental novel presented bodily suffering as undeserved and often cruel, pain was always explicable to the novels’ readers with recourse to religion, and the figure of ultimate suffering, Jesus.24 If the recompense for suffering in the sentimental tradition was eternal bliss, what accompanies the secularization of suffering, suffering given shape and substance in the realistic novel, must now be a new method of recompense, if not a new structure for the justification of pain.
Readers who were trained in empathy from the pages of the sentimental novel, who first saw others experience pain, indeed, cried on its very pages, were being asked to acquire faculties by which to read pain differently in a novel like Ethan Frome. Whereas the sentimental novel actively solicited readers’ feelings, feelings that had clearly defined objects and subjects for expression, a novel such as Ethan Frome (in which both illicit relations and complex feelings are hidden), relied upon this tradition and departed from it, offering a different kind of engagement for the reader of feeling; this is evidenced in part by the novel’s bewildered critical reception. Yet, even more puzzling than the initial response to the novel is the lack of current critical debate about a novel that has been so widely read by the public. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, one of the few critical voices addressing Ethan Frome, describes it as a reimagination of Wharton’s own troubled relationships told in a different voice, setting, and indeed, gender.25 In Ethan Frome Wharton does place the voice of sentiment in what may seem like a rather unlikely subject: a stout, burley, unsophisticated, male farmer.26 Yet, given this gender reversal, one still might ask how feeling in the novel—feeling that largely had been defined in an American literary and critical tradition by the novel written by women at mid-century—is conveyed by and is central to the project of Wharton’s realistic novel, central to a novelist who self-avowedly sought to distance herself from the sentimental domain of affect.
There can be little doubt that Wharton, at least in part, perceives herself as a mediator of feeling in Ethan Frome; in her introduction to the novel, she refers to herself as just that, a “sympathizing intermediary”: “If he [the author] is capable of seeing all around him, no violence is done to probability in allowing him to exercise this faculty: it is natural enough that he should act as the sympathizing intermediary between his rudimentary characters and the more complicated minds to whom he is trying to present them” (viii). For Wharton, imagining a change in the site of sentiment constitutes not only self-willed autobiographical disguise (as Wolff suggests), but as Edwin Bjorkman’s early review of the novel had implied, it may also socially “incite.” It does so, I want to suggest, by the manner in which it makes the role of the sympathizing intermediary not only a model for writing but a model for reading, and not only about the necessity of understanding but about the duplicities of judgment, and not only for the novel but for the increasingly anonymous and impersonal world beyond its borders.
Reading pain, if not reading pain “wisely,was a matter of growing cultural debate, one in which novel reading played a significant part. Emotion was increasingly the object of literary study in the university by the turn of the century, and yet, unlike the critical reception of the sentimental novel, with its often disparaged mass audience of largely female readers, the emotive in the late nineteenth-century was treated by an emerging group of male literary professionals as a new science, a science built upon the necessity of reading.27 Indeed, realistic literature might solicit feeling not solely through association with the domestic sphere of female sympathies, but by emiting a cognitive crisis of feeling, one which required a new structure to justify pain, and in light of which a whole set of “cures” sprung up in order to alleviate it, from tort law and psychology, to those scientists of the emotions, the literary critics, who would now discern and train others in the reading of feeling. By examining the problems surrounding the subjectively sentient raised by a discipline of readers, by taking Ethan Frome as one such problematic site for working through these issues, I want to extend the critical dilemma of reading and responding to the novel. The dilemma that began just after its publication was reflected in the very professionalization of criticism and the making of a discipline of professional readers. I trace this dilemma to a larger cultural and cognitive point which turns upon just these questions of how to discern the path, the function, and the increasing secularization of suffering in a growing culture of pain.
Fact and Affect: Reading Pain
When we first meet Ethan Frome we are told he seems “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” (5). The novel bears witness to Ethan’s struggle to find a path for sentience to resurface.28 Yet, every time Ethan tries to express his feelings, words seem to betray him; in fact, when he nears some method of realizing his emotion all that comes out is a gruff and unsophisticated assertion. We see this for the first time when Ethan picks Mattie up after the dance and surprises her by remaining hidden while she “rejects” a ride from Dennis Eady. “Ethan had the sense of having done something arch and ingenious. To prolong the effect he groped for a dazzling phrase, and brought out, in a growl of rapture: ‘Come along’” (19). Indeed, Ethan often feels himself on “the brink of eloquence,” and although the reader continually sees him struggling for an effective line to convey his feeling, he always falls short. During Mattie and Ethan’s dinner together, what was to be their long awaited time alone, “after casting about for an effective opening, he took a long gulp of tea, cleared his throat, and said: ‘looks as if there’d be more snow’” (34). It is in Ethan’s relation with Mattie, however, that he first learns the possibility for expression of what is described as his “bliss of feeling” (14). Mattie seems to speak what Ethan feels; her words become his: “words at last had been found to utter his secret soul” (14). But this shared feeling of pleasure is limited to their few long walks outside in the snow—for as we learn, within the Frome household, the relation between Ethan and Zeena is plagued by painful silence: “within a year of their marriage she [Zeena] developed the ‘sickliness’ which had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances…. Then she too fell silent” (30). The problem of the novel, for Zeena, and most acutely for Ethan himself, then, is how feeling is rendered.
Unlike Ethan who struggles with deeply submerged emotions, Zeena’s feelings are continually manifest upon her body; the neglect and anger that the narrative suggests she harbors readily present themselves in her medical symptomology. Likewise, Zeena has a medical vocabulary available to her; it comes through the mail from manufacturers of “patent medicine,” and it allows Zeena to be, in Harmon Gow’s words, “the greatest hand at doctoring in the country” (5). Being “wholly absorbed in her health” (26), more-over, becomes a social occasion for Zeena. She visits Aunt Martha Pierce in Bettsbridge, and she confers with friend Eliza Spears about the skill of certain doctors. Recalling the symptomology of the hysteric, Zeena’s body speaks; it speaks for a seeming want of sympathy, perhaps for a deep wound in her unconscious, but nonetheless, her physical pain is a measure of her mental suffering.29 For Ethan, the attention paid to his wounded body at the beginning and the end of Wharton’s novel is a framing device; it is one meant to draw the reader into an axis of pain and measure of feeling unconfined by the dimensions of his body. Indeed, the narrator directs the reader in-ward early on: “though all had conceded that Ethan Frome’s [troubles] had been beyond the common measure, no one gave me an explanation of the look in his face which, as I persisted in thinking, neither poverty nor physical suffering could have put there” (4). Ethan requires a different vocabulary than Zeena to present and account for his suffering; in fact, he is not even cognizant of his feelings until Mattie seems to speak the words that he discovers have been trapped deep within.
Wharton dramatizes a struggle over the nature, the very texture of pain, particularly through the distinctions continually drawn between the “facts” of Zee-na’s physical ailments and Ethan’s affective struggles: his emotional awakening. Indeed, in the manner the narrator presents the tale to us, the novel assigns its readers the difficult task of discerning “true” pain from “false” pain by focusing on a competition of suffering—the competitive structure of injury—that ensues between Ethan and Zeena. Zeena, as the model of the hysteric, the hysteric who too readily and too easily suffers, is contrasted with Ethan, the stoic silent sufferer. “‘All I know,’” Zeena cautions, ‘“is I can’t go on the way I am much longer. The pains are clear way down to my ankles now’” (27). Zeena is presented in the narrative as vocal and demanding, while Ethan is silent and succumbs. Although it is suggested in the narrative that Ethan’s incapacity to express his pain is at its source a problem, his silent suffering, his disaffection from the excesses of language is also presented as ennobling, particularly in the face of what is described as Zee-na’s “fault-finding,” and her obsessive devotion to “complex ailments” (25). Zeena’s pain is a means of attention-getting, and when she fails to receive it from Ethan upon her return to Starkfield, she becomes determined to dismiss Mattie (27). Indeed, Zeena’s pain-ridden body becomes both the cause and the remedy when Zeena wants to turn Mattie out of the house. Mattie must go so that Zeena can have a “hired girl.” But more than that, Mattie must go so that Zeena can once again command her household and Ethan’s attentions, so that he may feel, as she feels, the full scope of suffering.
The problem of determining who is the novel’s most tragic victim is further dramatized by the secondary characters in the novel, characters who describe the Fromes differently and from whom we have opposing interpretations of the novel’s final “accident” and its outcome. According to Harmon Gow, it is Ethan who always has been caretaker in the Frome house: “I guess it’s always Ethan done the caring” (2). While at the end of the novel, Mrs. Hale, in a keenly ironic moment, claims that it is Zeena who has taken on the burden of care: “Zeena’s done for her [Mattie] and done for Ethan as good as she could. It was a miracle, considering how sick she was—but she seemed to be raised right up just when the call came to her … she’s had the strength given her to care for those two for over twenty years, and before the accident came she thought she couldn’t even care for herself” (76). Of course, the narrator reminds the reader that what appears to Mrs. Hale as Zeena’s sympathy and good-will some twenty-years later is never quite as it seems—“The one pleasure left [Zeena],” the reader is told before the “smash-up,” “was to inflict pain on him” (56). The opposing interpretations about the “accident,” about each Frome’s subsequent claim to pain, suffering, and injury, further serves to complicate our discernment. Readers are finally left contemplating the extent to which Zeena’s miraculous recovery rubs pain into Ethan’s never-healing wounds, enabling an eternity of querulousness rather than what Mattie and Ethan sought in their suicide attempt, an eternity of peaceful silence.
As a model for the reader, and a stranger to the town of Starkfield, the narrator is to piece together a puzzle. He must reconstruct the story of Ethan’s “ruin” from reticent strangers, collecting “the facts” of the case, although as he warns his listeners, these “facts” may not come easily—“Though Harmon Gow developed the tale as far as his mental and moral reach permitted there were perceptible gaps between his facts, and I had a sense that the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps” (2). Staying at Mrs. Ned Hale’s house, the lawyer’s wife, from whom he hoped to acquire some evidence about Ethan Frome, he muses, “I had great hopes of getting from her the missing facts of Ethan Frome’s story, or rather such a key to his character as should coordinate the facts I knew.” What the narrator finds, however, is that “her mind was a storehouse of innocuous anecdote and any question about her acquaintances brought forth a volume of detail; but on the question of Ethan Frome,” she was “unexpectedly reticent” (4). Ethan Frome inspires silence. Thus the narrator’s interest increases not only as a kind of fact finding mission, but by the seeming inexplicable spaces of storytelling by the townspeople; it drives him to find out why Ethan looks as if he suffers so. But as readers learn, the significance of Ethan’s story is also in his own silences. In a culture of complaint and narcissism, in which Mrs. Hale is more than willing to speak to any other subject, and of which Zeena Frome would seem to be Starkfield’s most stunning example, Ethan’s si-llence and the silence about him is both mysterious and seductive. It is this silence that intrigues and consequently entangles the narrator, who notes that Ethan “lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access” (5). Indeed, Ethan’s feeling is, like the facts of his case, buried: “emotion had remained in him as a silent ache” (14). What we learn as the story unfolds is that Ethan’s silent suffering is not merely a condition of a stifling winter burial in snow, but a condition of relative permanence if not continual struggle. It is only when the narrator accompanies Ethan home after a snow storm threatens to bury them both that he believes he finds “the clue to Ethan Frome” (10).
Silence and Substitution
Because the early critical debate about Ethan Frome has focused on the effects of pain and suffering (how it radiates beyond Starkfield and what it reverberates back), little has been written about the method by which pain is materialized in the novel. Much has been made of the circumstances—a simple farmer caught in his forbidden passion for his wife’s cousin—but less often have critics analyzed the path that suffering takes. Even to notice that Ethan as a protagonist might be a displacement of Wharton herself, or that the site of sentiment is gendered male, still doesn’t fully address how pain, the pain that has been the object and subject of analysis, is felt. Zeena, as I have suggested, wears her emotional pain on her body; Ethan buries his feelings in silence, although his body is the object of curiosity encouraging the narrator, and in turn, the reader, to learn more. Certainly bodies in the novel are repeatedly presented as receptacles and registries for the expression of emotions and feelings of deep hurt; this dynamic is its most vivid after the sledding accident toward the end of the novel:
The stillness was so profound that he heard a little animal twittering somewhere near by under the snow. It made a small frightened cheep like a field mouse, and he wondered languidly if it were hurt. Then he understood that it must be in pain: pain so excruciating that he seemed, mysteriously, to feel it shooting through his own body.
In the most striking and tragic moment after Mattie and Ethan’s suicide attempt, Ethan feels his own pain through the “excruciating” noise of what he believes to be a field mouse, a mouse, he soon learns, who is Mattie. He tries “in vain to roll over in the direction of the sound,” and he stretches “his left arm out across the snow” with little success (73). The sound of the “animal’s suffering” he finds “intolerable.” His pain upon hearing her pain is given substance; it becomes real (73). Mattie and Ethan lie buried in the snow unaware that their plans have failed; they have failed to “fetch” the tree that was to bring an end to their separation, their suffering, an end, Ethan thinks, to “feeling” itself (70, 71). Ethan Frome as a novel basks in this failure, in which buried feeling, like their buried bodies, is so intense, it can only wound, and their wounds are most painfully self-inflicted. Trapped like his weighted body after the fall, and trapped by his inability to act upon his feelings, the novel traces Ethan’s struggle to find recourse, an out-let for his desires and his emotions. Indeed, it is the inability of Ethan and Mattie to realize their passion for each other that leads to their failed suicide attempt and to the moment of futile recognition emerging from Ethan’s perception of his own pain. Yet, the manner by which Ethan comes to know his own in-jury, his understanding that it must be pain, by thinking he hears a field mouse, by listening and recognizing it is Mattie, is a central condition in the novel; it is most certainly the most excruciating instance of the kinds of displacements that the novel presents—feeling made real, given substance, as in this final scene, through body, voice, or pain of another.
If language is unable to be the path for the conveyance of feeling for Ethan, is there, we are encouraged to ask, another vehicle? Of course, the body has often defined cultural measures of feeling, particularly feelings of pain and injury; indeed, it was bodily injury that was coming to be newly recognized and remedied in a postbellum nation.30 Yet more than the structure of physicality or even emotionality that are mediums for understanding and experiencing harm in the novel, what often manages to carry feeling, to convey its structure, and to fill the silences and the gaps in the novel, is the material of the everyday. It is, for example, Mattie and Ethan’s inability to connect more than the brief touch of two ends of thread that weaves through and makes material each painful moment in the novel:
She sat silent, her hands clasped on her work, and it seemed to him that a warm current flowed toward him along the strip of stuff that still lay unrolled between them. Cautiously he slid his hand palm-downward along the table till his finger tips touched the end of the stuff. A faint vibration of her lashes seemed to show that she was aware of his gesture, and that it had sent a counter-current back to her; and she let her hands lie motionless on the other end of the strip.
Ethan and Mattie, alone together in the house for the first time, sit down in front of the stove after they have finished their evening chores. “‘I’’ve been in a dream,’ Ethan thinks, ‘this is the only evening we’ll have together.’ The return to reality was as painful as the return to consciousness after taking an anaesthetic. His body and brain ached with indescribable weariness, and he could think of nothing to say or to do that should arrest the mad flight of the moments” (40). It is just then that Ethan sees Mattie’s hand grasping her work “as if it were a part of herself” (40). He too reaches out to her sewing thread as if it could feel his touch, as if it could respond in kind; indeed, he thinks he feels his desires acknowledged and reciprocated through the “stuff that still lay unrolled between them” (40). Ethan and Mattie are bound by a length of thread, a thin “strip” that acts as a conduit for their feelings. And although Ethan realizes at the end of the evening that he has not even managed to lay his hand or his lips on Mattie’s own, he understands that what has passed between them through Mattie’s sewing stuff is enough.
This form of mediation permeates several other moments in the narrative as well. Mattie, for instance, expresses her feelings for Ethan by retrieving Zeena’s pickle plate from storage in an effort to make the dinner table pretty; moreover, it is the broken pickle plate that becomes the symbolic disclosure of secret desires between Mattie and Ethan. Its use is a confirmation of Mattie’s love for Ethan, the unspoken object that locates their passions. Likewise, the broken pickle plate confirms for Zeena Mattie and Ethan’s desire for each other. It is a measure of feeling, and it becomes for Zeena, an estimate of their betrayal. Indeed, Zeena, learning that the pickle plate is broken, is the most animated we have seen her: “her lips twitching with anger, a flush of excitement on her sallow face” (53). And it is with this broken pickle plate that she helps seal Mattie’s and Ethan’s fate: “I tried to keep my things where you couldn’t get at ’em—and now you’ve took from me the one I cared for most of all—” (54). In Zeena’s fury, the pickle plate and Ethan are one; if the broken pickle plate is a measure of Mattie and Ethan’s relationship, so too is it a full indication of Zeena’s loss. Importantly, the narrative suggests that the personal relations among subjects within the novel, relations often mediated by material objects, are symptomatic of a struggle at the heart of how cultural fictions constitute subjecthood not only around desire, but the categories of pain, injury, and the recognition of distress.
For Zeena, pain is a weapon. She measures her illness by what she is given or begrudged to relieve her suffering, but more than that, Zeena insists that her sickness is proportionate to her labor. She complains to Ethan that she gave up her good health to care for Ethan’s mother, and thus the demands Zeena makes, for money, and later, for a “hired girl” are due her: “I’d ‘a’ been ashamed to tell him that you grudged me the money to get back my health, when I lost it nursing your own mother!” (48). Zeena demands a kind of “workman’s compensation” for her house-hold labor; she strikes, refusing to participate in household chores because she perceives herself not adequately compensated. “My folks all told me at the time you couldn’t do no less than marry me after” (48). Yet Zeena’s strategy, her domestic “walk-out,” is also a method of recognition, if not recompense, that should not be far from the reader’s mind. For as we learn early on in the novel, the narrator’s stay in Starkfield is also due to a labor strike: “I had been sent up by my employers on a job connected with the big power-house at Corbury Junction, and a long-drawn carpenter’s strike had so delayed the work that I found myself anchored at Starkfield—the nearest habitable spot—for the best part of the winter” (3). Wharton’s novel fictionalizes what could perhaps be read as a more radical version of the labor crisis that occasions the narrative, radical because crisis is delineated in a domestic setting, in which work was not yet conceived of in these terms. Rather than expand upon the difficult transition between public and private labor in which women’s work became naturalized within the home, however, I want to highlight the issues concerning work to make a broader point about the subject and context for the novel: along with the complex role of emotional pain and physical suffering in the novel, accompanying the problem of discerning its dimensions, a reader cannot ignore the “labor pains” in which Wharton grounds each disclosure, event, and character.
That Wharton’s vehicle for storytelling in the novel is a neither striking laborer nor employer/owner, and that his experience with labor unrest frames the narrative, provides a vocabulary upon which the Fromes’ sad history is disclosed. Ethan meets the narrator only because he needs the extra money that driving him to the station can provide (although we also get the sense that it is a much needed respite from the home and the farm that are failing). From the moment readers meet Ethan we are told of his perpetual labor on the farm and its meager results: “That Frome farm was always ‘bout as bare’s a milkpan when the cat’s been round; and you know what one of them old water-mills is wuth nowadays. When Ethan could sweat over ’em both from sun-up to dark he kinder choked a living out of ’em; but his folks ate up most everything, even then, and I don’t see how he makes out now” (5). Ethan perceives himself a “prisoner for life” (57) to the farm, and when his “one ray of light” is to be “extinguished,” he seeks to put a permanent end to his labors. Like Ethan, Mattie’s work in the house is also a constant subject for scrutiny in the novel; she, according to Zeena, does not work hard enough, which leads to Zeena’s excuse for dismissing Mattie, leaving her cruelly without compensation (without the equivalent “workman’s compensation” that Zeena saw fit to demand for herself from Ethan). With very few prospects for work in town, and with her inevitable separation from Ethan, she too decides to quit life.
In 1910, a year before the publication of Ethan Frome, a novel that is a departure for Wharton, as critics have noted, from the urban New York society life she so deftly portrayed, a novel that takes as its subject matter the farm village of Starkfield, and the lives and work of its inhabitants, a large class of workers were making themselves visible and heard in a public arena, demanding reparations for the numerous workrelated injuries they suffered. These laborers, whether factory hands or builders of the rail-roads, were seeking both recognition and compensation for the dangerous and often deadly work they performed.31 Indeed, the matter-of-fact tone by which the narrator conveys the reason for his stay in Starkfield, the seemingly common character of the strike is indicative, for instance, of the increasing presence and power of labor at the turn of the century. Homestead, Haymarket, and Pullman were among some of the larger labor battles being waged. But there were a number of strikes, strikes “which in the early and mid-1890s averaged 1,000 to 1,300 a year, jumped to 1,779 in 1900, to almost 3,000 in 1901, and almost 4,000 in 1904.”32 The towns beyond Stark-field were mill towns such as Everett and Lawrence, which by 1906 had chartered the National Industrial Union of Textile Workers, and in 1910 and 1911 gained momentum by conducting slowdowns and, in one case, holding a four-month strike of cotton workers at the Atlantic Mill.33 This strike frame then is a fundamental narrative strategy in a novel which is so concerned with the difficulties, the disappointments, and the disaffections of labor. Of course, I am not suggesting that Wharton as a novelist should be reconsidered as a voice of labor, but I do want to acknowledge the unusual importance in Ethan Frome (unlike in her other work) of the narrative’s concern with the suffocation of the small farmer, a suffocation by not only rural poverty, but by the increasing anonymity of the industrial United States. Wharton would leave this world for France, although as she notes, the inhabitants of Starkfield were continually with her in her many travels.34
It is the tension between agrarian and industrial America that preoccupies Wharton’s novel, from the failing farm that Ethan struggles to keep afloat, a failure which is presented in and against the success of merchants like Dennis Eady or Ned Hale, to Ethan’s own missed chance at becoming a professional engineer himself. So too is the railroad that passes in and out of town a barometer of technological advance, and importantly, psychological change in the novel. Ethan notes that with the coming of the railroad when he was a young man the local traffic of friends and neighbors ceased. Townspeople no longer passed by his house, paying visit to his mother, immobilized with rheumatism. It is the isolation ironically inflicted by the mechanism meant to collapse the distance between people that causes Mrs. Frome to turn “queer”: “after the trains began running no-body ever come by here to speak of, and mother never could get it through her head what happened, and it preyed on her right along till she died” (8). Ethan’s cousin Zeena, called in to care for his mother, traveled to the Fromes by that same railroad from a village larger and “nearer to the railway” than Stark-field (29). Soon after his mother’s death, when Ethan and Zeena decide to marry, he thinks she will be eager to move to a larger town; yet, purchasers for the farm are “slow in coming,” and Ethan learns that “in the greater cities which attracted Ethan,” Zeena “would have suffered a complete loss of identity” (30). Within a year, the reader is told, Zeena “developed [her] ‘sickliness’” (30). In a gesture against anonymity, Ethan and Zeena do not leave Starkfield with the rest of those who boarded the railroad. Indeed, the railroad and the transforming technological world that once offered Ethan passage from his dreary circumstances come to plague Ethan, as his mother, and subsequently, Zeena, are estranged in this world, while Ethan himself loses the skills he needs to participate in it. The novel enters this alienation, explores the repercussions and manifestations of its transforming technologies: injuries to the psyche.
If the presentation of psychic pain had been a problem for critics of Ethan Frome then for a growing public of readers the discernment of pain was coming to be central to a culture increasingly asked to extend its capacity for feeling in an evermore anonymous and impersonal world. Indeed, a discourse on pain was coming to be fundamental to the development of an industrial nation, and particularly the professions designed to accommodate and account for pain. Returning for a moment to the issue of the carpenters’ strike that frames the novel’s action, it was only in 1910, a year before Wharton published her novel, that workmen’s compensation legislation was finally passed in the United States, and only after it became clear to law courts and the defendant corporations that lay persons were increasingly willing to expand their capacity to understand suffering and to compensate injuries to body and mind.35 In this light, I do not mean to assert a mere homology between the problems accorded industrial expansion and the tightening grip around Starkfield or Ethan Frome, or merely to analogize the novel’s final accident and the crisis of injury in American culture at the turn of the century, a crisis that does appear to resonate not only in the narrator’s work, but in Ethan’s and Zeena’s injured bodies and psyches as well. I do want to suggest, however, that Wharton, like her narrator, is a mediator for the lay reader, a reader for whom reading is not solely a physical act to take place in leisured moments, but a skill that relies upon the ability to extend, project, and imagine—to navigate the delicate balance of fact and affect that was at once becoming a challenge for critics and a mandate for readers alike.
It does not seem particularly unusual to assert the power of the novel in navigating strong feeling; in-deed, “sympathy” was a successful strategy even prior to the popularity of the sentimental novel in the United States. Perhaps by the time Wharton wrote her novel, such a role for a novelist, that of the sympathizing intermediary, had become a common idiom in American literature and culture. Yet that Wharton most decidedly did not create a narrator whose moral voice was well-known to the community and did not chose to have the tale told by a character whose in-tentions are seemingly self-evident, indicates a shift in the frame by which to read the novel. If her narrator had been a preacher, as he is in the most recent film version of Wharton’s novel, for instance, we might read the novel as a warning, however unsolicited, against illicit desire. Yet the difficulty of Ethan Frome comes from the recognition that the pain the novel imagines must be theorized and acted upon in a new way. Wharton, by making secular her tale of suffering takes the issues of psychic pain, lust, and revenge outside perhaps the more predictable paths of explanation and accountability.36 Indeed, I want to claim a different kind of dynamic for the work of feeling in Wharton’s novel as well as for its status in a culture of novel readers.
If the novelist’s task is to render feelings, and the critic’s task is to discern their meaning, the legal and psychological professions were honing their ability to repair the pain that accompanied them.37 To be sufficient readers and interpreters of pain was not only a sentimental strategy or a disciplinary practice, but also a growing cultural condition, one that at Wharton’s time was and continues to be a source of some contention.38 What Richard Abel recently has called a “market in sado-masochism,” for instance, a market that he finds to be an effect of contemporary injury law (by asking the judges of pain, the jury, to figure out what is it “worth” to undergo a victim’s suffering) has its partial roots and outlines of its operations in the problem of judging and interpreting pain that accompanied the act of reading earlier in the century. The displacement of feeling in Ethan Frome, the manner by which sentience resurfaces in the stuff of the everyday, is not only a literary device but both a critique and an exploration of the extent to which suffering in a secular idiom could be and was indeed taken to be primarily cognizable in material terms. How were readers to judge pain in an expanded market of feeling, and in an expanded market of literature? For an early literary critic like Edwin Bjork-man, if the pain presented in Wharton’s novel were not worth something “we should pass on”; indeed, we might recall that the problem Lionel Trilling had reading Wharton’s novel was the very fact that for him the pain the story presented was worth nothing. Readers of fiction, as the narrator’s role in Ethan Frome suggests, were both “jurors of facts” as well as readers of affect. As facts were becoming seemingly less objective and more affectional, a culture of trained readers might discern the shape and meaning of this newly textured affect.
Of course, there was a growing distrust of the public’s capacity to make proper discriminations with regard to these very issues; indeed, what might be called a crisis of reading pain was particularly acute when it came to submitting a case to lay persons charging them with the duty of discernment in the foremost theater of pain: the law courts.39 The judiciary increasingly doubted that juries could submit just verdicts, for instance, given what appeared to be an expanded capacity for feeling, if not compensation for feeling, in the culture. “It seems plain,” concluded Charles Gregory of the court’s view of the jury process, “that this is an evaluating process and in its nature is not much different from judging a beauty contest or a competition among musicians. The conclusion, whatever it be, is not a fact conclusion; it is a value judgment.” Gregory, an early advocate for a more expansive view of negligence in injury cases, for recognizing injury and suffering, explained the court’s resistance to jury decisions in such trials in this way: “if the jury were always permitted to pass on the negligence issue, there is no telling what factors might move it to bring in a verdict for the plaintiff.”40 Juries were intended to be triers of facts; yet, the discernment of facts coupled with the increasingly complicated demands of “subjective” judgment were perceived to be a threat to the functioning of the judicial system.41
It was in a concerted effort to reign in the “lawlessness” of at least the elite reading public that Bliss Perry wrote his advocation of the study of contemporary fiction in the universities:
I have endeavored to point out the existence of a ‘body of doctrine’ concerning fiction. To formulate the group of facts and laws which constitutes this ‘body of doctrine,’ and to impress it upon a college class, is a task worthy of a teacher’s best efforts. For the vast fiction-reading public into which these classes are so soon to merge is skeptical about the very existence of standards of judgment. ‘It is not that there is so little taste nowadays,’ said someone the other day, ‘there is so much taste; most of it bad.’ Nevertheless this lawless and inconsistent public, craving excitement at any price, journalized daily, neither knowing nor caring what should be the real aim and scope of the novel, has the casting vote, after all, upon great books and little books alike. From its ultimate verdict there is no appeal. It is therefore no small service to literature that the college perform, when they send into this public, to serve as laymen, men who know good work from bad, and to know why they know it.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with American culture moving into an increasingly segmented world of professions and disciplines in which literature and criticism were seemingly coming to play less of a role, we see how reading might be socialized as not only a leisurely activity, but a highly fraught practice that relied upon several faculties of transference and transmission beyond both the parlor or the classroom. The novel Ethan Frome is, indeed, about such cultural conditions of judgment and recompense. Ethan’s suffering is profligate in his inability to articulate his own pain, his seeming misjudgment of others’; yet, this extravagant stoicism also appears to the reader to be an ennobling part of his character, particularly given what Zeena and other inhabitants of Starkfield seem to exemplify: a culture of complaint. His disaffection from language can only be read as a much needed relief in comparison with the querulousness, at the end of the novel, of Mattie and Zeena. In Ethan Frome both impulses are present: the privilege of language as well as its excesses, the necessity for compensation and the with-drawal from the market of need. As a novel that seemed at one time to represent or even to occasion a desire for a science of affective relations, it should not be regarded then as solely a mainstream voice of a disciplinary culture. It is in what one early critic labeled its relentlessness, its excesses, that Ethan Frome remains, as yet, unmanageable.
2. Lionel Trilling, “The Morality of Inertia,” in Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Irving Howe (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Press, 1962): 138. Trilling argues that Ethan Frome’s one idea is that “moral inertia, the not making of moral decisions, constitutes a large part of the moral life of humanity” (143).
4. I focus on Trilling and Howe as primary critics of the novel because, although Ethan Frome may frequent high school reading lists, since their dismissal of the work, the critical debate has significantly slowed about the novel. Indeed, most introductions to the work claim that the novel is one of Wharton’s best known, and it may well be, yet critical dialogue seems to have forgotten the novel. Since 1980 approximately fifteen articles have been devoted to the novel (see most recently, Mary Magdalena Far-land, “Ethan Frome and the ‘Springs’ of Masculinity,” Modern Fiction Studies 42 : 707-29); compare this number with the nearly five hundred that have been written on Wharton’s work during this period.
9. “Book Review of Ethan Frome,” Nation 93 (26 October 1911): 405. While philosophers from Plato to Barthes have debated the extent to which poetic delight has yielded political benefits, the artistic spectacle of pain, pain that has been made to yield “so much beauty,” has continued to structure not only critiques of the function of literary scholarship, as I shall discuss, but many contemporary debates as well, from what constitutes pornography to the influences of media violence. For a historical in-quiry into the spectacle of pain see Karen Halt-tunen, “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture,” American Historical Review (April 1995): 303. For a discussion of the problem of the emotive in literature, see Neal Oxenhandler, “The Changing Concept of Literary Emotion: A Selective History,” New Literary History 20 (1988-89): 103-21.
11. Calvin Thomas, “Literature and Personality,” PMLA 12 (1897): 305. Thomas continues: “If we think of criticism as the science of the effects produced by literature, what can be more relevant than a description of these effects, with the greatest possible precision and minuteness, in a particular case?… The feelings of men and women with regard to books, or to speak in the jargon, their emotional reactions under the stimulus of literature, are facts which have the same right as other facts, to be carefully recorded and studied for such instruction as they may be capable of yielding” (306).
12. See David R. Shumway, Creating American Civilization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 28. See also Kermit Vanderbilt, American Literature and the Academy: The Roots, Growth, and Maturity of a Profession (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986).
14. Hatfield 398. This turn of the century debate about what I am calling “the science of affect,” the reassessment of the objects and ends of literary study in their relation to political and social life, obviously resonates in many current discussions about the academy.
16. For psychoanalytic approaches see the recent autobiographically based criticism of Cynthia Wolff or Shari Benstock. Wolff, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Ben-stock, No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton (New York: Scribner’s, 1994).
17. Ethan Frome (New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1991) 1. All future references to the novel are from this edition. Although his wife Zeena is outspoken throughout the novel about the problems of her body, it is Ethan’s body that is continually and meticulously described.
18. Suffering was rendered visible through bodily harm and material depravation. Death, loss and other pains were most often explicable with recourse to religion. See Elizabeth Clark, “‘The Sacred Rights of the Weak’: Pain, Sympathy, and the Culture of Individual Rights in Antebellum America” The Journal of American History 82 (1995): 463-93; see also Ann Douglas, Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977).
20. Ann Douglas, Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977). Since Douglas’ characterization of this literature, critics such as Nina Baym and Jane Tompkins have taken issue with this assessment. See Nina Baym, American Women Writers and the Work of History, 1790–1860 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995); Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).
21. The novel was credited with instigating action against slavery; in what is now a well-known tale, Lincoln was rumored to have said to Harriet Beecher Stowe upon meeting her, “So this is the little lady that started this big war.” See also Clark, ‘“The Sacred Rights of the Weak,’” who argues that the rhetoric of sympathy provided the basis for “rights by analogy,” by which oppressed groups would insist on their rights. Most particularly, the slave’s right against bodily harm would extend to women’s bodies and the violence women suffered in the domestic sphere.
23. Feeling itself was given currency a century earlier during the culture of sympathy. Then, the aptly labeled “man of feeling” could combine republican civic-mindedness and sensibility; indeed, for him strong emotions were, on occasion, aligned with larger social issues. Within the early republic, the man of virtue was often synonymous with the man of feeling, although as critics of American literature have tended to bifurcate literary production down lines of gender, affect and emotion have been unduly represented as expressions of a “feminine sphere” and remain so to the present day. Yet several writers, including Emerson, as Julie Ellison reminds us in “The Gender of Transparency,”advocated a form of emotional expression as part of their theories of masculinity; in fact, into the nineteenth century strong feeling and masculinity were not mutually exclusive. We can find exceptions in poetry, drama, and the essay. Walt Whitman in his Civil War poem, “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic A Voice,” exclaimed to the nation: “Affection shall solve the problems/of Freedom yet” (“Drum Taps” in Leaves of Grass [New York: Modern Library, 1940], 252). Feeling and intimacy historically had purpose: they helped to define communal dependence and cultivate the spirit of nationhood. Perhaps with the cultural encoding of sentiment as feminine, however, an encoding which accompanied the successful marketing of feeling by women novelists by the middle of the nineteenth century, male writers and, subsequently, their critics, disavowed sentiment because of its purportedly feminine and effeminizing character. In turn, the public quality of republican sympathy was relocated in the private space of the home, whose appointed guardian, woman, became its inheritor, and whose voice was no longer heroism and gentle hearts but domesticity and tears. Although critics of realist literature from Michael Davitt Bell to Alfred Habegger have continued these gender divisions by evaluating realism as a movement built upon a disavowal of “feminine” sentiment, with the realistic novel we might say that male feeling was not eschewed but newly rendered intelligible. Indeed, Ethan Frome provides an occasion to map, in many respects, the contours of intelligibility. See Michael Davitt Bell, The Problem of American Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of a Literary Idea (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Alfred Habegger, Gender, Fantasy, and Realism in American Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). For Emerson’s work in this regard, see: Julie Ellison, “The Gender of Transparency: Masculinity and The Conduct of Life,” American Literary History 4 (1992): 380. For the literary and cultural significance of sympathy and feeling, see: John Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth-Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility (New York: 1983); G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); David Marshall, The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); and in context of the United States, see Michael T. Gilmore, “The Drama” in The Cambridge History of American Literature, 1590–1820, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
24. The attention paid to Ethan’s body as a framing device for the presentation of pain in the novel is, ironically, both a radical aberration as well as a normative evaluation. In a tradition of Western art in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, it may be unusual to see male bodies as the subject of inquiry, as Peter Brooks in Body Work has noted; however, as a culturally visible force, the male body, indeed, the white male body, was and continues to be omnipresent. Pain and bodily injury came to male bodies, as, increasingly, did compensation for that pain; likewise, it continues to be male bodies (as the norm for finding medical drugs, for military defense) that define the standards against which the recognition of pain is set. Peter Brooks, Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).
26. See Margaret Marsh, “Suburban Men and Masculine Domesticity,” in Meanings for Manhood: Constructions of Masculinity in Victorian America, eds. Mark C. Carnes and Clyde Griffen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) for a discussion of the increasing presence of the “domesticated man” in this period.
27. Although the novel was an agent of discipline, reading was also considered a highly dangerous practice. See See Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Nina Baym, Readers and Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984); Steven Mailloux, “The Rhetorical Use and Abuse of Fiction: Eating Books in Late Nineteenth-Century America,” Boundary 2 17 (Spring 1990): 156–57.
29. Hysteria has been considered the “female malady” of the nineteenth century. See Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1850–1890 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985); and also, Claire Kahane, Passions of the Voice: Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman, 1850–1915 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
30. Tort law, for instance, was expanding to cope with the growing negligence claims for industrial accidents, particularly the escalating damages caused by the railroad and suffered by the working class. See G. Edward White, Tort Law in America: An Intellectual History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Morton Hor-witz, The Transformation of American Law 1780–1860 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977).
31. Moreover, it is important to remember that the vast number of work related injuries were entering not only the literary and cultural psyche, but also overwhelming the law courts at the turn of the century, as Lawrence Friedman has described: “After 1900, it is estimated that 35,000 deaths and 2,000,000 injuries occurred every year in the United States. One quarter of the in-juries produced disabilities lasting more than one week. The railway injury rate doubled in the seventeen years between 1889 and 1906.” The degree of suffering and the need for recompense was indeed great. See Lawrence M. Friedman and Jack Ladinsky, “Social Change and the Law of Industrial Accidents,” in American Law and the Constitutional Order, eds. Lawrence M. Friedman and Harry Scheiber (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 273.
34. See Cynthia Wolff, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); and Shari Benstock, No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton (New York: Scribner’s, 1994), for discussion of Wharton’s life abroad. These two biographies attribute her flight from the United States to a partial escape from familial relations, particularly her mother, and later, Teddy. Neither of these biographers have much to say about the social milieu that may have encouraged Wharton’s stay abroad, although it is clear that the events that would become Ethan Frome were in her thoughts. Wolff explains that Wharton’s first writing in French became the beginning of Ethan Frome, 158-59.
35. One only need examine cases in and around the railroad to see the groundwork for an emerging field of non-physical emotional distress, a newly articulated species of wounds which have since come to ground our very understanding of subjecthood.
The first cases of emotional distress recognized at common law were considered secondary elements when awarding damages and were not considered in assessing defendants’ liabilities. Although it seemed in the latter half of the nine-teenth century that most industrial states would not compensate for emotional distress unless accompanied by physical injury, such damages were being assessed earlier in the century in forms of contract law. As early as the decision in Chamberlain v. Chandler (1823) it was considered a breach of “implied contract” for a carrier not to be polite. Judge Story delivered the opinion: “It is intimated that … the master is at liberty to inflict the most severe mental sufferings in the most tyrannical manner, and yet if he withholds a blow, the victim may be crushed by his unkindness. He commits nothing within the reach of civil jurisprudence. My opinion is that the law involves no such absurdity. It is rational and just. It gives compensation for mental sufferings occasioned by acts of wanton in-justice, equally whether they operate by way of direct or of consequential injuries.” Chamberlain v. Chandler, C. C. Mass 1823, 3 Mason 242, 5 Fed. Case. No 2,575.
Law courts began to find that carriers such as the railroad were in fact liable to the public, and this liability became actionable within the domain of torts. See William Prosser, “Infliction of Mental Distress” in The Law of Torts, 4th ed. (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1971), 49-62. Although in the majority of these cases in the nineteenth century some form of physical damage (visible bruises) was required to accompany the claim for mental distress, and indeed, many states would not recognize any claim that did not emit physical evidence, there were a growing number of decisions that found damages for mental disturbance without the requisite bodily wounds. This has varied from state to state. See for example, Duty v. General Finance Co., 154 Tex 16, 273 sw2d 64 (1954).
In an 1887 case in which a passenger sued the railroad for wrongfully expelling him from the train, a case that was decided in favor of the railroad, the minority opinion suggested a changing climate in assessing injuries: “The court erred in sustaining the demurrer and ordering the action to proceed for the recovery of actual damages only: actual damages in the sense in which the phrase has now come to be used frequently in Georgia, a sense supposed to exclude damages for wounded feelings….Wounding a man’s feelings is as much actual damage as breaking his limbs. The difference is, that one is internal and the other external, one mental, the other physical in either case the damage is not measurable with exactness.” Head v. Georgia Pacific Railroad Co., 47 GA 358 (1887). See also Friedman, “Social Change.”
36. T. J. Jackson Lears calls this a “therapeutic world view”: “References to salvation dropped from view; psychological well-being became—though often only implicitly—an entirely secular project.” See Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture: 1880–1920 (New York: Pantheon, 1981), 55.
37. It is not only to express suffering, but in order to repair it, Elaine Scarry argues, that pain needs an object world. She has argued that the imagination is one such making of an object world, a world that is “wholly ignorant of the ‘hurtability’ of human beings”: “The human imagination reconceives the external world … by quite literally, ‘making it’ as knowledgeable about human pain as if it were itself animate and in pain” (288-89). If literature is one such absorption of the hurtability of the human world so too are its reparations, what Scarry has called the “counterfactual”; such reparations, often in the form of legal awards, assume the object world should have cognizance of human suffering, should know how to keep humans free from pain. It was, however, just this world that was coming into being in tort litigation where the status of one’s pain was redressed by material compensation. Indeed, the product liability trial, as Elaine Scarry has noted, serves “to further make real or materialize the counterfactual by endowing it with the material form of compensation” (299). The suffering of the plaintiff is given monetary value; it is made material in its form of compensation.
38. See “A Critique of American Tort Law,” in Critical Legal Studies, ed. Allan C. Hutchinson (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1986), 273-89. Richard Abel has called one form of the secularization of suffering, suffering that has come to require material com-ppensation, a “market in sadomasochism” (281). Although I do not want to necessarily claim a cultural homology between the market of sadomasochism labeled by Abel and reading as a cultural practice, I do want to register an important point of conjunction. The “market in sadomasochism” asks laypersons to imagine others’ pains: “Damages for pain and suffering,” Abel argues in his critique of current tort law, “offer[s] the equation that for certain (not every) pain suffered there is an equivalent pleasure (money) that will erase it” (281). The market in sadomasochism is a market dependent upon the imagination, upon the ability of jury members, for instance, to imagine a time when that harm had not taken place, and what the cost of remaining unharmed or free of suffering might be. Trilling and other readers of Wharton’s novel, who are perplexed by the presentation of the pain rendered in the novel, repeatedly ask the question, suffering and injury, to what end?
39. This is not to suggest that distrust of the jury system was solely a recent phenomenon, but one which again emerged with increasing vigor at this time. For a brief history of the importance of the jury, see, Friedman, “Crime and Punishment,” in American Law, 251. What is often called “jury lawlessness” has been the subject of debate into the present. Indeed, since the Revolution, juries have challenged the rule of judges. See Valerie P. Hans and Neil Bidmar, Judging the Jury (New York: Plenum Press, 1986), 39. The power of the jury began to wane after the Civil War when several states adopted the “special verdict” by which a judge could question jurors about certain facts from the case, and after receiving the jury’s verdict, go on to decide the case for himself. Interrogating juries after they had rendered their verdict became another means to limit their powers of judgment. See Horwitz, Transformation, for several instances in the development of property and contract law in which jury decisions are criticized and jury power decreased.
41. Among the several legal scholars who were attempting to challenge the rule of law, many seized upon the role of the jury as one of its primarily tools to debunk legal conceptualism. The prominent legal scholar, Jerome Frank, framed his distrust of the jury system within the language of psychoanalysis: “men want the law to be father-like, aloof, stern, coldly impartial, they also want it to be flexible, understanding, humanized. The judges too emphatically announce that they are serving the first of these wants. The public takes the judges seriously, assumes that the judges will apply hard-and-fast law to human facts, and turns to the jury for relief from such dehumanized justice,” The Modern Legal Mind (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1936), 175. Frank found the body of law produced by juries to be inherently dangerous, arguing that general verdicts require no explanation, and thus, “the decisions of many cases are the products of irresponsible jury caprice and prejudice” (177). It was during this time, Morton Horwitz argues, that “in the midst of widespread attacks on courts in worker injury cases, progressives. wished to undermine and subvert legal doctrines that enabled judges confidently to withdraw cases from juries” (Transformation 60). Roscoe Pound in his essay, “Law in Books and Law in Action,” argued, for example, that the “jury lawlessness” that Jerome Frank feared “is the great corrective of law in its actual administration” (“Law in Books and Law in Action,” American Law Review 44 : 18). The jury’s ability to read the facts differently than a judge might read them, according to Pound, actually serves the purpose of law in the community by allowing the jury, as representatives of the community, to disregard institutionally grounded definitions which may be unsound. What is good for law in this sense is that, through jury nullification, the community can comment on and critique the institutional application of laws that the community believes do not represent the community’s feelings or social practices.
Donna M. Campbell (essay date 1997)
SOURCE: Campbell, Donna M. “Rewriting the ‘Rose and Lavender Pages’: Ethan Frome and Women’s Local Color Fiction.” In Speaking the Other Self: American Women Writers, edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, pp. 263-77. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Campbell contends that, through her creation of Ethan Frome and other naturalistic works, Wharton sought to wrap herself in an air of professionalism that necessitated a shift towards a more masculine literary voice.]
As a writer of realistic fiction at the turn of the century, the young Edith Wharton faced a plethora of discursive modes and genres, including James-ian realism, the novel of manners, local color, and naturalism. Despite these choices, in a 1904 letter to William Crary Brownell, her editor at Scribner’s, an exasperated Wharton rejected the critics’ attempts to “place” her among her contemporaries: “I have never before been discouraged by criticism… but the continued cry that I am an echo of Mr. James (whose books of the last ten years I can’t read, much as I delight in the man), and the assumption that the people I write about are not ‘real’ because they are not nav-vies and char-women, makes me feel rather hopeless. I write about what I see, what I happen to be nearest to, which is surely better than doing cowboys de chic.”1 Wharton resisted the placement of her fiction in such “movements and trends” throughout her career. However, her determined efforts at such exclusion themselves suggest at least one type of inclusion: Wharton, like her male contemporaries Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London, may profitably be viewed within the context of the shift in literary dominance away from wom-en’s local color and toward naturalistic fiction. As an ambitious woman writer responding to the 1890s transition between these two movements, she in fact provides a test case, an example of how the literary alliances of a strongly feminine, gender-linked tradition gave way before the imperatives of a predominantly masculine and generation-based rebellion against established forms.
In her response to women’s local color fiction, Wharton showed that her desire for literary independence contained more than the junior author’s customary chafing for recognition. She seems to have recognized early the pitfalls that awaited her if she followed the conventional route to success as a female author. The first is the danger, which her talent and wealth narrowly enabled her to avoid, of being a woman so closely identified with a great male author—in her case, Henry James—that her work becomes perpetually overshadowed by his. In her introduction to Patrons and Protegées, Shirley Marcha-lonis describes this type of literary sponsorship as consisting of “the important male author and the aspiring lady writer, he using his talent and intelligence to create literature, she a ‘sweet singer’—an empty vessel through which the winds, or perhaps breezes, of inspiration might blow.”2 The second and potentially more serious threat, as Amy Kaplan has shown, was to risk identification with the “the same tradition of women’s fiction that her aunts and grandmother devoured” or with their successors, the “society” novelists: “To become a woman novelist involved the further risk of being devoured as well as rejected, of being trivialized and absorbed into the category of the forbidden yet the consumable. If the upper-class lady was treated as a conspicuous commodity—a unique object d’art, the sentimentalist produced inconspicuous commodities—mass-produced novels.”3 Further, Wharton’s coming-of-age as an author, like that of her male naturalist contemporaries, coincided with a cultural shift in perceptions of local color fiction. Denounced as “limited” and “feminine” in its vision by James Lane Allen’s 1897 Atlantic essay “Two Principles in American Fiction,” local color or the “feminine principle” lost ground to the “vigorous” fiction of the “masculine principle” and suffered a subsequent decline.4
Wharton employed several strategies to combat these threats. The first, according to Kaplan, was to embrace an “ethos of professionalism” that opposes the domestic realm and “imagines a way of entering a cluttered literary marketplace while transcending its vagaries and dependence upon public taste.”5 Wharton also appropriated certain stylistic features for this purpose; as Katherine Joslin observes, “In order to tell the story of the individual within society and to tell it without the sentimentality of female domestic novelists, Wharton sought and borrowed the ‘objective’ tone and jargon of the male scientific discourse of her day.”6 Finally, Wharton’s most central means of establishing her authority was to resist being judged as a “woman” author at all, as this passage from A Backward Glance demonstrates: “For years I had wanted to draw life as it really was in the derelict mountain villages of New England, a life even in my time, and a thousandfold more a generation earlier, utterly unlike that seen through the rose-coloured spectacles of my predecessors, Mary Wilkins and Sarah Orne Jewett.. Emily Brontë would have found as savage tragedies in our remoter valleys as on her Yorkshire moors.”7 Identifying local colorists Jewett and Freeman rather than the previous generation of sentimentalists as her “predecessors,” Wharton defines herself as a rebel against the tradition of women’s local color fiction rather than as a practitioner of it.8 Significantly, she refers to herself as an “author” in the introduction to Ethan Frome, but she damns the local colorists by their very femininity, attributing the uproar over her portrait of the outlaw mountain folk in Summer to the New Englanders having “for years sought the reflection of local life in the rose-and-lavender pages of their favorite authoresses.”9 Wharton saw that, even if they hid their identity behind a masculine alias (as did Mary N. Murfree and Alice French), women writing in a female tradition like local color were obsolete. To survive in the increasingly professionalized world of fiction writing, as Josephine Donovan points out, “Wharton needed to distance herself from ‘authoresses’ in order to establish herself as an ‘author,’ to reject their view as feminine and ‘unrealistic’ in order to legitimate her masculine view as the serious, adult one.”10 An examination of Ethan Frome reveals Wharton’s attempts to confront the genre of local color fiction on its own terms, and, using the same settings and characters as her predecessors, particularly those of Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, to disrupt and transform its narrative conventions, the assumptions underlying its iconographic and symbolic structures such as storytelling, preserving, and healing, and its insistence on the value of self-denial.11
The structure of Ethan Frome actually comprises two stories, both involving the initiation of the main character into a kind of truth: the frame story, which involves the narrator’s quest to solve the puzzle of Ethan’s life and his own initiation into the community of suffering that is Starkfield, and the inner story, the tragedy of Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie as the narrator imaginatively reconstructs it. Wharton further divides the frame story into two parts, a device that fulfills several functions in the novel. The distancing of the main story, suggestive perhaps of the “doubly distanced” narratives common to local color fiction, reinforces the thematic significance of the novel’s threshold scenes; as Cynthia Griffin Wolff explains, narrator and character alike spend a “timeless eternity of hesitation on the threshold” that signifies opportunities lost and discarded.12 The flow of narrative is additionally disrupted by Wharton’s use of a series of witnesses from whom the narrator must glean the story. Besides increasing the suspense, the fragmentation of reality into a series of half-interpreted snippets demonstrates forcefully Wharton’s stated unwillingness to resort to the artifice of having a know-all, tell-all village gossip give a single version of the events. To interpret such a purposefully refracted vision is the task of her much-maligned narrator.13
Although he has frequently been treated as an impediment to the “real” story of the Zeena-Ethan-Mattie triangle, the seemingly ordinary narrator exists as the frame story’s most powerful and irreducibly ambiguous character. As Wharton’s introduction makes clear, he is to be the traditional local color “sophisticated” onlooker who will act as the “sympathizing intermediary between his rudimentary characters and the more complicated minds to whom he is trying to present them.”14 In this way he becomes, like his counterpart in The Country of the Pointed Firs, the outside observer’s or reader’s representative whose initiation into the community depends upon his ability to reconstruct and relate the story that he hears. He is the sort of man who, as Wharton’s reference to Emily Brontë suggests, will visit an isolated spot, experience some puzzling phenomena, receive some facts from a longtime resident (Nellie Dean/Mrs. Hale), and present to a sophisticated audience a sympathetic version of the tragic story he hears. The literary reference, however, scarcely hints at the complexities surrounding the narrator’s position. For one thing, Wharton chooses a male rather than a female narrator to construct the story from the “small incidental effects” supplied by Mrs. Hale, a choice that reflects her own composing processes: “I conceive my subjects like a man—that is, rather more architectonically and dramatically than most women—& then execute them like a woman; or rather, I sacrifice, to my desire for construction & breadth, the small incidental effects that women have always excelled in.”15 Blake Nevius defends her use of the male narrator on grounds of practicality and consistency: a male engineer might more plausibly linger at Starkfield and be invited into Ethan’s house; also, “The narrators employed in the framework of Edith Wharton’s early stories are always men.”16 Equally important in Wharton’s choice of this male narrator, however, is her determination to contrast her own modern (masculine) perspective with that of the local color “authoresses” who used female interpreters. Toward that end she gives him a hard-headed masculine profession, engineering, and creates an observer whose forte is objectivity rather than sympathy.
Wharton further distances herself from the local color use of the female narrator by emphatically rejecting a convention common to local color fiction and forming a good portion of Wuthering Heights: “I might have sat him down before a village gossip who would have poured out the whole affair to him in a breath” (ix). The engineer thus exists in a peculiarly temporary sort of powerlessness: because he must become a supplicant, dependent upon the villagers for scraps of knowledge, he seems at first to exist as a village parasite. The also unnamed narrator in The Country of the Pointed Firs, for example, spends her time with Mrs. Todd in a kind of Wordsworthian wise passiveness. Hearing the tale of Poor Joanna, itself a tale of pride, lost love, and self-imposed isolation not unlike that of Ethan Frome, she forms her own opinions but “did not like to interrupt” the flow of narrative between Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Fosdick.17 Her rare questions are sympathetic and tactful, for “tact is after all a kind of mind-reading” (46). Far more frequent are the occasions when she is able to comment, as she does of her relationship with Mrs. Todd’s mother Mrs. Blackett, that “we understood each other without speaking” (52). But as the existence of the frame story itself makes clear, the narrator of Ethan Frome is not a parasite or even a recorder, but a creator; it is his “vision,” after all, that grants unity, stability, and decipherability to the fragmentary mutter-ings of his informants. He controls the vision imaginatively in two important senses, formulating it from the scraps of what he learns and presenting it to an audience that it would otherwise never reach. He is thus responsible for its unity, for he rivets the disparate elements that he hears and experiences into the form of classic tragedy, rendering the substance of Ethan’s tale intelligible by enclosing it in a coherent form. Since Wharton implicitly forswears the traditional companionship of local color author and eager outside auditor in her introduction, the narrator also opens out the story to a variety of interpretive communities potentially scornful as well as sympathetic.
From the beginning, the narrator does not wait and watch like Jewett’s female narrators; a modern man of action, he begins immediately and directly to investigate his characters.18 After sensing a mystery surrounding Ethan, one of the strange folk of Stark-field from whom he feels himself distanced, the narrator pursues his quarry relentlessly, well past the bounds of simple politeness he might offer to one of his own class. Even the mail is not sacrosanct: he watches Ethan openly, noticing that Ethan “seldom received anything but a copy of the Bettsbridge Eagle” (4); nor does he scruple to read the return addresses on Zeena’s mail from the patent-medicine manufacturers. After failing to glean information first from Harmon Gow, he hesitates with Mrs. Hale: “So marked was the change in her manner, such depths of sad initiation did it imply, that, with some doubts as to my delicacy, I put the case anew to my village oracle, Harmon Gow; but got for my pains only an uncomprehending grunt” (11). Presumably his “doubts” are meant to assure us of his sensitivity, but he immediately puts any delicacy aside, along with the memory of Mrs. Hale’s “sad depths of initiation,” in favor of renewed pursuit. The “uncomprehending grunt” turns out to be a paragraph of explanation about Mrs. Hale, including the useful information that she was “the first one to see ’em after they was picked up” and an admonitory hint that “she just can’t bear to talk about it” (11). Despite sensing that “the deeper meaning of the stories was in the gaps” (7), the impatient narrator does not as yet realize how much information is contained in such laconic utterances.
Ironically, for he does not yet recognize the power of this local color method for getting at the story, the narrator gains the most information when he ceases to seek it. For a while he learns to keep still and accept information as a kind of community currency of exchange rather than as an ore to be extracted from the “granite outcroppings” of the villagers; his one-sided prying and interrogation give way to reciprocal social exchanges, as when he acknowledge his social indebtedness for Ethan’s offer to drive him through heavy snow to the Junction. Like Jewett’s narrator, who travels with Mrs. Todd to the secret pennyroyal field and “felt that we were friends now since she had brought me to this place” (49), Wharton’s narrator believes that “the mere sight of the house had let me too deeply into his confidence for any farther pretence of reserve” (21). Indeed, Ethan does subsequently reveal himself obliquely, describing the isolation that caused his mother’s slow decline and the reasons for the house’s missing “L.” Slowly learning to interpret the villagers’ language metaphorically, the narrator, knowing that the “L.” is “the center, the actual hearth-stone of the New England farm” (21), understands that Ethan is hinting at both the absence of life and love at the house and the demolition of his own dreams of romance with Mattie. The narrator further gains Ethan’s trust when he symbolically descends to the older man’ level, getting out of the sleigh “to walk along through the snow at the bay’s side” (23) in order to “struggle on for another mile or two” beside, rather than above, his subject.
This lulling sense of communion does not last, however, for while Jewett’s narrator, preferring companionship, turns back to her writing like a “reluctant child” (114), Wharton’s narrator breaks off the story of growing friendship abruptly and, with a dramatic flourish and three rows of ellipses, announces, “It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story … ” (25). 19 Unlike the pleasurable sharing of deferred experience common to local color fiction, the narrator’s refusal to reveal the solution until a proper time teases his audience with heightened suspense as it reinforces his own control over the story. He relinquishes this control only reluctantly and clearly values his fictional art above humanity, Ethan’s story over Ethan himself. At this point he still insists on maintaining a (masculine) linear mode of storytelling over a circular, digressive (feminine) one, unable as yet to reconcile twentieth-century technique with nineteenth-century sympathy.20
The second part of the frame story, occurring after the “vision” of Ethan’s life, marks a change in the narrator, since he has become initiated into Ethan’s community of suffering. Understanding now that his modern, masculine, detective-style questioning served rather to exclude than include him in the life of Stark-field, he embarks on a new strategy for eliciting information from his uncommunicative sources: “Beneath [the townspeople’s] wondering exclamations I felt a secret curiosity to know what impressions I had received from my night in the Frome household, and divined that the best way of breaking down their reserve was to let them try to penetrate mine” (176, emphasis mine). He has, in fact, learned their language, or more correctly, to trust his perception that their language consists not in speech but in gaps and indeterminacies. More significantly, he has accepted the advantages of the feminine passivity he had hitherto ignored; as his language suggests, he will stop trying to invade their privacy and will instead allow his defenses to be “penetrated.” Seeking confirmation from Mrs. Hale that the voice behind the “querulous drone” is Mattie’s, not Zeena’s, he comments, “I waited to let her trust in me gather strength” before his own understated observation that “it’s pretty bad, seeing all three of them there together” (177), again employing passivity as a tactic. Mrs. Hale then pours forth the story of the day after the accident, of the village’s response, and of the actions of Zeena, Mattie, and Ethan. Thus rewarded, the narrator becomes increasingly aware of the inverse relation between the strength of feelings and their ability to be articulated.
By the end of the frame story, the narrator is able not only to understand Ethan’s story but to accept its gaps. He initially looks to Mrs. Hale to provide a final answer, but as she scrupulously reports the after-math of the sledding accident, she can add only, “I never knew myself what Zeena thought—I don’t to this day. Nobody knows Zeena’s thoughts” (178). If “nobody knows Zeena’s thoughts,” and Ethan remains uncommunicative, then only Mattie’s perspective can grant the narrator the closure that he seeks; yet even here his quest is frustrated. Mrs. Hale, Mattie’s childhood friend, tells the narrator about the events of the next day: ‘“[Mattie] woke up just like herself, and looked straight at me out of her big eyes, and said. Oh, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,’ Mrs. Hale broke off, crying” (178, ellipsis Wharton’s). Like the unspoken word that passes between Lawrence Selden and Lily Bart at the end of The House of Mirth, the word here is never made concrete but remains a mystery to reader and narrator alike. The narrator has sought the word that would make his story perfect, confirming his vision and ending his search, but he is never to find it, for the situation remains finally unknowable. What he has learned is that he must, in effect, resign his quest, relinquishing his modern interest in facts and the “real story” in favor of a more fluid, emotion-based method of discerning truth. In contrast to his earlier probing, the narrator now cedes control over the story to Mrs. Hale. Occurring several paragraphs before the end of the story, his final words in the novel, “It’s horrible for them all” (180), confirm and intensify his allegiance to the language of sympathy, a language to which Mrs. Hale responds reciprocally by echoing his words: “Yes, it’s pretty bad” (180). Now that he feels himself a part of Starkfield, an initiate of the villagers’ inner lives as well as of their customs, the narrator completes the tale by recording Mrs. Hale’s version, bridging indeterminacies by means of the emotional rightness of his vision. The feminine passivity and sympathy he has learned complement the objectivity with which he relates the tale, rendering both his “vision” and his initiation into the world of emotion complete.
The inner story, the tale of Ethan’s life, remains tragic whether one accepts the traditional view that the narrator’s “vision” is a true one or believes instead with Cynthia Griffin Wolff and John Crowe Ransom that “we are forced to conclude that he did not gather it really; that, mostly, he made it up.”21 The inner story is one of the most extensively analyzed pieces in all of Wharton’s fiction, with its imagery, symbolism, structure, and presentation of ethical choices receiving a great deal of attention. What needs to be explored further is the way in which the modern perspective of Wharton’s narrator interrogates and implicitly condemns such standard local color myths as those of cohesive community, of healing, and of preserving and self-denial.
The myth of cohesive community is the first element exposed by the narrator’s gaze. Despite Michael Eady’s prosperous store and its railway station, Stark-field is one of the impoverished, dying villages common to local color fiction. In analyzing the isolation of Ethan’s mother, Marlene Springer cites the motif of the railroad as an example of Wharton’s “brilliant irony,” since she “turns the coming of the railroad, historically the advent of mobility and expansion, into a catalyst for isolation and despair.”22 As Wharton was doubtless aware, however, the irony really resides within the conventions of local color fiction, where the coming of railroads often signals a town’s increasing isolation. By facilitating escape for the “smart ones” that “get away,” as Harmon Gow tells the narrator, and by providing a conduit for outside ideas that threaten to destroy the village’s integrity as a community, the railroad drains vitality from the local color village.23 The dances and sledding parties Mattie attends show that even Starkfield inhabitants do not lack for social life, but the community life of the village takes place off-stage, whereas the drama of its three self-willed isolates unfolds before the reader. Ironically, in refusing to join the community, all three become crystallized images of its people, frozen in time as virtual caricatures of New England types. For example, Ethan, who consistently refuses to interact with his fellow villagers, leans toward caricature in his taciturnity, which after the accident exceeds even that of legendarily close-lipped New Englanders like the isolate Nicholas Gunn of Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “A Solitary.” Trapped by Stark-field, all three main characters are nonetheless out-siders literally and figuratively. Zeena, whose “native village was slightly larger and nearer to the railway than Starkfield” (71), insulates herself from the town with a fierce pride that allows her to express a longing for human companionship only in her “sickly spells.”24 Set apart even in his youth by a superior intellect and a vision of other worlds, Ethan shares her pride, answering his neighbors in monosyllables and allowing few visitors to visit his bare house. Mattie Silver comes from Stamford, Connecticut, but after her father dies, she has nowhere to go except Starkfield. The compensations of the local color village, Wharton implies, fail to outweigh its limitations for characters such as these, particularly when their dearth of choices is compounded by “the hard compulsions of the poor” (179).
The motif of illness and healers also becomes trans-formed in the inner story. Although the characters’ ailments have a physical basis, Ethan’s deformed spine and Mattie’s diseased one suggest Freeman’s metaphor of spinal disease to indicate excessive Puritan will and frustrated lives in Pembroke, a disease of self-willed isolation curable only through a reintegration into the community.25 Zeena’s psychogenic illness, which “had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances” (72), to-gether with her constant “doctoring” of herself with patent medicines, recalls the many female healers and herb-women in local color fiction. As embodied in Zeena, however, the concept of women as healers and servers has been warped into a monstrous parody of itself. Her ineffective patent medicines, unlike herbs, are as unnatural as her clicking upper plate of false teeth.26 Further, Zeena acts as both healer and patient, collapsing the distinction between the two roles and negating the possibility of human sharing in the process. Her illnesses provide a sort of homeopathic remedy for the boredom of her life, an antidote or pharmakon, by way of small repeated doses of “complications,” to the death-in-life that she shares with Ethan, who, in another role reversal, is “the one who always done the caring.”
Wharton also borrows from local color tradition in her choice of situation and themes. Ethan’s story is more than a classic love triangle; it recalls the tales of self-sacrifice and renunciation, of elderly lovers and unspoken, inchoate longings that pervade the works of Freeman and Jewett. Ethan’s situation with Zeena is also a nightmare version of the crotchety mother/patient child theme prevalent in local color fiction. Wharton even alludes to the tradition when, in the second part of the frame story, Mrs. Hale relaxes once her exacting elderly mother Mrs. Varnum goes up to bed. Indeed, Mrs. Hale serves as more than a witness here. She represents the unspoken alternative story to Ethan’s: the traditional local color tale not told of a middle-aged woman’s domestic troubles and forbearance with an elderly parent. Generations of readers, culturally conditioned to praise self-denial and stoic endurance in local color heroines, have been frustrated when a man like Ethan chooses to exercise these same virtues, seeing his self-sacrifice as evidence of a wasted, tragic life. By telling instead the man’s story, as the local colorists seldom did, Wharton simultaneously breaks with her “predecessors” and uses this change in gender to demonstrate not the nobility of self-denial but the dreadful consequences of a life ruled by what Wharton in “Bunner Sisters” calls “the inutility of self-sacrifice.”27
Like Rose Terry Cooke’s and Mary Wilkins Free-man’s characters, Ethan ultimately chooses resignation, despite his awareness that, as Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant puts it, “the real New England tragedy … is not that something happens but that nothing does.”28 Only once does he make an attempt to break out of his imprisonment: in making the suicide attempt, he chooses the ultimate renunciation—of life itself—and the ultimate extravagant gesture, to die with his beloved.29 However, the earlier episode of Zeena’s pickle dish has warned us that Ethan’s self-denial will yield no satisfaction. Sent from Philadelphia as a wedding present, the red glass pickle dish is Zeena’s pride and joy, so precious to her that she keeps it on the top shelf of the china closet and never uses it. On the night when Zeena is away, Mattie puts it on the supper table, but when Ethan’s and Mattie’s hands meet over the milk jug, Zeena’s cat backs into the dish and knocks it off the table. Joseph X. Brennan sees the wedding gift, unused by Zeena but taken up and destroyed by Mattie, as a symbolic representation of “the pleasure and passion that Ethan had sought and Zeena had thwarted in their marriage”; when Zeena carries out the pickle dish “as if she carried a dead body” (128), it is, as Kenneth Bernard comments, the “corpse of her marriage” that she carries.30 Another significance, though, can be attached to the incident. The seldom-used pickle dish, like the medicine jar that, Zeena tells Mattie, will “do for pickles” if she can “get the taste out” (66), refers obliquely to local color fiction’s preserving of food and stories, of the continual urge to postpone the savoring of experience. But preserving here is futile: all Zeena’s careful saving comes to naught when her precious possession is smashed by a chance occurrence, just as Ethan’s constancy in the face of adversity fails to gain him happiness or to protect him against the accident of living through his suicide attempt. In presenting the utter bleakness of Ethan’s life, the futility of his self-denial, and the impossibility of any change for the better, Wharton forges local color virtues into instruments of terror that sustain and prolong the torturous process of Ethan’s life. It is a terror that, combined with the pity, transforms the elements of local color into New England tragedy.
Viewed in this context, Wharton’s much-maligned device of the male narrator in Ethan Frome becomes not only comprehensible but essential, for through her (re)vision of the local color world through his fact-obsessed, masculine sensibility, Wharton seeks to reclaim for her own mainstream fiction the marginal territories occupied by the local colorists. Like Jewett and other local color writers, Wharton employs a sympathetic, well-educated outsider/observer as her narrator; like Jewett’s, her narrator undergoes an initiation of sorts into the secrets of the village, but his aggressive seeking after facts, his horror at the self-denial that freezes Ethan’s life, and even his choice of Ethan’s story over that of Mrs. Hale mark him as an alien—modern, masculine—sensibility in this local color community. Yet he does learn to decode the villagers’ digressive, fragmentary attempts at storytelling and, in effect, he does resign his quest, relinquishing his modern interest in facts and the “real story” in favor of a more fluid, emotion-based method of discerning truth.
As the end of the story indicates, however, only the narrator, the modern man, escapes this frozen vision of wasted lives. Maintaining his objectivity allows him to sympathize with the Starkfield villagers with-out becoming enraptured by their world as Jewett’s narrator is in The Country of the Pointed Firs. Considered as the corrective rewriting of what Wharton saw as the bleak rural landscapes, grotesquely extended love affairs, excessive preserving, and masochistic renunciations and self-denial of local color fiction, Ethan Frome almost becomes Wharton’s blackly comic joke, a vision of the genre so extreme as to border on private parody. Ethan Frome argues that the type of local color renunciation practiced by Ethan and his kind suggests not spiritual nobility but spiritual impoverishment; their habitual denial of healthy appetite for emotion recalls not the anorexia mirabilis of the saints but the anorexia nervosa of the cultural victim.
Hence, although Wharton clearly encouraged the image of herself as a self-created artist, the evidence of her fiction suggests that, far from remaining aloof from literary trends, she developed into the kind of writer she became in part because of the complicated influences and pressures that women’s local color fiction exerted upon her. She tried to reinvent herself as a writer free from the constraints of local color, and critics have generally followed her wishes by downplaying her literary antecedents. As an upper-class woman vacationing genteelly in the impoverished communities of New England, she might have followed Jewett and represented herself as an eager postulant and sympathetic feminine recorder of the rituals of community life (Jewett’s stance in Deep-haven and The Country of the Pointed Firs). However, Wharton realized that to be taken seriously as an author, not an “authoress,” she would have to repudiate the local colorists thoroughly and unmistakably. In Ethan Frome she achieves this victory over “the authoresses,” and the literary power of its bleak vision has until recently all but obliterated their “rose and lavender pages.”
Some material in this essay appears in a different form in Donna Campbell, Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction (Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1997).
2. Shirley Marchalonis, introduction to Patrons and Protegeés: Gender, Friendship, and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America, ed. Mar-chalonis (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988), xi. In “The Traditions of Gender,” another essay in the same volume, Cheryl B. Torsney demonstrates that Constance Fenimore Woolson was not so fortunate in escaping the stereotype of being “the ash from which the Jamesian phoenix rises” (170).
4. Recent scholarship has revived the critical reputation of local color fiction. Even before the work of Josephine Donovan, Candace Waid, and Barbara White, however, critics noted parallels between Wharton and her “predecessors.”Tracing Wharton’s debt to local color fiction in three of her unpublished New England novels, Nancy R. Leach (“New England in the Stories of Edith Wharton,” New England Quarterly 30 : 90–98) argued that she “is certainly not a New England writer in the sense that Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman are,” that her vision “can best be compared to Eugene O’Neill’s” (97). More critical of Wharton’s regional fiction than Leach, Abigail Ann Hamblen, “Edith Wharton in New England” (New England Quarterly 38 : 239–244), contended that “Edith Wharton’s approach to the Massachusetts ‘hill country’ savors decidedly of the air of an aristocrat going slumming among the lower orders” (240). Alan Henry Rose showed that the “void” or “absence of experiential possibilities in Wharton’s New England” (‘“Such Depths of Sad Initiation,’” New England Quarterly 50 : 423–39) prevents her characters from becoming initiated into “a sound sense of self” (424).
8. In Edith Wharton’s Letters from the Underworld: Fictions of Women and Writing (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), Candace Waid comments that throughout her life Wharton “made no distinctions between local colorists and sentimentalists” (8).
11. Donovan prefaces her discussion of the mother-daughter estrangement theme in Ethan Frome by connecting it in passing with The Country of the Pointed Firs: “The barren, frozen world of Starkfield, an obviously symbolic name, could not be farther from the green-world bower of the local-color matriarchs. To read Ethan Frome in tandem with Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) is to realize a study in contrast” (66).
12. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 172. In addition to Wolff’s psychobiographical approach to the novel’s thresholds, see Candace Waid’s Edith Wharton’s Letters from the Underground, a perceptive examination of Wharton’s use of frames and interiors (“the woman behind the door”) as a key to reading the novel’s pervasive images of silence and infertility.
13. In “Gender and First-Person Narration in Edith Wharton’s Short Fiction,” Elsa Nettels notes that of the twenty-three male narrators in Wharton’s short fiction, “only the first-person narrator of Ethan Frome has been criticized as unconvincingly masculine” (Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays, ed. Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmit [New York: Garland, 1992], 246).
14. Edith Wharton, introduction to the Modern Student’s Library Edition of Ethan Frome (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), viii. Subsequent references to the introduction and the novel proper will be cited parenthetically in the text.
16. Blake Nevius, Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1953), 123. Elsa Nettels further notes that Wharton’s male narrators are “equal or superior to the other characters in social position” (247) and are identified primarily with other men in groups. She distinguishes several reasons for Wharton’s use of male narrators, among them Wharton’s “persistent view of literary creation as a man’s vocation” (248), the implicit sanction of tradition, and above all a need to adopt the objectivity and power associated with the male perspective, lest the women’s stories they tell be lost.
18. In “Characters and Character: A Note on Fiction” (American Review 6 : 271–88), John Crowe Ransom comments that Wharton’s reporter makes “slight detective motions at gathering [the story]” (273).
19. In “Edith Wharton’s Art of Ellipsis” (Journal of Narrative Technique 17 : 145–62), Jean Frantz Blackall rejects the readings of Cynthia Griffin Wolff, who argues that the blank is “the author’s personal absorption in the narrator’s fearful vision,” and of Elizabeth Ammons, who claims that “the ellipses signify a change in genre, from the realistic outer narrative to the fairy tale within.” Blackall contends rather that Wharton uses ellipses here to mark the shift from narrative to drama and back: “The augmented ellipses mark this transition into the critical moment and out of it into enduring time” (154–55).
20. Elizabeth Ammons identifies these two narrative patterns in “Going in Circles: The Female Geography of Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 16.2 (Fall 1983): 83–92; revised and included as chapter 4 of Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
23. The latter point is made by Jay Martin in Har-vests of Change (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967) quoting a passage from Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s An Old Town by the Sea (1893): “The running of the first train over the Eastern Road from Boston to Portsmouth—it took place more than forty years ago … was attended by a serious accident.… [This] initial train, freighted by many hopes and the Directors of the Road, ran over and killed—Local Character” (135).
24. The extent to which Zeena is seen as an evil force in Ethan’s life varies. In Edith Wharton’s Argument with America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980), Elizabeth Ammons sees Zeena as a fairy-tale wicked witch (complete with cat) to Mattie Silver’s Snow White (63). R. B. Hovey, in “Ethan Frome: A Controversy about Modernizing It,” American Literary Realism 19 (1986): 4-20, describes Zeena as another kind of villain, one who wields her psychoso-matic illness as a weapon in the power struggle against Ethan that ends when “Neurosis conquers all” (17). Susan Goodman, on the other hand, argues that the narrator, blinded by male preconceptions, lacks sympathy for Zeena in what is obviously an untenable situation for her. In Edith Wharton’s Women: Friends and Rivals (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1990), she reads Zeena as an unfairly maligned figure whose story the narrator ignores because of “what he has been primed to see culturally and literarily… By undercutting his authority and reliability, [Wharton] dissociates herself from his error: telling the wrong story” (68).
25. Diane Price Herndl interprets Ethan’s case differently, viewing his lameness as a metaphoric castration and Ethan himself as “stuck at home tending an ill parent… feminized, and there-fore ill” (Invalid Women: Figuring Feminine Illness in American Fiction and Culture, 1840–1940 [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993], 181).
27. Edith Wharton, “Bunner Sisters,” Xingu and Other Stories (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916); reprinted in The Best Short Stories of Edith Wharton, ed. Wayne Andrews (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 254.
28. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, “Idealized New England,” New Republic 3 (1915): 20. In “Cold Ethan and ‘Hot Ethan,’” Cynthia Griffin Wolff sees this resignation as a different sort of antiheroic act, the consequence of Ethan’s own in-effectual, unrealistic romanticizing about his situation: “he explores no avenues that might give their love the adult, social context it requires for survival” (Bendixen and Zilversmit, 108).
29. The sledding incident itself, although drawn from contemporary sources, suggests also the fatal, forbidden sledding incident in Freeman’s Pembroke, where Deborah Thayer believes her son Ephraim’s death to be due to his forbidden sledding, not to a severe beating that she administered. As it does for Ethan Frome, sledding becomes for Ephraim the only symbol of male freedom from his domination by an all-powerful woman. In “The Sledding Accident in Ethan Frome,” Studies in Short Fiction 21 (1984): 145–46, Jean Frantz Blackall discusses Wharton’s sources for this incident and concludes that Ethan’s wish to sit in the front of the sled signifies his desire to protect Mattie by hitting the elm tree first.
30. Joseph X. Brennan, “Ethan Frome: Structure and Metaphor,” Modern Fiction Studies 7 (Winter 1961–62): 352; Kenneth Bernard, “Imagery and Symbolism in Ethan Frome,” College English 23 (December 1961): 183.
Helen Killoran (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Killoran, Helen. “Ethan Frome: The Murder of a Masterpiece.” In The Critical Reception of Edith Wharton, pp. 49–63. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2001.
[In the following essay, Killoran offers a review of how the initially strong critical dismissal of Ethan Frome has affected the novel’s critical reputation.]
No work could be less like The House of Mirth, or anything written by Henry James, than Ethan Frome (1911). Its reception has included ideas flowing with no predictability from comparisons to Greek tragedy, to evocation of the influence of Henry James, to the strange contradiction of lauding it as a masterpiece, while calling it “relentless” and “cruel,” followed by a trend toward socialist readings, then near silence.
The silence resulted from charges by a famous British critic that Ethan Frome is amoral. Lionel Trilling, well respected in academia, tagged Ethan Frome a “dead book” because he found it morally inert. Trilling alone nearly killed the novel critically from 1956 until about 1977, a generation during which as few as ten publications about the novel appeared. Those, written from New Critical concepts, included a few intrepid debates against Trilling’s Aristotelian analysis, but most critics writing before the seventies would have hesitated before attacking morality. After 1977, a trickle of New Critical essays on structure and symbolism indirectly supported Trilling by pointing out the story’s several inconsistencies, but they roused no response to him until Killoran’s in 2000.
But the 1977 psychobiographical reading by Cynthia Griffin Wolff and the 1979 mythological reading by Elizabeth Ammons directly renewed critical interest in the novel as they opened lines of biographical and feminist thought. To them the woes suffered by Mattie, Zenobia, and Ethan’s mother must contain allegories of Wharton’s life and result from a social patriarchy that seeks to repress women. One of the most interesting recent trends in thought about Ethan Frome appears to be a return to ideas first mentioned in the forties and again in the sixties—Puritanism, local color, and regionalism, but from a feminist view. Even so, relative to The House of Mirth, critical treatments of Ethan Frome have been sparse.
The story of Ethan Frome is set not merely in winter, but in the unyielding, colorless cold of a frigid winter in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. The narrator, an outsider, gathers bits of detail from the villagers of Starkfield to puzzle out the events of a generation earlier. He arrives at this story: Ethan, a promising young man with training as an engineer, is forced to leave college to return to the farm because of his father’s death. When his mother falls ill, Ethan’s cousin, Zenobia Pierce, arrives to nurse her, and after his mother’s death, Ethan marries “Zeena.” She creates financial problems, however, by spending their limited resources on quack cures for symptoms of hypochondria. Because she feels ill, Zeena claims to need household help, so her cousin, the attractive Mattie Silver, arrives to exchange housework for room and board. Ethan and Mattie fall in love. When Zenobia realizes this, she banishes Mattie. Ethan feels helpless, but insists on taking Mattie to the train. On the way, the two decide to go sledding, but even after the exhilaration of “the coast,” their passion seems hopeless. They make a suicide pact, then point the sled down a steep incline directly toward a large tree. Ironically or tragically, both survive: Ethan permanently crippled, Mattie paralyzed. Zeena takes Mattie back, and the three live claustrophobically on the impoverished and rapidly deteriorating farm. In the story’s present, the narrator observes unimaginable physical and psychological horrors.
The “Greek Tragedy”
The early reviewers of 1911 tried to characterize Ethan Frome as an agonizing Greek play placed in a Hawthornian New England setting. They respond to it as if it were drama rather than narrative. The New York Times Book Review remarks about the book’s “remorseless spirit of the Greek tragic muse,” its “frozen horror,” and how the “rigidity of the bleak Puritan outlook” survives in spite of the “relentless Fates” (CR 181). The reviewer calls it “a cruel … compelling and haunting story” that Edith Wharton had “built of small, crude things and a rude and violent event, a structure whose purpose is the infinite refinement of torture.” He concludes that Ethan Frome may not be a great novel, but it is an “impressive tragedy” (CR 182). The Nation (1911) contended that the “repugnant” Zeena represents Fate in this “drama,” inspiring fear and loathing in Ethan. His “submission to obligation” is a remnant of the Puritan “spiritual inheritance…. The wonder is that the spectacle of so much pain can be made to yield so much beauty,” for under the “wringing torment” is the “conception which the Greeks expressed in the medusa [sic] head” (CR 184–85). Meanwhile, the Saturday Review claimed that its unusually beautiful writing errs at the end because of “things too terrible in their failure to be told humanly by creature to creature” (CR 185). A story of lovers made to live and suffer indefinitely cannot measure up to Greek drama because “we do not cover the eyes at the spectacle of a really great tragedy” (CR 186). Yet Frederic Taber Cooper of the Bookman, who finds it “hard to forgive” the author’s “utter remorselessness” and “blank despair,” still comments that “Art for art’s sake” justifies its perfect technique (CR 186). The reviewer for the Bookman [England] (1912) describes the book as “beautiful, sad, but intensely human… its final conclusion” having the “inevitability of a great Greek tragedy” (CR 187).
Edwin A. Bjorkman (1913), however, moves away from the idea of a Greek tragedy and instead sounds the early but now familiar note based on the then developing liberal socialist trend: “The tragedy unveiled to us is social rather than personal. Ethan Frome is… a judgment on that system which fails to redeem such villages as Mrs. Wharton’s Starkfield…” (296–97). She “has passed from individual to social art; from the art that excites to that which incites” (299). However, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant (1915) creates a debate between herself and a companion who upholds the Greek tragedy concept. What a supremely cruel book!” she remarks. But her interlocutor uses familiar words calling it a “tragic masterpiece” of iron New England fiction, peopled with Euripidean figures. As her companion slowly loses the argument, Sergeant compares Edith Wharton to Mary Wilkins Freeman and Sarah Orne Jewett (names echoed in the criticism again and again) whose novels include “consoling” pussy willows. She also foreshadows Trilling’s objections by concluding that, “the real New England tragedy… is not that something happens but that nothing does.” Sergeant spends most of the article discussing specific works of Freeman and Jewett in comparison to The House of Mirth, which she enjoyed, and to Ethan Frome, which she finds too realistic and ugly. She ends by predicting that books like Jewett’s The Queen’s Twin will survive when “‘Ethan Frome’ [is] rotting in his grave.”
As with John D. Barry’s response to The House of Mirth, modern critics who have often quoted the “rose colored glasses” section of A Backward Glance have not realized that Edith Wharton was reacting to Sergeant’s review in The New Republic. Her response defends its realism and attempts to draw attention away from Greek tragedy:
The book to the making of which I brought the greatest joy and the fullest ease was Ethan Frome. For years I had wanted to draw life as it really was in the derelict mountain villages of New England, a life even in my time, and a thou-sandfold more a generation earlier, utterly unlike that seen through the rose-coloured spectacles of my predecessors, Mary Wilkins and Sarah Orne Jewett…. Emily Brontë would have found as savage tragedies in our remoter valleys as on her Yorkshire moors…. Ethan Frome shocked my readers less than Summer; but it was frequently criticized as “painful,” and at first had much less success than my previous books.
(BG [A Backward Glance] 293-95)
The usual struggle ensued. As Robert Morss Lovett would later, William Lyon Phelps (1916) dismissed the possibility that Wharton could be a major living novelist, conceding only Ethan Frome as a “masterpiece.” He quotes Carl Van Doren in the Nation (12 January 1921): “Not since Hawthorne has a novelist built on the New England soil a tragedy of such elevation of mood as this.” Lovett (1925) declares it a novel of far more enduring quality than The House of Mirth. Reading Ethan Frome today “the lines are as firm and the colors as clear and un-faded as on the first reading….”
Representative of the disjunction in the critical thinking about the novel—a masterpiece, yet too realistically shocking to read and therefore not a master-piece—Russell Blankenship (1931) calls Ethan Frome “by general acclamation” a masterpiece of grim terror, but one “to be read, not discussed” (507). Grant C. Knight (1931) agrees, calling the work “an American classic” of “poignant nudity” (334). Finally, in 1932, Warren Beach, a major and well-known practitioner of the New Critical school, echoes in his own way the importance of point of view and narration, all in comparison to Henry James. Because of reviews like these, Edith Wharton’s reputation as a literary writer rested on The House of Mirth until 1921, when The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize. Yet while The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence were never completely ignored, between the two, Ethan Frome emerged after her death as the acknowledged classic.
Meanwhile, Edith Wharton had been tolerating her name in the same sentences as Henry James’s since 1899, when her first volume of short stories appeared. This time, however, it seemed that there could be no possible sense of him in a novel of hill-people. Reviewers found it anyway. In 1911 the Nation undermines both Edith Wharton and Henry James by calling Wharton “the greatest pupil of a little master” until “the appearance of Ethan Frome. ” But since James had admitted debt to Balzac, the Nation reasons that the influence of Balzac seems evident in Ethan Frome’s “inception and execution.” When Edith Wharton wrote a rare preface for the 1922 edition, it possibly responded to the Nation’s anonymous critic by citing Balzac’s “Le grande Brèteche” as an example of the type of narration she used.
When the Great Depression of the thirties stimulated intellectual interest in varieties of socialism, it became tempting either to try turning Ethan Frome into a social commentary against the viciousness of poverty, or to rail that Wharton knew nothing about what she had written. Ralph Phillip Boas and Katherine Burton (1933) maintain that Wharton writes merely as an onlooker because of her wealth. Tragedy “lies, where so many theorists have maintained that it cannot lie, in the monotonous hard compulsions of the poor” (264). They also agree that poverty can be found in New England rural districts (265). Adding great weight to the belief that Wharton could be only an onlooker, the great American poet, John Crowe Ransom (1936) censures Wharton’s concept (supposedly acquired under James’s tutelage) of choosing a narrator whose background might be considered similar to her own. Further, he comments that this type of narration is overdone: “Everybody in fiction nowadays employs him” (284). Odd structural patterns and unsatisfactory detail indicate to him that the narration poses serious difficulty because ideally Ethan would tell his own story. Or Wharton could tell it, but if she did, her cultured upper-class voice would prove incongruent; therefore, the outside narrator represents a compromise, the effect being that the narrator simply invented the story (273). To rein-force his point, Ransom quotes Wharton’s own statement that when “an air of artificiality is lent to a tale of complex and sophisticated people which the novelist causes to be guessed at and interpreted by any mere looker-on, there need be no such drawback if the looker-on is sophisticated, and the people he interprets are simple” [Ethan Frome, EF, viii]). Ransom finds it impossible to accept the argument in Wharton’s preface (287). He further takes issue with Wharton’s “peculiar chronological method” (273), a matter that remains the subject of critical commentary.
The Mere Looker-On
The matter of narrative technique aside, Wharton was accused of not knowing what she was talking about. Although she could not have read them, the 1942 remarks of Alfred Kazin sum up the rancor of many leftist critics:
[Ethan Frome ] was not a New England story and certainly not the granite “folk tale” of New England in esse its admirers have claimed it to be. She 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 … New England villages where she spent an occasional summer. There is indeed nothing in any of her work… indicate that she had any conception of the tensions and responsibilities of even the most genteel middle-class poverty…. She thought of the poor not as a class but as a condition; the qualities she automatically ascribed to the poor—drabness, meanness, anguish—became another manifestation of the futility of human effort.
Earlier censure of this type had evoked an angry response from the author:
In an article by an American literary critic, I saw Ethan Frome cited as an interesting example of a successful New England story written by some-one who knew nothing of New England! Ethan Frome was written after I had spent ten years in the hill-region where the scene is laid, during which years I had come to know well the aspect, dialect, and mental and moral attitude of the hill-people. The fact that Summer deals with the same class and type as those portrayed in Ethan Frome, and have the same setting, might have sufficed to disprove the legend—but once such a legend is started it echoes on as long as its subject survives.
During the ten years she “summered” (about six months) in Lenox, Wharton volunteered at the Lenox library, participated in the flower shows, worked with the humane society, and was otherwise socially active among the residents, as well as among the rich inhabitants of the great castles called “summer cottages” (See Lewis , Blackall , and Marshall ).
To add to the injury, a well-known critic, Q. D. Leavis, sledgehammers the notion of Wharton’s debt to James into both public and academic minds simply by the title of her essay: “Henry James’s Heiress: The Importance of Edith Wharton.” She makes the case for Edith Wharton as a serious novelist by relating the background that qualified her to write Jane Austen-like New York novels (76, 85). But, she says, “we do not know how she acquired the material for that moving study of the sufferings of the respectable poor.” Leavis notes that the author “solves the problem of tone by ignoring the reader altogether,” and that Wharton was “first to outrage the accepted pretense of seeing the New England countryside idyllically. Hers was informed realism” (83). Leavis gets many things right in this 1938 essay, but her superior tone seems to undo any good she might have done for Wharton’s reputation.
But Wharton also had a reputation among editors as “difficult.” Ellery Sedgwick, unaware that to Wharton punctuation was as important as word choice (see Blackall 147-63), writes about his editorial alterca-tions with her. He tried to convince her to change her British spelling and punctuation to conform to his magazine’s format, but the (to him) unbearably fussy Edith Wharton prevailed in her “Jamesian standards,” leaving Sedgwick fearing blame for careless editing. He finally solved the problem by means of a polite footnote denying responsibility. Still, while Sedgwick appears to agree with those who deny Wharton’s knowledge of New England, he does not deny the reality of her sources. He remarks that he had grown up in New England where Ethan Frome dwelt and marveled about where Wharton had found the material for this stark and terrible history. “Yankees on the remote farms are a dour race, consenting under duress to a Calvinistic Providence…. But the Yankees I knew were in their spiritual inheritance Scotch, and Ethan Frome was an Aeschylean,” he writes, alluding to one of the ever-haunting Greek playwrights. He wrote to the author to inquire, and “she bade me turn to Henry James. Somewhere in America Revisited, I think, runs the passage: ‘Trim New England farm houses with their green blinds and Cenci-like interiors’” (xxiv-xxv). (Sedgwick means The American Scene, 47.)
But Edith Wharton, apparently having given up defending herself against the James “legend,” undoubtedly meant Sedgwick to note as well that she had been the Chekhovian lady with the lapdog touring New England with Henry James, and touring, of course, is a means of learning. Sedgwick apparently missed it. He admits quoting from vague memory, but confesses that it caused him to recall a forgotten incident that ironically proves Wharton’s power: “Wandering one day among the outbuildings of a ramshackle farm, I was startled by a piercing shriek coming from a wood shed. I flung open the door and there chained to an upright joist, with a chair to sit on, bread and water by her side, was a hag with streaming hair, horribly insane” (xxv).
But from the far left, Alfred Kazin’s 1942 remarks in On Native Ground gave rise to dialogue. His book, a survey of American literature that includes a generally negative discussion of Edith Wharton and her work, claims that the author specializes in “tales of victimization” (56) rather than Greek “fate.” Blake Nevius (1953) believes Alfred Kazin’s argument that Ethan Frome could be reconciled with The House of Mirth by demonstrating “the spiritual value of failure” (197). Critics still refer to Nevius’s book which states that as with many of Wharton’s novels, the real theme is “the baffling, wasteful submission of a superior nature [Ethan] to an inferior one [Zeena]” (198). According to him, then, both Lily Bart and Ethan represent spiritual waste, not Furies or Fate, and not class victimization.
The Murder of a Masterpiece
Although J. D. Thomas (1953) concludes that the novel is full of mistakes, the final blow to the reputation of Ethan Frome as a “masterpiece” probably resulted from Lionel Trilling’s important essay, “A Morality of Inertia” (1956). Trilling calls the novel “factitious” and revives the word “cruel”: “Whenever the characters of a story suffer, they do so at the be-hest of their author—the author is responsible for their suffering and must justify his cruelty by the seriousness of his moral intention” (138). He refers to Ethan Frome as “a dead book” with no “moral reverberation” occurring during the reading. Instead, it makes the reader participate in the cathartic pleasure that “derives from observing the pain of others” (140). We should “observe something more than mere passivity”—some “meaning, some show of rationality” (141). As Aristotle taught, literature must instruct. Because Ethan does nothing “by moral election” (144), Trilling all but describes it as sinful to enjoy this novel, and he blames Edith Wharton for her “limitation of heart.” Trilling’s essay virtually halted further critical commentary on Ethan Frome until 1961. The first true Wharton scholar, James Tu-tleton, notes that that essay was “one of the great failures of this great critic’s career” (See Tuttleton, 100). The few essays written during the following seven years either side with Trilling or feebly defend Wharton against him.
However, in 1957 Nancy Leach had turned from moral commentary to apply New Critical techniques to three of Wharton’s incomplete manuscripts, concluding that to the author New England represents lack of culture and thwarted human potential. This article helps readers appreciate the craftsmanship praised by the earliest reviewers, by pointing out “the compatibility of setting and character, the uses of light and dark, and the sexual symbolism,” as well as the plethora of images of people “caught, bound, trapped” and imprisoned. It demonstrates how white, black, red, and gray imagery play against one another. It concludes that Ethan Frome is “a negative person,” and that his tragedy is entirely of his own making. That analysis contradicts the “cruel,” unendurable quality to which critics like Trilling had earlier objected.
Another close reading by Joseph X. Brennan (1961) sets out to return the volume to classic status. In an interesting echo of earlier criticism, he remarks that “the narrator has liberally endowed [Ethan] with much the same sensitivity he himself possesses” (349). He contrasts indoor and outdoor scenes, finds the inside of the farmhouse symbolizing morality and constraint, while the outdoors symbolizes natural freedom. Brennan associates Ethan with the Romantic sensibility of nature.
Over time topics had switched from Greek tragedy, to socialist intentions against poverty, to morality, and finally to a kind of Emersonian Romanticism. Still, a relatively large chronological gap in the criticism occurs between 1961 and the mid-seventies. The inevitable exception is provided by Pucknat and Pucknat (1969), who note deep affinities betweenEthan Frome and Gottfried Keller’s Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorft [A Village Romeo and Juliet]. In 1974 Richard Lawson expands the subject to the larger topic of German literature in several articles and ultimately in a book of some note.
How Ethan Reflects Edith
1977 did produce three essays, however. That by David Eggenschwiler illustrates their combined points. He debates both Trilling and Kenneth Bernard (1961), proposing that Trilling’s accusation of moral passivity in the face of a cruel universe and Bernard’s concept that Ethan causes his own suffering are simultaneously possible because the novel is so classically complex that it can contain opposing ideas with-out destroying its coherence.
Also in 1977, Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s critical biography attempts to place each of Wharton’s works into the context of her continuing psychological development. Wolff reads Ethan Frome as a figment of the narrator’s imagination, the same conclusion John Crowe Ransom had drawn. The novel itself is a “vision” pieced together from fragments of gossip, within which Ethan also has a vision, a story that “becomes a veritable dance around the notion of vision” (179). To Wolff the story is not about Ethan at all, but subtly explicates Wharton’s “private night-mare” of crossing the threshold from an emotionally starved adolescence to discovery of creative and sexual fulfillment as a mature woman. Wolff further suggests the novel’s relationships to Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Honoré de Balzac’s “Le grand Bretêche,” Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The novel’s scenery not only recalls Haw-thorne’s Blithedale Romance, but also “Ethan Brand” (163). Wolff concludes that the novel is not actually about Ethan at all, but about the isolation of the narrator, for it “focuses on the narrator’s problem: the tension between his public self and his shadow self, his terror of a seductive and enveloping void” (184).
The same year Elizabeth Ammons indirectly concedes the influence of Trilling by summarizing the debates against him. Her feminist approach to Ethan Frome describes the novel as a deliberately inverted “Snow White.” She cites physical descriptions and typical fairy tale numbers to support the concept that the isolated woman, Zeena, becomes the stereotypical witch in Ethan’s eyes, in turn dramatizing a “deeply rooted, male fear of woman” (128). The argument contends that “Zeena’s identity and fate stalk Mattie until… she too becomes a witch” (132). Ammons’s mythological analysis adds a compelling aspect to the canon of critical response that punctuates the great change in Wharton studies instigated by Lewis and Wolff. For Ethan Frome, that change turned largely toward psychological and biographical criticism-attempts to draw analogies between the writer’s life and her fiction.
Since the late seventies critical output on Ethan Frome has decreased to an average of about one article per year possibly because, except for feminist theories, Ethan Frome fails to respond to many of the currently prevailing critical approaches. But such trends rarely develop unwaveringly, and in a traditional mode that predominantly agrees with Trilling, Edward Sagarin (1981) reads Ethan Frome as “punishment without crime … [and] suffering without hope of alleviation” and no possible redemption (97). Wharton, he says, deliberately wrote a unique triangular tragedy that she recognized as “the universal history of mankind” (109).
Two years later, a study by Orlene Murad adds to biographical readings, supposing that the author could identify so well with Ethan because she was “experiencing Ethan’s dilemma in a miserable marriage” also caused by a sickly spouse (95). Another biographical connection was found by Jean Frantz Blackall (1984), who uses the literary historical technique to reveal that when Wharton volunteered at the Lenox library, she worked alongside a young woman, Kate Spenser, who had been permanently disfigured by taking the full force of exactly the type of sledding accident that occurs in the novel. In fact, The Berkshire Evening Eagle (1904) describes it. Blackall certainly located the source of the crucial scene, if not of the story itself. Scott Marshall would add to this information in 1993 by quoting from Edith Wharton’s letters to Kate Spenser.
By the eighties the feminist, psychological, and biographical ideologies, and combinations of them, predominate in studies of Ethan Frome to the point that one critic, R. B. Hovey (1986), bravely criticizes the predominating methods, naming Ammons and Wolff in particular for “‘creativity’… [that] reshape[s] Wharton’s art almost beyond recognition” (4). He fears that their approach will “ossify into the ideological” a work “predominantly realistic” (12), although he finds a recognizably Freudian victory (17). Wolff simply responds by writing another of the essays that attempt to find sources, romans à clef, and parallel themes in Edith Wharton’s life and work. This time Wolff formulates a metaphorical comparison of the story’s themes to problems in Edith’s marriage to Teddy Wharton. Her love affair with Morton Fullerton represents “grotesque mirror-images of love deformed” (236). In the cases of Teddy Wharton and Henry James, Wharton’s dedication to “ses deux malades” [her ailing husband and friend] creates (echoing Trilling) a “lodestone of inertia” around the passionate, energetic woman’s neck to parallel Ethan’s “lodestone” consisting of Zeena and Mattie. Overall, Wolff contends that the most telling similarities between Wharton’s life and art in Ethan Frome can be found in her marriage.
Considerations of Sources, Genre, and Religion
The critical reception of the nineties seems to indicate another era of diminished interest in Ethan Frome, although it continues to be taught, and few have suggested that it is any less the masterpiece people thought prior to the Trilling attack. Blackall (1992) describes in detail how Emily Bront’s Wuthering Heights strongly suggests that the story is essentially a descendant, or even an adaptation, of Bront’s novel. Marlene Springer (1993) reads Ethan Frome as “a nightmare of need,” adding to Wolff’s interpretation by again comparing the barren emotional circumstances of Wharton’s life to the starkness of the novel. Zeena had become “a mysterious alien presence, an evil energy…” (51). Symbols reveal the tragic web in which the novel’s characters find themselves inexorably trapped (94). Springer adds that the novel’s philosophy reflects an indifferent universe, the conflict between duty and happiness, the influence of heredity and environment on moral choices, and that, as Trilling had implied, characters “live in the moral universe of the Book of Job” (97).
In contrast (to simplify a long and learned argument) Carol Singley (1995) argues that Ethan Frome is both Calvinistic and the result of complex personal and literary forces that affected the author throughout her life. She finds that “Wharton’s most Calvinist novel, Ethan Frome, posits an unredeemed and unredeemable universe” (107). Donna Campbell (1997), however, returns to Sara Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, with whom many critics have grouped Edith Wharton in the regionalist or local colorist genre. But Campbell constructs an argument based on the novel’s structure and narration, contending that Wharton distances herself from, for one thing, “the local color use of the female narrator by rejecting a convention common to local color fiction…” (163).
So the reception of Ethan Frome has moved jerkily through several phases of critical interpretation and back again. Readers have found it too grim to be a true Greek tragedy, and have questioned Edith Wharton’s knowledge of New England. They have argued whether it qualifies as a “masterpiece” or as leftist social criticism, found it influenced by local color and regional landscape, as well as strict Calvinist concepts of plain living. Much of the criticism agrees that something must account for the story’s horror. Lionel Trilling’s immensely influential essay dismissed it as having “moral inertia.” After discussions about whether or not it qualifies as a masterpiece halt completely, the word “masterpiece” seems never to have resurfaced. Then, throughout most of its reception, the question became not whether Henry James influenced the novel, but how. The next major turn in the thinking about the novel occurred after the Lewis and Wolff biographies, so full of surprises that they renewed interest in much of Edith Wharton’s work. At that point feminist, feminist-psychological, and feminist-biographical readings predominated, their authors fond of finding parallels between Wharton’s life, work, and stories that stereotype and degrade women. Oddly out of chronology, at the end of the eighties and nineties New Critics produced bits and pieces of literary historical information. In 2000, religious and regionalist considerations are reemerging, this time tied to feminist ideals. Still no one has solved the puzzle as to why, as Trilling pointed out, a novel in which “nothing happens,” produces such in-describable horror.
Edith Wharton’s next major novel, The Custom of the Country, could not be more different from Ethan Frome, returning as it does to high society, yet it has its own horror, the indescribably monstrous Undine Spragg.
Ammons, Elizabeth. “Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and the Question of Meaning.” Studies in American Fiction 7 (1979): 127-40.
Beach, Joseph Warren. The Twentieth-Century Novel: Studies in Technique. New York: Century, 1932.
Bernard, Kenneth. “Imagery and Symbolism in Ethan Frome.” College English 23 (December 1961): 171–84.
Bjorkman, Edwin A. “The Greater Edith Wharton.” Voices of Tomorrow: Critical Studies of the New Spirit in Literature. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1913. 290-304.
Blackall, Jean Frantz. “Edith Wharton’s Art of Ellipsis.” Journal of Narrative Technique 17 (Spring 1987): 145-62.
—————. “Imaginative Encounter: Edith Wharton and Emily Brontë.” Edith Wharton Review 9.1 (Spring 1992): 9-11, 27.
—————.“The Sledding Accident in Ethan Frome.” Studies in Short Fiction 21.2 (Spring 1984): 145-46.
Blankenship, Russell. American Literature as an Expression of the American Mind. New York: Holt, 1931.
Boas, Ralph Phillip, and Katherine Burton. Social Backgrounds of American Literature. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1933. 263-65.
Brennan, Joseph X. “Ethan Frome: Structure and Metaphor.” Modern Fiction Studies 3 (Winter 1961): 347-56.
Cooper, Frederic Taber. “Ethan Frome.” Rev. of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Bookman 34 (November 1911): 312.
—————. “Current Fiction: Ethan Frome.” Rev. of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Nation 93 (26 October 1911): 396-97.
Eggenschwiler, David. “The Ordered Disorder of Ethan Frome.” Studies in the Novel 9 (1977): 237–46.
“Ethan Frome.” Rev. of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Saturday Review [England] 112 (18 November 1911): 650.
Hays, Peter. “Wharton’s Splintered Realism.” Edith Wharton Newsletter 2.1 (Spring 1985): 6.
Hovey, R. B. “Ethan Frome. A Controversy about Modernizing It.” American Literary Realism 19.1 (Fall 1986): 4-20.
James, Henry. The American Scene. Bloomington, IN: U of Indiana P, 1968. 47.
Kazin, Alfred. “Edith Wharton.” Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Irving Howe. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962. 89-94.
Killoran, Helen. “Under the Granite Outcroppings of Ethan Frome.” Literary Imagination 2.3 (Fall 2000):32–34.
Knight, Grant C. The Novel in English. New York: Richard B. Smith, 1931.
Lawson, Richard. Edith Wharton and German Literature. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grund-mann, 1974.
Leach, Nancy. “New England in the Stories of Edith Wharton.” New England Quarterly 30 (March 1957): 90-98.
Leavis, Q. D. “Henry James’s Heiress: The Importance of Edith Wharton.” Scrutiny (December, 1938). Rpt. in Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Irving Howe. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962. 73-88.
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Lovett, Robert Morss. Edith Wharton. New York: Robert D. McBride, 1925.
Marshall, Scott. “Edith Wharton, Kate Spenser, and Ethan Frome.” Edith Wharton Review 10.1 (Spring 1993): 20-21.
Murad, Orlene. “Edith Wharton and Ethan Frome.” Modern Language Studies 13 (Summer 1983): 90–103.
Nevius, Blake. Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction. 1953. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1961.
—————.“Ethan Frome and the Themes of Edith Wharton’s Fiction.” The New England Quarterly Review 24 (June 1951): 197-207.
Pattee, Fred L. The New American Literature 1890–1930. New York: Century, 1930.
Phelps, William Lyon. “The Advance of the English Novel, X.” Bookman 43 (July 1916): 515-24. Rpt. in The Advance of the English Novel. New York: Dodd Mead, 1916.
Pucknat, E. M., and S. B. Pucknat. “Edith Wharton and Gottfried Keller.” Comparative Literature 21 (Summer 1969): 245-54.
Ransom, John Crowe. “Characters and Character: A Note on Fiction.” The American Review 6 (January 1936): 271-88.
Review of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. The Berkshire Evening Eagle. [Pittsfield, Mass.] (12 March 1904): 1+.
Review of Ethan Frome. Rev. of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Bookman. [England] 41 (January 1912): 216.
Sagarin, Edward. “Ethan Frome: Atonement Endures until Darkness Descends.”Raskolnikov and Others: Literary Images of Crime, Punishment, Redemption and Atonement. Ed. Edward Sagarin. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1981.
Sedgwick, Ellery. Introduction. Atlantic Harvest. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1947.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. “Idealized New England.” Review of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. The New Republic 3 (May 8, 1915): 20-21.
Springer, Marlene. Ethan Frome: A Nightmare of Need. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993.
Thomas, J. D. “Marginalia on Ethan Frome.” American Literature 27 (November 1953): 405–9.
“Three Lives in Supreme Torture: Mrs. Wharton’s Ethan Frome a Cruel, Compelling, Haunting Story of New England.” Rev. of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. New York Times Book Review (8 October 1911): 603.
Trilling, Lionel. “The Morality of Inertia.” Ethan Frome: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Irving Howe. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962. 137-46.
Tuttleton, James W. American Women Writers: Bib-liographical Essays. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1983. 100.
Tuttleton, James W., Kristin O. Lauer, and Margaret P. Murray. Edith Wharton: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Van Doren, Carl. “Contemporary American Novelists.” Nation 112 (12 January 1921): 40-41. Rpt. in Contemporary American Novelists 1900–1920. New York: Macmillan, 1923.
Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. New York: Appleton-Century, 1934. Rpt. New York: Scribners, 1985. 293-95.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
—————. Cold Ethan and ‘Hot Ethan.’” College Literature 14.3 (1987): 230-45. Rpt. in Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. Eds. Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmit. New York: Garland, 1992.
Monika M. Elbert (essay date December 2003)
SOURCE: Elbert, Monika M. “Wharton’s Hybridization of Hawthorne’s ‘Brand’ of Gothic Gender Crossings in ‘Ethan Brand’ and ‘Bewitched.’” American Transcendental Quarterly 17, no. 4 (December 2003): 221-41.
[In the following essay, Elbert suggests that, with works such as Ethan Frome and Summer, Wharton sought to slough off the limitations of female authorship by aligning herself with such overtly masculine writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne.]
In A Backward Glance, Wharton describes her creation of the New England Gothic landscape in Ethan Frome and in Summer by showing her indebtedness to Hawthorne’s sense of darkness, which she sees as a realistic appraisal of New England life, much more realistic than that of the Realist writers of her own generation. She quite emphatically disavows any allegiance to her female predecessors, Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary W. Freeman, whom she accuses of seeing New England village life through “rose-coloured spectacles” (293). Instead, she evokes Hawthorne’s name to defend herself against those critics who found her frank discussion of sexuality too startling: these reviewers, she complains, “had for years sought the reflection of local life in the rose-and-lavender pages of their favourite authoresses—and had forgotten to look into Hawthorne’s” (294). Indeed, Wharton’s pictures of New England in Ethan Frome and Summer and the settings of her ghost stories are stunningly like his. She describes her terrain as “grim places, morally and physically: [where] insanity, incest, and slow mental and moral starvation were hidden away behind the paintless wooden house-fronts on the long village street, or in the isolated farmhouses on the neighboring hills” (294).
I would disagree with Wharton’s too cheery assessments of Jewett and Freeman, as anyone who has read their Gothic stories knows the extent to which the protagonist enters a terrifying world of self-exploration and non-connectedness. My purpose here, though, is to show why Wharton invests so much of her energy into aligning herself with a male writer rather than with female writers. Had Wharton taken a peek into Freeman’s house of horrors, as depicted in her many ghost stories, I am not sure she would have made such a biased statement. It is true, however, that Jewett and Freeman seem more concerned than Wharton and Hawthorne in dealing specifically with women’s issues revolving around mothering, women’s sexual repression, and sisterhood. And as Candace Waid has pointed out, in works like Ethan Frome and Summer, Wharton clearly was rebelling against a sentimental and “feminine aesthetic” (11). Moreover, throwing off the shackles of feminine influence, Wharton is able to analyze the plight of the imprisoned female Gothic heroine (as well as the female Gothic writer), in a rather convoluted way, to take up the more complicated task for a woman writer, to penetrate the mysteries of the male psyche and male sexuality. Though she is not always overly sympathetic to Hawthorne’s type of tormented male Gothic hero, she certainly finds the prototype interesting enough to make him the basis of many of her studies. Wharton takes up the aborted woman’s story in many a Hawthornean Gothic story but only to elucidate man’s own struggle with his sexuality. Indeed, as she points out in French Ways and Their Meaning, it is the legacy of the dark Puritan past which has destroyed male/female relationships in America: “The long hypocrisy which Puritan England handed on to America concerning the danger of frank and free social relations between men and women has done more than anything else to retard real civilisa-tion in America” (112-13).
Recent feminist critics of Wharton and of the Gothic, following the lead of Claire Kahane in her influential essay on the “Gothic Mirror,” have explained that the paradigmatic conflict in Wharton’s text revolves around the question of the “buried mother,” whom the daughter needs to resuscitate and come to terms with, in order to find her own identity. Some, in fact, perceive biographical parallels between Wharton and her own mother in the Gothic mirrorings of her text; Susan Goodman sees Ethan Frome as a Gothic narrative, “in which Wharton explores her own struggle for independence from a demanding and overbearing mother.” (Wharton’s Women 74).1 Most Whartonian feminist critics stay within the parameters of women’s concerns, but a few are daring enough to trespass into male territory in the same way Wharton did; thus, Carol Singley, in her essay, “Gothic Borrowings and Innovations in Edith Wharton’s ‘A Bottle of Perrier, ’” shows that Wharton “follows a tradition of ghost fiction by British and American women writers [Mary Wilkins Freeman, among them]… which deals in varying ways with the missing or longed-for mother” (273). She then shows, though, how Wharton “rewrites mother-child relations in terms of three men”—in “A Bottle of Perrier ” (274). Likewise, Kathy Fedorko in her book on Wharton’s Gothic, asserts that in Gothic stories like “Bewitched, ” which I will take up shortly, Wharton’s male protagonists are forced to appreciate or identify with the feminine or maternal within themselves.
While applauding Singley’s and Fedorko’s attempts to balance the equations between the genders in Wharton, I would like to go one step further to show that the gender really trapped in the Gothic model, as perceived by Wharton and Hawthorne, is the male gender. Not only are their sexual desires stunted or abnormal, but they cannot seem to function within a physical (be it sexual or professional) framework or material realm. Hence, the many solipsistic and effete intellectual bachelors in Hawthorne’s and Wharton’s Gothic who cannot connect with women, who cannot hold jobs properly, and who ultimately self-destruct in a moment of self-loathing. A lot of frenetic narcissistic and masturbatory energy is spent, as in Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand,” for nought. These are studies in male anxiety, rage, and explosiveness. The dog in “Ethan Brand” replicates the male quest structure; his ceaseless chasing of his tail is as useless an endeavor as Ethan Brand’s suicidal searching within himself for all his answers, or Dimmesdale’s indulging in self-flagellation to stave off his sense of guilt. This bachelor type who cannot bond is the object of sympathy for Wharton and for Hawthorne, not as Judith Sensibar says, the type of Modernist representative man who is to be critiqued.2 In Wharton’s case, though, there is a transference occurring between herself, the narrative voice, and the bachelor protagonist—a kind of gender crossing that will permit her to bond vicariously and momentarily as a male, if not as a female. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has pointed out, male bonding became increasingly suspect and dangerous to the hold on capitalistic power by heterosexual males, so that by the nineteenth century, homosociality became viewed as a taboo and a real threat to the status quo. Speaking in another context, Deborah Lindsay Williams shows how Wharton had to shun a public sisterhood in her attempt to become a canonical author, recognized as equal to her male peers. Bonding between the same sex, then, for the feminized or homosocial male, as well as for the intellectualized female, seems destructive to one’s locus of power. Thus, Wharton’s affiliation with James or with Hawthorne would be safer or more advantageous than a bond with a contemporary woman writer, such as Cather.
My analysis of the trapped male (who, ironically, sometimes represents the trapped woman for Wharton), goes against the current notion that woman alone is the imprisoned or victimized gender in the Gothic genre. Michelle Massé, for example, describes woman being “trapped” as the condition of the Gothic heroine; in her version of “marital Gothic,” as she articulates it in In the Name of Love: Women, Masochism, and the Gothic, woman is first imprisoned by her father, and then by her husband, in a home not of her own making. But the framework does not really apply to Hawthorne’s Gothic stories, where the male protagonists, e.g. Aylmer in “The Birthmark,” Rap-paccini in “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Ethan in “Ethan Brand,” and Roderick in “The Bosom Serpent,” are beleaguered by an excessively strong, rational intellect and an inability to connect with others. I would not necessarily call this masculine, as these are characteristics which Wharton shows, in Gothic stories like “Bewitched, ” that women can share. Thus, it is less a question of temperament than of repression—be it masculine or feminine, rage or sexuality. Hawthorne presents females as catalysts for male development (Georgiana, Beatrice, Esther, Rosina); the women’s stories are usually inconsequential. Though this has exasperated feminist critics since the time of Judith Fetterley’s reading of “The Birthmark” in The Resisting Reader, where she claims that the story is about “how to murder your wife and get away with it” (22), Hawthorne seems to be more interested in exposing the folly of a deteriorating male psyche than the plight of the helpless female victim. After all, the cause of Georgiana’s death is not that Aylmer has become too masculine, in the traditional feminist sense, but that he is not masculine enough; he speculates wildly rather than examining scientific data in a rational, empirical way. That the females are imprisoned in the traditional Gothic sense (Beatrice within a garden, Georgiana in a laboratory, Esther by a psychological experiment) goes without saying, but Hawthorne’s energies seem to lie with the devastated male characters, who shape the women’s lives and deaths, but who live rather solipsistically in a world of their own making.
Wharton, resisting the urge to paint New England through effeminate pictures, takes her cue from Hawthorne in evoking the imbalance in the male psyche as the source of terror in Gothic tales. I would disagree with Anne Williams’s assessment that there is a distinct male and female Gothic tradition (Art of Darkness). If there is, there is much cross-dressing going on for Wharton. There are dozens of Whartonian male Gothic heroes who could step out of the pages of Hawthorne: Mr. Kenneth Ashby (who abandons his wife, children, and mother for an image of a dead woman) in “The Pomegranate Seed” is very much like Hawthorne’s Wakefield; Rainer and George Faxon, who are done “in” by the business world in “The Triumph of Night” or Ned Boyne in “After-ward” are very much like Hawthorne’s “Feather-top”; and the many wandering bachelor types or disenchanted husbands in Wharton (as Mr. Brympton and Mr. Ranford in “The Lady Maid’s Bell,” Culwin in “The Eyes,” and the narrator as well as male protagonists in “Kerfol” ) are like the mad scientist bachelor types in Hawthorne. Indeed, Sedgwick has pointed out that the image of the Victorian bachelor type grew out of the earlier Gothic bachelor hero, with the difference being that the earlier Gothic type seems more idealistic, and the Gothic hero’s solipsism is reduced to selfishness (Epistemology 188-89). Sedgwick, in her historical overview of homosocial desire, shows how “homosexual panic” endemic to the nineteenth century grew out of the “paranoid Gothic” that depicted male characters repressing their homosocial and homosexual desires: “the paranoid Gothic powerfully signified, at the very moment of crystallization of the modern, capitalism-marked oedipal family, the inextricability from that formation of a strangling double bind in male homosocial constitution” (187). She insists that such “homosexual panic” among heterosexual men has emerged from their fear of losing “power over the production, re-production, and exchange of goods, persons, and meanings” (185). Sedgwick quite clearly notes that patriarchal homophobic behavior and attitudes generate repressive feelings towards women in society: “while male homosexuality does not correlate in a transhistorical way with political attitudes toward women, homophobia directed at men by men almost always travels with a retinue of gynephobia and antifeminism” (Between Men 216). It is this latter point of departure that especially informs my analysis of changing views of manhood and bachelorhood as well as the denigration of women in Wharton’s “Bewitched” and Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand.”
Many Wharton critics, from R. W. B. Lewis on, have found similarities between Wharton’s Ethan Frome and Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand” (see also Fryer, Goodman, Waid). As Cynthia Griffin Wolff says about Wharton’s Ethan Frome, “the only other notable Ethan in American literature is Ethan Brand of Mount Graylock (a geographical neighbor of Wharton’s Le-nox and psychological kin of the villagers in Stark-field—amongst whom Wharton lived in imagination for ten years” (163). Goodman asserts that Wharton “may show her indebtedness to Hawthorne by appropriating the name Ethan from ‘Ethan Brand’ and Ze-nobia from The Blithedale Romance” (74-75). Though Singley shows connections between Ethan Frome and The Blithedale Romance and “Ethan Brand,” she feels that they are inconsequential, and that actually, “Ethan Frome revises another Haw-thornean text: The Scarlet Letter” in its exploration of “illicit passion” as well as in its narrative structure (Matters of Mind 112-13).
No one, though, has noted the many striking connections between Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand” and Wharton’s story “Bewitched ” (1925).3 To briefly summarize the Wharton story, for those not acquainted with it: three men are summoned by the very cold, patriarchal, and practical Mrs. Rutledge to the Rutledge farm. They include the narrator, Orrin Bosworth, a successful farmer who has become a local selectman; Deacon Hibben, the local minister; and Sylvester Brand, the widower, who has lost his wife and older daughter to untimely deaths (most likely, through emotional or physical abuse). Mrs. Rutledge informs them that her husband has not been right for the last year, that he has been “bewitched” (historically speaking, just another term for sexualized). As the male narrator later puts it, when he sees Rutledge, he looked like a “drowned man fished out from under the ice—self-drowned’…. Saul Rutledge [had been transformed] from the straight muscular fellow he had been a year before into the haggard wretch now before them” (151). Interestingly, his masculine, “straight muscular” physique has been subverted by his encounter with the demon woman. It turns out that Mr. Rutledge has been having an affair with Ora Brand, the deceased daughter of Sylvester Brand, at least this is what he tells the men. In reality, he has been having an affair with the younger Brand sister, Venny, who was known to run “wild” and “barefoot” on the slopes of Lonetop” (158, Ethan Brand’s “Graylock”?). When the men follow Rutledge to his trysting place with the ghost, Sylvester Brand inadvertently shoots his younger daughter, whom he takes to be the spirit of Ora. The Brand sisters, with their witchcraft or sexuality, have been both laid to rest by the end of the story.
Again, in Wharton’s “Bewitched, ” we are in the same locale as in Ethan Frome, in Lonetop, a village adjacent to Starkfield, Ethan Brand’s old haunt. More importantly, the male protagonists in both stories are called “Brand.” Sylvester Brand in Wharton’s “Bewitched ” literally drives three women (his wife and two daughters) into an early grave, through his emotional coldness and physical aggression. Ethan Brand, on the other hand, has destroyed a woman in his search for the unpardonable Sin. Haw-thorne writes off the woman’s story in one long sentence. The old man asks Brand about his daughter who had joined the circus, and Hawthorne describes her as “the Esther of our tale; the very girl whom, with such cold and remorseless purpose, Ethan Brand had made the subject of a psychological experiment, and wasted, absorbed, and perhaps annihilated her soul, in the process” (1060). Indeed, in some ways, this is the repetition of the witchburnings, which made New England famous. But embedded in the woman’s stories revealed in the Gothic, are the men’s indecipherable stories—their affiliation with the out-side, the non-rational, the realm of witches. Ethan Brand has conjured up the fiend and is now shunned by the community. Sylvester Brand, in Wharton’s story, is known to descend from a family of witches: we hear “that North Ashmore woman who was burned had the name of Brand. The same stock, no doubt; there had been Brands in Hemlock Country ever since the white men had come there” (158). Mrs. Rutledge wants to drive a stake through Ora Brand’s breast, as she recollects her childhood story of Hannah Cory, another woman in the neighborhood who had been accused of witchcraft. So both Ethan and Sylvester Brand are branded by the imprint of witchery. At one point, Ethan Brand is described in terms of being a fiend (“Thus Ethan Brand became a fiend.” ); and the deacon, who is called to exorcise the spirit of the departed Brand’s daughter from Farmer Rutledge, seems to want to exorcise the badness out of Sylvester Brand too. Brand invokes God’s name when he denies that Ora has come back to haunt his neighbor, Rutledge: “It’s a God-damned fiend-begottn lie…,” to which Deacon Hibben responds, “Friend Brand… friend Brand,” in a effort to comfort/exorcise Brand. “Friend” here is clearly only a slight variation of fiend! And certainly their demonic laughter has the same source of exasperation and futility. We hear about Ethan Brand’s terrifying laughter: “That night the sound of a fearful peal of laughter rolled heavily through the sleep of the lime-burner and his little son; dim shapes of horror and anguish haunted their dreams” (1065). Similarly, Sylvester Brand’s laughter is unsettling throughout the story: his is “the rusty creaking laugh of one whose springs of mirth are never moved by gaiety” (150).
Certainly we are in Hawthorne’s land of witches when we hear the name Hibben evoked. Could Deacon Hibben, who tries to reconcile a world of spirit with a world of flesh, be a descendant of Hawthorne’s Mistress Hibbins? Margaret B. McDowell rightfully points out that Deacon Hibben’s atrophied mind is reinforced by his “mildewed aspect”; there is a sense of decay about him, “just as his fire-bright eyes in an ashen face suggest the demonic and the fact that the demonic may, at times, gain the upper hand over civility” (150). Indeed, the wasting away is reminiscent of Hawthorne’s intellectual scientists, whose pallor and sickliness are the hallmarks of the chronic masturbator in nineteenth-century advice manuals and cautionary tales. The gender dynamics of “Bewitched, ” “Ethan Brand,” and The Scarlet Letter are similar; men’s own inept development of a sexual and relational self is played off against the body of a witch woman, whether that be the scapegoat Hester (or Brand’s Esther) or Mistress Hibbins.4 It is Dimmesdale’s narcissistic masturbatory self-flagellation, Chillingworth’s sublimation of sexuality into hatred, and Ethan Brand’s preoccupation with self, played out one more time against the backdrop of New England.
Sylvester Brand’s relationship, true to Gothic convention, is based on incest; Orrin recalls the story he heard in his childhood that “Sylvester Brand hadn’t ever oughter married his own cousin, because of the blood” (158). If it is true that “Bewitched” has parallels to the “Beatrice Palmato” fragment about incest, as Barbara A. White suggests (104), then Brand’s in-cestuous behavior might have been the cause of his wife’s and first daughter’s early untimely deaths. That is why he probably has forbidden the former suitor, Mr. Rutledge, now stuck in a repressive marriage to Prudence Rutledge, to marry Ora many years ago. As a result, Rutledge becomes another of the disturbed men in the text, searching for completion in the image of a dead woman, living in the frame of a nature sprite of a woman. In falling in love with Venny, Ora’s double, he tries to recapture a younger sense of self, but Brand, again, must intercede, if he is to retain possession over Venny, his wild daughter. Thus, Brand’s last gesture, the wild phallic fatal shooting of Venny, could be perceived as an act of eradicating the evil of his daughter’s sexuality, or his illicit desire for her body, or a manifestation of his jealous rage, that another man has had access to her body.
Like the “three worthies” in “Ethan Brand” (the stagecoach agent, the lawyer, and the doctor) who sit in the tavern and drink away the nothingness of their lives, the three men visiting Mrs. Rutledge’s home must face the nothingness of their lives in their confrontation with a maddened Mr. Rutledge. (The latter is a convoluted reflection of his wife, the repressed Mrs. Rutledge, much as Orrin mirrors the ghost, Ora, in being her mouthpiece, by telling the forbidden story of another double figure, his aunt.) Even before the men’s jaunt through the cold landscape in “Bewitched ” and the gun’s explosion to lay the ghost/ witch/woman to rest, there are signs that all is not well with the three of them. The men are trying to come to terms with issues of rage and repression. Sylvester Brand has not done well professionally: “He was a hard-working farmer, but there wasn’t much to be got out of those barren Bearcliff acres. He was said to have taken to drink since his wife’s death; now and then men ran across him in the ‘dives’ of Stotesbury” (158). He is one of the many helpless men without access to male bonding for solace. When his younger daughter dies, at his own hands, he attends her funeral, a ghost of a man: “Brand’s face was the closed door of a vault, barred with wrinkles like bands of iron” (166). When Orrin tries to console him and accompany him home, Brand asks rather numbly, “Home? What home?” (166). He becomes the quintessential wandering Jew figure of Gothic stories. (Sedgwick might read this homelessness in a positive manner, as it indicates the eroding of prescribed gender roles within patriarchy; “A man’s home is his castle” shows an oppressive feudal construct that reveals the master’s domination over the inmates of his house [Between Men 14].) Ironically, throughout the text, Mrs. Rutledge refers to “Exodus” to justify her advice regarding Ora’s death, “Though shalt not suffer a witch to live.” But neither Brand nor Rutledge can find the promised land because they have relinquished or rejected their feminine side. Like Ethan Brand in Hawthorne’s story, they have no one to embrace but a solipsistic sense of self, disengaged ultimately from male and female bonding. Wharton’s Brand’s questioning, “Home?” is like Ethan Brand’s futile question, “What more have I to seek?” Before Brand commits suicide, he exclaims, “Oh, Mother Earth… who art no more my Mother, and into whose bosom this frame shall never be resolved!” (1065). Having cast off woman and home (Esther and nature), he does become a fiend, a narcissistic one; projecting a sense of self onto the fire in the limekiln, he embraces a deadly vision of self: “Come, deadly element of Fire—henceforth my familiar friend! Embrace me as I do thee!” (1065, thus consorting with his “familiar” in witchcraft terms, or the fiend, fire).
The three worthies, or drunken patrons, who frequent the local tavern in “Ethan Brand,” are like the three self-appointed judges in “Bewitched ” making an inquest into the sanctity of Saul Rutledge’s soul after the alleged seduction by the ghost of Ora. These three inquisitorial males, Deacon Hibbin, Sylvester Brand, and Orrin Bosworth, have all denied their intuitive feminine nature and seem to band together to finally lay the body of a woman to rest (Ora’s sister, Venny). The narrator, through whose consciousness the story is told, is the more androgynous male of the three, open to his own feminine side and also empathetic to the plight of suffering women. Though he bears some resemblance to the alienated male narrator of Ethan Frome, he is like Ethan Brand in that he has also had a hard time of finding a home—finding his place within the universe. He had known poverty and cold as an orphaned child (like the alienated Ethan Brand, cut off from Mother Nature) and never does come to know his home. He lives with his sister Loretta, who keeps house for him (another buried woman in the text, but he is equally buried). When he tries to get back to his childhood, to “the roots of the old life” “under the icy shadow of Lonetop,” he recalls another silenced woman’s story, that of his great-aunt Cressidora. As a child, he had empathized with the lonely spinster woman entombed in her house and brought along a “canary in a wooden cage” to bring her solace. Aunt Cressidora becomes the mad woman in the attic, as she, in trying to possess the bird, wrings its neck, yelling all the time, “You she-devil, you!” (127). However, Cressidora is not the typical madwoman in the attic; she actually becomes the victimizer of woman. Like Prudence who wants to drive a stake through Ora Brand’s heart (emblematic of her own female sexuality), Aunt Cressidora wants to kill the vivacious “shedevil” of a bird. More telling is the child Bosworth’s response; though horrified, he keeps the woman’s secret, because as his mother tells him, should the men find out about her aberrant action, they “would come and take her down to the asylum at Starkfield” (128). In many ways, he is like the effeminate son in “Ethan Brand,” who, through male bonding, ultimately conspires to keep the woman’s secret life—and his own sensitivity—repressed.
But ironically, in keeping his aunt’s story secret, Orrin is never able to reveal or remedy the pain of women in a similar plight. Thus, when Loretta, a rather hardened woman (like Prudence), tells him matter-of-factly that Venny is dying, Bosworth does not expose Venny’s secret either but merely stares into space with “listless eyes,” looking at his sister as if she were “miles away” (164). There is something spiteful about the way the sister reports the death, “with the guileless relish of the unimaginative for bad news” (164), and we recall that the initial description of Orrin Bosworth is of an “imaginative man” (146). In this manner, Orrin is like the imaginative child, Joe, in “Ethan Brand,” who is scolded for his femininity and concern for Ethan by the bullying father, Bartram. Moreover, the sister in Wharton’s story accuses Orrin of never having “liked” Venny, to which Orrin replies, “She’s a child. I never knew much about her” (164). He says more than he knows in suggesting his blindness to the fact that the child Venny has been a sexual woman throughout. He seems to claim innocence by declaring that he “never knew much about her.” In keeping Venny a child in his imagination (and Ora a ghost), he does not have to deal with woman’s sexuality, and he will live in an adolescent world with sisters and aunts, who possess no sexuality.
At the end of “Bewitched, ” there is another aunt being silenced in the grave. Mr. Rutledge, who has lost his love, Venny (note similarity to Wharton’s Zeena), to her murderous, raging father, Mr. Brand, is oddly enough not present at her funeral. Mrs. Rutledge explains his absence in a strange perfunctory way, “Mr. Rutledge he hain’t here. He would’a’come for certain, but his aunt Minora Cummins is being buried down to Stotesbury this very day and he had to go down there” (167). The coincidence is more than un-canny, and the reader is kept wondering, not about the newly introduced aunt’ story, but about the silenced Mr. Rutledge’s story. Has he gone mad now that he has lost access to the realm of sexuality and feelings? Has Mrs. Rutledge put him in his place, into a feminine type of submission and repentance? We do not know what his final story is (as we do not know Ora’s or the strange aunt’s), but we can surmise that he will recede into the New England coldness without his story being released, without his manhood emerging.
Earlier, when the Deacon had diagnosed Mr. Rutledge as having “ague of the mind”— “It’s his brain that’s sick” (160), he concludes in a Hawthornesque, allegorical way, “It’s a worm in the brain, solitude is” (161). One might recall Ethan Brand’s precursor in this context, Roderick Elliston in “Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent.” After separating from his wife, Roderick starts to have physical symptoms of illness: it is speculated that “a canker of the mind was gradually eating, as such cankers do, from his moral system into the physical frame, which is but the shadow of the former” (783). Rumor has it that the “root of this trouble” lay in “his shattered schemes of domestic bliss” (783). At the end of the story, we see Rod-erick writhing in agony, snake-like in the grass. The bosom-serpent has taken him over in a phallocentric way, and Roderick bemoans his fate, “Could I, for one instant, forget myself, the serpent might not abide within me. It is my diseased self-contemplation that had engendered and nourished him” (791). Only his wife Rosina is able to exorcise the serpent from him with the loving and connecting words, “Then forget yourself, my husband… forget yourself in the idea of another” (793). But forgetting oneself in the image of a woman is a terrifying experience for the Hawthorne/Wharton male protagonists. Woman is perceived as a means to escape oneself rather than to get closer to one’s sense of self. As Joseph Andriano points out, the female demon lies at the heart of the male Gothic, where women are perceived as succubi and demons who threaten to intrude into the male realm and femininize or androgynize men; they “both animate and enervate, inspire as muse yet threaten to destroy” (3).
The men’s fate in the two Brand stories is not very hopeful, as the world of women is shunned. In “Ethan Brand,” Joe, the young son of the new lime-burner, has the potential to become a new kind of softer, more gentle man. But the woman in him is being quickly eradicated as the father always reprimands him that he is too fearful, too sensitive: “You will never make a man, I do believe; there is too much of your mother in you” (1051). If the abortive romance in the text is about Esther, the woman Brand has annihilated, it is also about Joe, the small boy who is being bullied into manhood by a very rough father. In “Bewitched, ” Mrs. Rutledge, the surrogate male, hushes her husband’s story and sexuality. In the end, it is business as usual in both stories. Mrs. Rutledge leaves Venny’s funeral, thinking about her daily chores, ‘“S long as we’re down here I don’t know but what I’ll just call round and get a box of soap at Hiram Pringle’s”’ (167). It is almost as if she could cleanse the town of its bad morals, i.e., sexuality, through her purchase of soap. “Ethan Brand,” too, does not end with empathy or with emotion, but in the marketplace, with a discussion of dollars and cents profit! Bartram, the new lime-burner, is thrilled about Ethan’s death for it makes him a richer man: his heart “is burnt into what looks like special good lime; and, taking all the bones together, my kiln is half a bushel the richer for him” (1067). Here the purging of morals is through fire, not through soap, and the final destination is profit in the material realm.
It is the marble stoniness of both texts which leaves its imprint upon the reader. On the last few pages of Wharton’s story, Mrs. Rutledge is continually described in terms of having “marble eyeballs,” a “marble face,” “lids of marble.” And in “Ethan Brand,” we are left with the image of Ethan’s marble heart (Bartram asks, “Was the fellow’s heart made of marble?”), adding good lime to the kiln. In her early critique of Hawthorne, back in 1908, long before she accepts Hawthorne as her mentor in A Backward Glance, Wharton feels the anxiety of influence in disengaging from him. She attacks Hawthorne for being cold and unpoetic and The Scarlet Letter for being “about as classic as a bare hotel parlour furnished only with bentwood chairs” (Lewis 237). Years later, we would enter the New England Gothic world of Wharton and find ourselves in this setting. This coldness, though, is what her chér Maître, Henry James, so admired in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: “the passionless quality … its element of cold and ingenious fantasy” (115). He remarks positively about the “coldness” with which Hawthorne approaches his subject (116). Perhaps that is why Ethan Frome was one of James’s favorites among Wharton’s works (Powers 6), as it too shares in the Haw-thornean coldness, and why James expressed such admiration for it, “A beautiful art & tone & truth—a beautiful artful kept-downness” (Letter to Wharton, 25 October 1911). In her early negative reading of Hawthorne, Wharton responds to “his lack of poetry and his lukewarmness” (Lewis 237, Letter to Brownell). Indeed, she feels that “the marble” he “saw in sculpture” was “the key to so much of him” (237). This marble quality becomes that masculine energy which so (simultaneously) repels and attracts Wharton in her own re-creation of the New England Gothic, and which is part of the triangulated love that James feels for Wharton, vis-a-vis another male suitor or lover, be it Morton Fullerton or Nathaniel Hawthorne.
It should be recalled that Wharton’s affairs, whether consummated or platonic, were with bachelor types who were not available, like Walter Berry, Henry James, or Morton Fullerton. In essence, she invited the temporary closeness and mental affinity with an unreliable, cold, non-committing male, perhaps in an effort to retain her own independence, much in the same way, albeit convoluted, that the bachelors of her time, in literature and in life, were able to preserve their liberty. David Holbrook attributes this un-healthy attraction to unavailable men to Wharton’s "strong attraction of her father” and to her “fantasies of an incestuous relationship with her father” (9).
Though this psycho-biographical approach is interesting, and various critics, like Cynthia Griffin Wolff and Barbara A. White, read the “Beatrice Palmato” fragment as a manifestation of Wharton’s possible incestuous encounter with her father, I prefer to see her creation of a bachelor type, whom she can live through vicariously, as potentially liberating. Thus, she projects her own need for freedom onto the men she attracts and onto her male protagonists, who become the “reflectors” of the text (to borrow a term from her Writing of Fiction, where she discusses the central consciousness of the narrator, 46). In the cultural climate of the day, too, Wharton finds the bachelor a liberating type; he represents a rebellion against the conventional domestic arrangements of love and against contemporary professional expectations. As Vincent J. Bertolini says of the turn-of-the-century bachelor, he was “unbound by either the constraints on excessive sexual subjectivity or the injunction to procreative norms that so shaped and defined mid-century bachelorhood” (730). In Wharton’s day, one has moved from the bachelor type of Hawthorne’s literature and day, where bachelors are forced to conform to domestic obligations and “fireside chastity” (as Bertolini would suggest), to a new type of eroticism and domestic irresponsibility. Thus, the Cover-dales, Dimmesdales, and Ethan Brands of Hawthorne’s fiction have found a new level of freedom in Wharton’s fiction; though the underlying selfishness or pronounced individuality is there, the social compunctions have disappeared. The seductive lure of homosexual or illicit love is also present, even as homophobia sometimes rears its nasty head in these tales of bachelorhood. Sedgwick would probably attribute the increased homophobic view of the bachelor in Wharton to an increased intolerance of the late Victorian bachelor/homosexual inspired by the decadent circle of Oscar Wilde; certainly, Sedgwick maps out quite clearly in Between Men how the intolerance was accelerated in late nineteenth-century England. Though the detachment of such men is the undoing of many of Wharton’s fictional female protagonists, in her own life she finds such dangerous men enticing. Perhaps Wharton was entertaining the possibility of leading the eroticized life of the new, emerging bachelor. Or, the possibility of male bonding stood in stark contrast to (and seemed less anathema to) Wharton’s impoverished idea of sisterhood in her fiction as well as in her life.5
In 1905, three years before her sexual awakening with Morton Fullerton, a Cosmopolitan essay, entitled “Men Who Marry and Men Who Do Not,” appeared, describing the new type of bachelor on the American scene:
[He] is at once the delight and the despair of women. He is their delight because they secretly respect him for not giving in to them and because he has the charm of the unattainable; and he is their despair, because they feel so utterly baffled and helpless when they encounter his perfectly invincible admiration, his urbane and deferential indifference.
(Lyndon Orr qtd. in Bertolini, 707)
This portrait has a striking resemblance to Morton Fullerton and to the other bachelors of Wharton’s canon. It is not clear whether Wharton read this article, but its author, Lyndon Orr, is a conflation of the feminized Ora and the masculinized Orrin, or perhaps just a neutered root, “Orr.” The dynamics at work in this popular journal article are similar to those of Wharton’s fiction. This bachelor type is a “connoisseur,” finding charm in a variety of women rather than in one, perceiving women as types, and finding “no overmastering, compelling charm” in one type more than another (Bertolini 729). Finally, the bachelor becomes more an incubus than the prey of woman succubus, as he, like a Hawthornean isolationist, holds “himself in the innermost sanctuary of his heart, a little bit aloof” and thus is “able to enjoy to the full the esoteric attractions of womankind” (Bertolini 729). He seems to attract and absorb “those softer feminine attributes which are so delightful to a man of mind and taste” (Bertolini 729). From this perspective, and from the perspective of the Wharton and Hawthorne Gothic tale, the female body becomes inconsequential. Sedgwick clearly shows how men’s rivalry for a woman is never really about the woman herself, but about the power play between two men. Women were taught to play a role (as the pursued) but were really of no consequence: “Sentient middleclass women … perceive the triangular path of circulation that enforces patriarchal power as being routed through them, but never ending in them” (Between Men 179). In her discussion of Dickens’s “paranoid Gothic,” Sedgwick delineates how the rivals move from the “heterosexual bonds of the triangle” (of the “Romance tradition”) to the male ho-mosocial bonds, which she calls “erotic rivalry” (162). Ultimately, women function as “conduits of homosocial desire between men” (99).
Women become desexualized or are written out of Hawthorne’s and Wharton’s Gothic texts through death, or they are mere specters of women, to begin with. Thus, Ora’s story and Esther’s story in “Bewitched ” and in “Ethan Brand” are both subsumed by the plight of the bachelors, in either case. We never actually see the ghost of Ora, nor do we see the alleged lively and alive woman, Venny, in “Bewitched. ” Venny is as good as a ghost as she allegedly runs around the countryside specterlike. The woman’s presence is all based on male hearsay; not even when Venny Brand is gunned down in the hut, do we see her. Orrin only seems to see “something white and wraithlike surge up out of the darkest corner” (163). Symbolically, this is repressed masculine sexuality, but literally, this is the body of a woman who is about to be hushed in the grave. Similarly, in “Ethan Brand,” the memory of the missing girl, Esther, is rather cryptic, as the old father tries to reconstruct her identity. And we know that the Esther whom the “white-haired father” tries to recall and find is, for all intents and purposes, dead, since Ethan has “wasted” and “absorbed” her body as he has “annihilated” her soul (1060).
Most striking is the fact that Wharton encodes female sexuality through a male voyeuristic gaze, whether that be through a male narrator or a male perspective, and so the bachelors she creates are a sad testimony to her own rejected exploration of female sexuality in favor of a celebration of masculine sexuality. In trying to open up her males to a new type of sexuality, at the expense of uncovering feminine sexuality, she joins writers like Whitman, James, and Lawrence who delineate female sexuality only as a way of accessing male sexuality. Though it is not peculiar that men would do this, it is peculiar that Wharton, as a woman, would, but she is not writing from a typically sentimental female point of view. Like the female protagonists in Wharton who cast aside female roles, Wharton, too, casts aside her “role” and writes against the grain, even if it means compromising the welfare of women as a group. Thus, Prudence, the witch-hunt leader in the male-centered narrative of “Bewitched, ” invokes the traditional male realm of authority and dogma, in an attempt to eradicate the violating sexual female. As Jenni Dyman points out, “No one can argue with her [Prudence] because she clearly manipulates the code of masculine domination to meet her own ends” (100), thus keeping “the wild women in line with the phallic stake” (100). This recalls the powerless, middle-aged women of Hawthorne’s early scaffold scene in The Scarlet Letter, who envy Hester her empowering sexuality and who try to force the male authorities to make the “hussy’s” punishment more severe. In both cases, women left outside the male realm attempt to outdo the male rulers, who, in turn, are attracted to the soft, feminine, sexual display of the witch woman, Ora or Hester.
In the same manner, Wharton would like to delve into the male world of power as a writer, hence her frequent comparisons of her own writing to that of the great male writers. In her mind, it does her no good to be a woman’s writer, because as she puts it rather cynically, “American women are each other’s only audience, and to a great extent each other’s only companions” (French Ways 102). The “reflecting mind” of her narratives is often perceived as masculine, as Wharton joins the ranks of male writers. The key to empowerment is to appropriate male sexuality and creativity, even if that, paradoxically, depends on a female presence for definition. Wharton chooses to veil her own sexuality under a masculine veneer, so that it is as if she were watching her own femininity as a male bystander / bachelor, who will ultimately ignore his feminine side and self-destruct.
If a vicarious type of bachelorhood allows her to explore creative possibilities, so, too, do triangulated love affairs. Wharton often appears to become the apex of a love triangle in her letters to Morton Fullerton and to Henry James, often playing off the males’ affection for each other. For instance, in a postscript to Fullerton, she enticingly adds, as if to instigate jealousy between the two men, “Is it really to my dear friend—to Henry’s friend—to ‘dearest Morton’—that I have written this?” (26 August 1908).6 In evoking the homosocial or homoerotic bond of the two men, Wharton’s projected feminine sexuality becomes even more complex and difficult to decipher. The process is also true in reverse, for the males. Goodman notes the erotic elements in the letters James sent to Wharton; James becomes both the “participant and observer…. the lover and the beloved” (Inner Circle 63), as he enters the triangulated discourse of the love letters; James “is addressing Fullerton obliquely through Wharton, who in all likelihood will show or repeat parts of the letters” (62). Again, the woman only becomes a connector for male desire. Indeed, it is ironic that James introduced Fullerton to Wharton and then became very jealous of the attention Fullerton paid Wharton when he visited her at The Mount (Kaplan 510-14; Seymour 244-50). As Fred Kaplan points out, if James could not consummate a relationship with the bisexual Morton Fullerton, “why could he not at least have been his fraternal confidant, an indirect participant?” (511). James derived vicarious pleasure through revelling in Fullerton’s affair with Wharton: “It was the first of his [Fullerton’s] affairs that James had the opportunity to participate in” (511). Fullerton confided to a disappointed James details of his bisexual history after his visit to Wharton at The Mount in 1907; Wharton told James about her affair with Fullerton by the fall of 1908 (Kaplan 511-12). There are accounts of the three dining “in the anteroom of the lovers’ passion” (Kaplan 513); this would be the closest that James would get to Fullerton (Kaplan 513).
In fact, to understand how desire is constructed in both Hawthorne and Wharton, one could take a lesson from René Girard’s account of “triangular desire, an idea that Sedgwick appropriates in her discourse about male bonding and homosocial desire (see her chapter one, “Gender Asymmetry and Erotic Triangles, in Between Men). The female protagonist often becomes the vehicle whereby men deal with jealousy or with illicit homosexual desires. Girard believes that “In the birth of desire, the third person is always present” (21). With Girard’s paradigm, the woman often becomes the object for a triangular type of male desire. Thus, the subject, a male protagonist (whether he be a disenchanted husband or a bachelor), can only fuel his desire for an idealized woman—whether that is the picture he has of his wife or of a romanticized fantasy woman—if he reads the desire in another man’s (the mediator’s) desire. He actually imitates the desire of the other so that his own love for the object (woman) is validated. Girard gives various examples of the male protagonist who forces the beloved woman “into the mediator’s arms in order to arouse his desire and then triumph over the rival desire” (50). Under the rivalry, jealousy, and hatred inspired by the mediator, a type of affection for the mediator exists. But ultimately, “all that interests him [the hero] is a decisive victory over his insolent mediator” (51). Thus, woman is written out of the picture, in the way Hester is from the love existing between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. After all, Chillingworth’s passion for Hester is evoked by Dimmesdale’s desire for Hester and is easily replaced by his apparent hatred of Dimmesdale (which Hawthorne and Girard show us is really akin to love). In Wharton’s relationship to Fullerton and James, she seems to be acting as the insignificant female object to be mediated by the male readers in their letters. And in “Bewitched, ” the entire discourse about the ghost woman (Ora) or about the dead woman (Venny) suggests that the men in the community are aroused by the rivalry (and bonding) they feel in desiring the fantasy woman. Certainly, this desire and simultaneous rivalry are felt by the bachelor narrator, as well as by the widowed Sylvester Brand, and the henpecked Orrin, and could reflect the veiled homosexuality of the male community. Moreover, one also wonders about Ethan Brand’s and the old father’s rivalry for Esther, the woman who has been written out of Hawthorne’s text. Indeed, in the world of the tavern (with the three worthies) and the imitation domestic hearth (created by Bartram and his son), there is no single woman to incite or deflect the energy of male desire or rivalry.
If in “Bewitched, ” the gazing of Ora’s ghost and Venny’s corpse seems cryptic, as the woman is literally written out of the text, we become more involved with the triangular dynamics among the three men, whose mission is to exorcise the female spirit. (Saul Rutledge, the feminized man in love, seems to be written out of the text, even before his startling absence at Venny’s funeral.) It is all male energy encountering other male energy over a dead woman’s body. James knew about the power of such triangulation, even as he writes about the corpus of Hawthorne’s writing. In his short essay on Hawthorne, James asserts that the main “subject” of The Scarlet Letter is “the picture of the relation of the two men,” even if they are but “faintly delineated” and that though Hester and the child “vivify” the novel, they “are almost wholly outside the action” (16). Similarly, in his positive critique of The Scarlet Letter in his book on Hawthorne, James discusses the peripheral position of woman in the text: “The story indeed is in a secondary degree that of Hester Prynne; she becomes, really, after the first scene, an accessory figure” (112). James emphasizes how Hawthorne devotes most of his energy to the relationship between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, “between the lover and the husband” (112). Indeed, the careful reader realizes that Hester, the initially sexualized feminized body, becomes more and more statuelike, marble-cold, and deathlike as the narrative progresses, under Hawthorne’s taming pen. So both James and Wharton seem to take their cue on triangular love affairs from Hawthorne, and yet another literary triangle is formed.7
Sedgwick describes James’s own beast in the closet, as she discusses Marcher’s sexuality in “The Beast of the Jungle” in terms of “compulsory heterosexuality” (Epistemology 212).
To the shock of the female face Marcher is not phobic, but simply numb. It is only by turning his desire for the male face into an envious identification with male loss that Marcher finally comes into any relation to a woman—and then it is through one dead woman (the other man’s) to another dead woman of his own.
Again, the woman’s story is eerily insignificant, as she becomes the object of transference of affection from one man to another. Wharton can imagine repressed homosexuality, using a woman’s body as her medium. In Wharton’s identification with a subjective male presence or a male narrator, the compulsory heterosexuality is accepted with a vengeance, but with a twist. In a subversive manner, Wharton becomes the male looking at a female body and despairing about the male loss of desire. In the triangulated world of love and despair, in the sexually charged (because repressed) atmosphere of Wharton and Hawthorne, one finds a bachelor whose sexuality cannot be compromised or consummated, a man who gives into passion momentarily and self-destructs, and a woman-object in the middle. The New England world of Wharton and Hawthorne is fraught with such triangles and such doubling. In Ethan Frome, the narrator eavesdrops on Frome’ life and relives the triangle consisting of Frome, Zeena, and Mattie. In The Blithedale Romance, Coverdale identifies with Hollingsworth’s masculinity and thus lives vicariously through the love triangle of Hollingsworth, Ze-nobia, and Priscilla, without ever becoming sexually involved. In “Bewitched,” the real secret is not that Mr. Rutledge has had an affair, but that Orrin Bosworth refuses to, as seen in his sister’s accusation.
This triangulation reflects a fear of both heterosexual and homosexual love, and finally, it leads to a world of voyeurism and auto-eroticism, evinced in the type of androgynous speaker created by Whitman in Leaves of Grass.8 One might recall that Whitman can enter the female persona of a single woman lusting after twenty-eight young, naked men in the sea. The male poet creating the female speaker is strangely detached from the female experience; the female body seems anonymous and cold, as the voice revels in the vital male bodies. Significantly, Whitman becomes the key to understanding Wharton’s and James’s rendition of the secret life of New England and of their own triangulated passions. In James’s 1904 visit to The Mount, he and Wharton visited the old haunts of Ethan Brand, and during their motor outings, “Edith regaled the fascinated James with reports that had reached her about the dark unsuspected life— the sexual violence, even the incest—that went on behind the bleak walls of the farmhouses” (Lewis 140). According to Wharton, “the hills of Western Massachusetts” became “the corner of New England that he [James] preferred” (Wegener 141). Obviously, this was to become the terrain of Wharton’s New England Gothic, in Ethan Frome, Summer, and in such ghost stories as “Bewitched.” 9 As Lewis describes it, these sexy afternoons turned into sexier evenings, as James often read poetry to her: “It was during this visit… that James read at length from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, an unforgettable occasion. James and Edith agreed that Whitman was the greatest of American poets, and they talked about him long into the night, exchanging favorite passages” (140). This merging of two sexually complex souls through the evocation of an androgynous poet among the backdrop of Hawthorne’s New England must have been truly a momentous occasion. And though Wharton wrote “Bewitched” late in her career (1925), the Gothic themes of incest, triangulated love, and bachelor cross-genderings still seemed to haunt her.
1. See Annette Zilversmit and Gloria Erlich (Sexual Education) for a further exploration of the mother-daughter dynamics in Wharton’s life and fiction. See also Susan Wolstenholme on how the absence of mothers in The House of Mirth becomes part of Wharton’s commentary on art (127-46).
2. In her compelling argument, Judith Sensibar shows how, in The Children, “Wharton’s experiences with Walter Berry, Morton Fullerton, and Henry James’s fictional bachelor John Marcher are embedded in Rose Sellar’s love affair with Martin Boyne” (161). Sensibar asserts that Wharton was attempting to “demythologize the Modernists’ Representative Man by showing how hurtful his behavior is both to himself and to the women he claims to love” (164). In my argument, though, I show how Wharton empowers herself through an analysis of the bachelor triangle.
3. Only Gloria Erlich, suggesting that Wharton was “very attentive to the naming of characters” (“The Female Conscience” 115), points to the direction in which I am heading, in her very brief comment in an endnote: “Wharton’s use of two names well known from Hawthorne’s work, ‘Brand’ and ‘Hibben,’ is also worth noting” (116).
In an early study, Margaret McDowell unfairly points to Hawthorne’s and James’s supernatural fiction only to show how Wharton does not live up their genius: Wharton “lacked the subtlety, the infinite perceptiveness, and the imaginative reach to create such indisputable masterpieces as Hawthorne’s ‘Ethan Brand,’ ‘The Minister’s Black Veil,’ and The Scarlet Letter, or James’s…. ‘The Turn of the Screw’; she has the same awareness of the metaphysical and symbolical implications of experience as her predecessors revealed” (152).
4. Like the bewitching women in Wharton’s story, Mistress Hibbins in The Scarlet Letter, Haw-thorne’s narrator tells us, will also be accused of witchcraft. History would attribute this to her anti-social eccentricities and threat to the status quo. Hester’s sexuality, of course, is associated with her brand of witchcraft; see Louis Kern for his extensive discussion on how, during witch hunts, woman’s erotic nature was always seen as diabolical.
5. See also Deborah Lindsay Williams, who, in Not in Sisterhood, shows how Wharton’s knowledge of the literary marketplace and her “rejection of public literary sisterhood was instrumental” in her lasting achievement of “canonical success” (4). In many ways, Wharton felt she could not afford to bond in sisterhood, so the men’s realm of bonding might have been inspiring to her (hence the unsisterly women, like Prudence, in her tales).
For a recent reading of Wharton’s complex view of the bachelor, see Richard Kaye, who disagrees with Sedgwick’s construct of the Anglo bachelor in terms of its lack of influence on Wharton. Instead, Kaye feels that homosexuality was more accepted in France than in England and that Wharton, as a long-time resident of France (from 1907 to her death in 1937), drew from her knowledge of Parisian homosexual relations to depict male protagonists who could “express unmediated homosexual impulses” in her later novels (864). Her depiction of homosexuality in her Gothic tales was more “underground” and “vampirish” (866).
6. Fullerton was also involved in various triangulated affairs throughout his life. During his two-year affair with Wharton, he was officially engaged to his first cousin Katherine, who agonized about his absence and dearth of letters (Sensibar 162).
7. Other literary critics perceive Hawthorne’s influence on Wharton through a discussion of James. Ultimately, McDowell feels that all three writers “delve into the remoter reaches of the consciousness and all are haunted by the ineffable, the unfathomable, the preternatural, the superhuman, the transcendent” (134-35). David Laskin prefaces his chapter on the literary relationship between Wharton and James by looking back to Hawthorne as the common influence and alluding to various characters in the Hawthorne canon who inspired Wharton’s and James’s portraits of guilt, adultery, or isolation (Ethan Brand, for example, is seen as “the progenitor of James’s Gilbert Osmond” and the forebear of Wharton’s Ethan Frome [99-100].)
8. Though Sedgwick does not see Whitman in this androgynous manner, she does see him as a pivotal figure in the conceptualization of homosexuality for the Anglo-speaking world. She compares his sense of “comradeship, the beautiful and sane affection of man for man” (Between Men 206) and view of manly love as necessary to democracy to the “aristocratic homosexual mode … highly visible within narrow circles of Victorian society” (207); Whitman’s view of brotherhood was more inclusive in its acceptance of men and women of all classes of society.
9. Interestingly, too, Fullerton’s visit to Wharton in the fall of 1908 paralleled the earlier visit by James. Among the backdrop of New England, Wharton and Fullerton became enamored of each other. Oddly enough, in this triangle, James becomes the topic to focus on, even if he was not physically present. He had written in advance to Wharton of his friend Fullerton’s visit to New England, ostensibly for the purpose of giving a lecture on James to Bryn Mawr students. Wharton exuberantly reminded Fullerton to bring along a copy of his lecture on James and added, almost patronizingly, “I am so glad you are going to talk about dear James at Bryn Mawr” (qtd. in Wegener 299). As critics (Lewis 183; Wegener 299) have pointed out, Wharton and Fullerton spent time discussing the essay that Fullerton was writing about James (“The Art of Henry James,” not published until 1910). Thus, intellectual discussion of James created the erotically charged backdrop for the growing intimacy between Fullerton and Wharton, and for the next two years, Wharton corresponded with both men about her attempts to have Fullerton’s essay on James published. Once again, it is difficult to pinpoint the apex of this triangle or whose influence (Wharton’s or Fullerton’s) was more evident in the creation of the essay bestowing homage upon the “chèr Maître.”
Andriano, Joseph. Our Ladies of Darkness: Feminine Daemonology in Male Gothic Fiction. University Park: Penn State UP, 1993.
Bertolini, Vincent J. “Fireside Chastity: The Erotics of Sentimental Bachelorhood in the 1850’s.” American Literature 68.4 (Dec. 1996): 707–38.
Dyman, Jenni. Lurking Feminism: The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. New York: Lang, 1996.
Erlich, Gloria. “The Female Conscience in Wharton’s Shorter Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. Ed. Millicent Bell. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995. 98-116.
—————. The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.
Fedorko, Kathy A. Gender and the Gothic in the Fiction of Edith Wharton. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1995.
Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.
Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.
Girard, René. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.
Goodman, Susan. Edith Wharton’s Inner Circle. Austin: U of Texas P, 1994.
—————. Edith Wharton’s Women: Friends and Rivals. Hanover: UP of New England, 1990.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches. Ed. Roy Harvey Pearce. New York: Library of America, 1982.
Holbrook, David. Edith Wharton and the Unsatisfactory Man. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991.
James, Henry. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The American Essays of Henry James. Ed. Leon Edel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989. 11-23.
—————. Hawthorne. 1887. New York: AMS P, 1968.
Kahane, Claire. “The Gothic Mirror.” The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation. Ed. Shirley Nelson Graner, et al. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 334-51.
Kaplan, Fred. Henry James: The Imagination of Genius. New York: William Morrow, 1992.
Kaye, Richard. “Edith Wharton and the ‘New Gomorrahs’ of Paris: Homosexuality, Flirtation, and Incestuous Desire in The Reef.” Modern Fiction Studies 43.4 (1997): 860-97. Project Muse. Online. 27 Aug. 2003.
Kern, Louis J. “Eros, the Devil, and the Cunning Woman: Sexuality and the Supernatural in European Antecedents and in the Seventeenth-Century Salem Witchcraft Cases.” Essex Institute Historical Collections 129.1 (Jan. 1993): 3-38.
Laskin, David. A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship and Influence. New York: Simon, 1994.
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper, 1975.
Massé, Michelle A. In the Name of Love: Women, Masochism, and the Gothic. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992.
McDowell, Margaret B. “Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories.” Criticism 12.2 (1970): 133-52.
Powers, Lyall H., ed. Henry James and Edith Wharton, Letters: 1890–1915. New York: Scribner’s, 1990. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Cornell UP, 1985.
—————. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.
Sensibar, Judith L. “Edith Wharton Reads the Bachelor Type: Her Critique of Modernism’s Representative Man.” Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. Ed. Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmit. New York: Garland, 1992. 159-80.
Seymour, Miranda. A Ring of Conspirators: Henry James and His Literary Circle, 1895–1915. Boston: Houghton, 1989.
Singley, Carol J. Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.
—————. “Gothic Borrowings and Innovations in Edith Wharton’s ‘A Bottle of Perrier.’” Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. Ed. Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmith. New York: Garland, 1992. 271-90.
Waid, Candace. Edith Wharton’s Letters from the Underworld: Fictions of Women and Writing. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.
Wegener, Frederick, ed. The Uncollected Critical Writings of Edith Wharton. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996.
Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. New York: Scribner’s, 1985.
—————. French Ways and Their Meaning. New York: Appleton, 1919.
—————. The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. New York: Scribner’s, 1973.
—————. The Letters of Edith Wharton. Ed. R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis. New York: Collier, 1988.
—————. The Writing of Fiction. New York: Scribner’s, 1925.
White, Barbara A. Edith Wharton: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1991.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. New York: Penguin, 1986.
Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gender. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.
Williams, Deborah Lindsay. Not in Sisterhood: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Zona Gale, and the Politics of Female Authorship. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
Wolstenholme, Susan. Writing Women as Readers. New York: SUNY P, 1993.
Zilversmit, Annette. ‘“All Souls’: Wharton’s Last Haunted House and Future Directions for Criticism.” Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays. Ed. Alfred Ben-dixen and Annette Zilversmit. New York: Garland 1992. 315-29.
Elizabeth Ammons (essay date 2005)
SOURCE: Ammons, Elizabeth. “Introduction to Ethan Frome.” In Ethan Frome, pp. vii-xxi. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2005.
[In the following essay, Ammons offers a biographical look at Wharton’s personal life and its affect upon Ethan Frome.]
Reviewers had strong reservations about Ethan Frome when it first appeared in 1911. They praised Edith Wharton’s artistry—the stylistic elegance of her short novel, with its perfectly calibrated mood of impending doom and accurate rendering of rural New England in winter. But the story made them recoil. It was too cruel, too awful. The Hartford Daily Courant called it “gruesome.” The Saturday Review declared: “We wish we had not read it.” Bookman opened with: “It is hard to forgive Mrs. Wharton for the utter remorselessness of her latest volume.” And the New York Times announced: “Mrs. Wharton has, in fact, chosen to build of small, crude things and a rude and violent event a structure whose purpose is the infinite refinement of torture. All that is human and pitiful and tender in the tale—and there is much—is designed and contrived to sharpen the keen edge of that torture” (Tuttleton 185, 186, 182). Although Ethan Frome now figures as Wharton’s most widely read novel, it makes sense, given these reviews, that the book sold poorly when it first came out. Not until the 1940s, following a popular stage adaptation of the text in the 1930s, did Ethan Frome begin to attract the kind of enthusiastic readership it enjoys today.
Although Edith Wharton regretted the poor sales, she took pride in the reviewers’ praise for her skill as a writer. “They don’t know why it’s good,” she wrote of Ethan Frome to a friend in 1911, “but they are right: it is” (Lewis and Lewis 230). This artistic confidence had not come easily. Born in New York City in 1862 to leisure-class, wealthy, conservative parents, Edith Newbold Jones was not expected to have a profession. It was assumed she would achieve two things in life—marriage and motherhood—and she accomplished neither. Her marriage ended in divorce two years after the publication of Ethan Frome, and she had no children. Rejecting the prescribed trajectory for demure, upper-class Victorian young ladies, Edith Wharton—with few people to guide her—became a best-selling author.
Her childhood, as she recalls it in her memoir, A Backward Glance (1934), was lonely. With two brothers so much older that she grew up, in effect, as an only child, Wharton’s class privilege and gender only further isolated her. Raised by nannies, privately tutored, often ignored by her parents, and frequently uprooted to travel to Europe or the family summer house in Newport, Rhode Island, the little girl felt most alive when she could spend hours by herself in her father’s library, sprawled on the floor reading. Although precocious and intellectual even as a child, she nevertheless as a teenager could not escape the obligatory debut expected of rich young women. Then, continuing along the conventional path expected of her, in 1885, at the age of twenty-three, she married affable Edward “Teddy” Wharton, an upper-class young man twelve years her senior.
By the 1890s it was clear that the marriage had been a mistake. Teddy loved hunting, fishing, the outdoor life; he had no interest in art or literature; he could hold his own in certain conversations but was not witty, subtle, or sophisticated. Edith, by contrast, had a highly developed aesthetic sense and keen, expert opinions about the arts. Her first book was a coauthored study titled The Decoration of Houses (1897), and she played a major role in the design of the main house and gardens of The Mount, the country estate she built in the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts at the turn of the century. Unlike her husband, she reveled in brilliant conversation, numbering among her friends intellectuals, artists, writers, attorneys, and the occasional politician. With such company as Henry James, Theodore Roosevelt, Bernhard and Mary Berenson, Walter Berry, Paul Bour-get, and Gaillard Lapsley, her circle was cosmopolitan, urbane, steeped in the life of the mind. Teddy increasingly seemed crude and boorish to his wife, who, in turn, struck him as distant and incomprehensible.
Trapped in an incompatible marriage, Edith Wharton sought medical help for depression in the mid-1890s. She suffered from nausea, weight loss, extreme fatigue, headaches, and profound despondency. At the time, the standard diagnosis for such symptoms was neurasthenia, sometimes called hysteria, and the treatment, as Wharton’s contemporary Charlotte Perkins Gilman chronicled in her famous 1892 story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” was known as the rest cure. Perfected by the well-known neurasthenia expert Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the prescribed therapy involved total bed rest, preferably in a hospital, hotel, or sanitarium, where the patient—almost always a woman—was fed, bathed, given douches and enemas, massaged, and in every other way kept dependent and completely immobile for weeks or, if necessary, months. This program of rest required removal from all exciting or upsetting stimuli such as newspapers, maga-zzines, books, letters, visitors, or any other activity requiring mental or physical exertion, no matter how mild, including writing, sewing, and drawing. The rest cure aimed to create a healing calm so that the patient could regain mental health. For Gilman, as her short story records, it was a recipe for insanity. The isolation and forced inactivity drive her protagonist deeper and deeper into depression, until there is no return. But for Edith Wharton, the regimen she experienced as an outpatient at the Orthopedic Hospital in Philadelphia, where she went for treatment in 1898, had a beneficial effect. In large part she recovered because her physician, unlike Gilman’ s, encouraged her to pursue her writing, which she avidly did.
As Edith Wharton gained emotional stability, Teddy grew ill. He developed symptoms that today we recognize as manic depression, or bipolar disorder. He suffered from extreme and unpredictable mood shifts lasting for days or months, insomnia, inexplicable physical pains, and uncontrollable spells of anger and rage. Although he spent months in the finest sanitariums receiving the best medical attention, he never recovered mental or emotional equilibrium.
Reluctantly, Edith Wharton divorced her husband. The differences in their temperaments and interests, their individual struggles with depression, and the toll of those struggles on each other all contributed to the dissolution. In addition, as they grew apart, Teddy had affairs with other women and further violated his wife’s trust by secretly gaining access to her money and losing a sizable amount of it. But during the same period of time, it is important to note, Edith Wharton also broke her wedding vows to Teddy. Kept secret at the time and for many years after her death, and revealed only because she explicitly left documentation in a sealed packet labeled, in her own hand, “For My Biographer,” Edith Wharton had a passionate love affair with a slightly younger man, Morton Fullerton, from about 1907 to 1910. As she relates it, the affair exposed her for the first and only time in her life to intense, fulfilling, erotic passion, a reality that respectable late-era Victorian women such as Wharton, brought up to believe sex a necessary and unspeakable evil, were not supposed to experience. The affair ended in 1910, with Wharton and Fullerton remaining friends. A year later she wrote Ethan Frome and in 1913 filed for divorce. It was an extreme move for a woman of her generation and class, for whom divorce represented not merely failure but also, and more important, scandal. She never remarried or, as far as we know, had an affair with anyone else.
Certainly Edith Wharton drew on her own life when she wrote Ethan Frome. Despite clear differences between the author and her characters, the most obvious being class, definite autobiographical themes appear. Neurasthenia and poor physical health play a major role in the narrative; and the text centers on difficult questions concerning marriage, adultery, dreams of personal freedom, and the natural human longing for erotic passion. Although critics of Ethan Frome have sometimes accused Wharton of writing about a world of which she knew little—set as it is in rural impoverished America and concentrating as it does on uneducated, working-class people—she actually understood extremely well the psychological and relational issues involved. The narrative examines with great insight the ways in which emotions such as guilt, anger, fear, and intense jealousy, as well as unexpected and forbidden joys, affect people in their closest relationships, no matter what their position in life.
Indeed, Wharton herself objected to the charge that she wrote about a world in Ethan Frome that she knew only slightly, including at the level of class and economics. While most of her novels, such as The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), do focus on the leisure-class life she knew most intimately, she set both Ethan Frome and her subsequent and highly regarded novel Summer (1917) in the environment she saw at close range in rural western Massachusetts. As she states in an introduction to a 1922 edition of Ethan Frome: “I had known something of New England village life long before I made my home in the same county as my imaginary Starkfield; though, during the years spent there, certain of its aspects became much more familiar to me.” And she continues: “Even before that final initiation, however, I had had an uneasy sense that the New England of fiction bore little—except a vague botanical and dialectical—resemblance to the harsh and beautiful land as I had seen it.” She maintains that Ethan Frome captures not just the rocky natural environment of New England but also the human one, calling her characters “my granite outcroppings, but half-emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate,” and explains in another essay, published in Colophon in 1932, that she had aimed to render in Ethan Frome “the lonely lives in half-deserted New England villages, before the coming of the motor and the telephone” (Wegener 259, 262).
Wharton’s insistence on the verisimilitude of Ethan Frome takes aim at well-known late-nineteenth-century New England local-color writers such as Mary Wilkins Freeman and Sarah Orne Jewett, who viewed the region, she believed, through “rose-coloured spectacles” (Wharton 293). She thought their charming, often affectionate portraits of New England glossed over the desperate poverty, the sense of entrapment, and the bitter fear and hopelessness experienced by many of the region’s inhabitants as industrialization and expensive new farming methods undermined the area’s economy and forced its population to leave or endure miserable conditions. Ethan Frome, by contrast, presents an uncompromising perspective on those realities. Seen through the eyes of a middle-class visitor to the region, her characters’ struggle with poverty, illness, and rural isolation delivers a brutal critique of class and the American Dream in the United States. All the hallmarks of the nation’s much-vaunted work ethic are present: relentless effort, stoic determination, grit, discipline. Yet poverty maintains—even strengthens—its hold. By voicing her criticism of fellow writers such as Freeman and Jewett, Wharton defined herself against what she saw as their naive and unrealistically sunny depictions of rural New England and staked a claim for herself in the popular turn-of-the-century genre of local-color fiction, also known as regionalism.
Local-color writing burgeoned from 1880 to 1920 because of enormous social and economic changes taking place in the United States. Although large numbers of German and Irish immigrants had entered the country in the middle of the nineteenth century, settling in cities, small towns, and agricultural areas in the Northeast, Midwest, and South, at the turn of the century unprecedented numbers of new immigrants—more than twenty million—arrived; and most were Jews and Catholics from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Coming between 1880 and 1915, they filled jobs in factories, the construction trades, sweatshops, and menial occupations of all sorts. And like the Chinese and the Irish before them, they challenged the dominant-culture U.S. conception of itself as white, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon. Jews and Italians were definitely not Anglo-Saxons, or even at the time considered to be white (Brodkin; Vecoli). Nor were they Protestant Christians.
In addition to these newly arrived immigrants vying for jobs, the breakdown of Reconstruction in the southern United States caused large numbers of African Americans to migrate north in search of work in cities and major towns. Simultaneously, as Ethan Frome suggests, poverty was forcing rural whites, especially throughout the northeastern United States, to abandon small farms that could no longer produce a living. Speaking of this white agricultural exodus in particular, historian Howard Zinn explains: “Machines changed farming. Before the Civil War it took 61 hours of labor to produce an acre of wheat. By 1900, it took 3 hours, 19 minutes” (Zinn 253). This modernization led to countless farm failures. “Farmers unable to buy the new machinery or pay the new railroad rates [for shipping their crops to market] would move to the cities. Between 1860 and 1914, New York grew from 850,000 to 4 million, Chicago from 110,000 to 2 million, Philadelphia from 650,000 to 1½ million” (Zinn 254).
All of this immigration and migration meant that, at the turn into the twentieth century, the United States was undergoing dramatic and, for many people, traumatic change. Most affected, of course, were American Indians, who by the end of the nineteenth century had been forced off 90 percent of their land, catastrophically reduced in numbers, and confined to reservations in a continuation of the pattern of land theft and genocide begun in 1492. Closely connected to that pattern of U.S. colonial expansion and conquest was the confiscation of huge parts of Mexico by means of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which led to the forced assimilation and relocation of many Mexicans. Building on those internal colonial conquests that had targeted people of color already living in North America—Indians and Mexicans—the United States at the end of the century embarked on becoming an international imperial power. Entering the Spanish-American War in 1898, the nation launched itself into the modern period by extending its empire building to the global stage.
Local-color writing emerged during these tumultuous years of accelerating U.S. imperialism, rapid industrialization and modernization, unregulated economic booms and busts, and unprecedented immigration and internal migration. Given this ferment, one reason for the genre’s popularity seems clear. For many readers, it offered an emotional hedge against all of the change—against the uncertainties caused by international imperialism; against the anonymity and alienation created by modern, urban, industrial life; against the power shifts that might occur because of the dramatic changes in U.S. racial demography. Local-color fiction invited readers, often nostalgically, to revisit and embrace the familiar customs and cultures of small-town and rural America as they had existed for much of the nineteenth century.
The genre sought to capture life in a very specific region or environment: the rough mining camps of Bret Harte’s Far West, the poor-white South of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, the backwoods black South of Charles Chesnutt’s Uncle Julius, the herb-scented villages of Sarah Orne Jewett’s white New England. Each pictured life as it used to be—or as writers and readers chose to believe it used to be—before factories, packaged food, electric lights, and international militarism started to dismantle an older, slower-paced America, one that cherished personally connected ways of living, especially in small towns and agricultural areas. Because it is often preservationist, local-color writing can be sentimental and reactionary. It can memorialize the past uncritically and reject any and all change that threatens the status quo. Indeed, in many white-authored texts, racism and anti-immigrant themes often emerge to serve just that purpose.
But local-color writing can also make important contributions to progressive social criticism. Concentrating on the specific and the local, it can resist homogenization and critique the impact of modern industrialization and rampant capitalism on the lives of ordinary people. Either directly or by implication, local-color fiction often shows what is lost when mass production erases local economies and customs, as in many stories by Sarah Orne Jewett—despite Wharton’s low opinion of her work. It can reveal how urban pressures to assimilate eradicate ethnic diversity and reinforce white-dominant nativist agendas, as in Sui Sin Far’s stories about Chinese Americans on the West Coast or Anzia Yezierska’s about Jews on New York City’s Lower East Side. And often local-color writing does not romanticize the past or mindlessly endorse dominant cultural values, as stories about rural poverty, homophobia, and imperialism by Hamlin Garland, Sherwood Anderson, and María Cristina Mena illustrate.
Both of these impulses of local-color writing—the reactionary and the progressive—can be seen in Ethan Frome.
In terms of race, Wharton’s text clearly yet subtly participates in nativist racism, mourning the passing of old, white Yankee New England, lamentably shown in decline in this narrative about poor whites’ struggle to make a living on ancestral farms. As scholars point out, Wharton’s public and private writing demonstrates that she was a typical white woman of her class and time, which is to say, she held the usual racist views (Ammons 1995; Kassanoff). She tended to either exoticize or ignore people of color in her published writing; she included casual racist and anti-Semitic remarks in private letters to friends; she read and admired key thinkers in the intellectual movements that underpinned nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century white supremacist discourse, such as Herbert Spencer.
As Thomas Gossett emphasizes in Race: The History of an Idea in America (1997), the overwhelming majority of white Americans at the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries believed in white superiority. Dominant theory at the time maintained that race is a fixed and knowable biological phenomenon and held that a naturally ordained hierarchy exists among the world’s races in terms of intelligence and physical perfection, with Anglo-Saxons posi-tioned squarely at the top of that hierarchy. Given that theory of race (a theory invented by white people, of course), whites had little trouble justifying laws, customs, and institutions that insured their own supremacy. As Gossett underscores, “By the time of the Spanish-American War , the idea of race superiority had deeply penetrated nearly every field—biology, sociology, history, literature, and political science. Then there was no doubt whatever concerning the name of the [superior] race…. Anglo-Saxon” (Gossett 311).
Often this white-supremacist thinking expressed itself virulently. With the arrival of record numbers of eastern and southern European immigrants, who were not considered white by the dominant ideology, growing numbers of African Americans in northern cities and towns, and significant populations of Mexican Americans, American Indians, and Chinese in the West, white racist anxiety about its own control and mastery skyrocketed. Violence against people of color, including lynchings, increased. Even more important for Ethan Frome, the eugenics movement, a reactionary, race-focused social ideology obsessed with increasing the population of white Anglo-Saxons in the United States, boomed. No less than the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, an admired friend of Edith Wharton, railed against the dropping birth rate among middle-class whites, labeling it “race suicide.” He called white women who practiced birth control “race traitors.”
How do such ideas influence Ethan Frome ? As the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and theorist Toni Morrison emphasizes in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), the United States is “a wholly racialized society.” There is no such thing as unraced or raceless space. All American literature, Morrison stresses, engages in an “encounter with racial ideology. American literature could not help being shaped by that encounter” (Morrison 12-13, 16). Race issues, whether overt or covert, find their way into every text in U.S. literature because it is impossible to write about life in the United States without race being a factor. This is as true for white writers writing about white characters, such as Edith Wharton in Ethan Frome, for example, as it is for writers of color creating literature in the United States. Indeed, the more covert a white text is about race, the more overt we need to be in our inquiry precisely because whiteness as a raced category today typically presents itself as invisible, not there. That assertion of invisibility is one of the primary ways that whiteness keeps itself dominant, normative, and uninterrogated.
Because white-authored texts often do not announce what Toni Morrison labels their inevitable “encounter with racial ideology,” she offers this helpful question: “what are the signs, the codes, the literary strategies designed to accommodate this encounter?” (Morrison 16). That is, how do we see race at work in a white text, a text such as Ethan Frome, that might to many readers today appear raceless? Morrison explains that always, or almost always, such texts contain a tip-off, some visible signifier of color, that breaks through the supposed racelessness to tell us that a race narrative is at work.
In Ethan Frome that visible signifier of color appears on the first page. The narrator, describing Ethan’s “great height,” observes: “the ‘natives’ were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed.” The story of Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie, we learn in this one small but important detail, takes place in an environment where New England “natives”—Yankees, white Anglo-Saxons descended from the Puritans—are being outnumbered by immigrants of color, “stockier foreign” people. The native-born whites have to be “singled out” from these immigrants—these people lower to the earth (stockier), not really American (foreign), and clearly animalistic (“breed” evokes nonhumans, as in a breed of dogs, and also prolific reproduction, as in the verb “to breed”). We hear no more about these immigrants. But we do not need to. The one clear signifier of color placed prominently at the beginning of the narrative alerts us to the fact that this text, like every other in the national literature, has distinct, even if disturbing, things to say about the country’s most basic theme, the subject of race. Set in an icy, ultrawhite landscape filled with death and dying, Ethan Frome narrates dominant-culture white-racist anxiety about declining white Anglo-Saxon hegemony in the United States, an exclusionary perspective overtly embraced by many whites of the time and one that continues to undergird anti-immigrant racism today.
If race is covert and for certain readers, perhaps, hard to see in Ethan Frome, gender, like class, is overt; and on the issue of gender the text is not committed to preserving the status quo. At the time Ethan Frome was published, women in the United States could not vote. Only with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 did that basic human right extend to both sexes. In addition, and for many people an even more important issue, women were second-class citizens economically. Only a minority could afford to complete high school, much less college or university; and the occupations open to them, with or without an education, were few and low paying. In theory, this did not matter because a respectable white woman—the standard-bearer of dominant-culture values—was not expected to work outside the home. She was expected to marry, stay at home, and have children. Her job in life consisted of maintaining the house, obeying her husband, on whom she depended economically, and raising the next generation. If such a woman did remain unmarried, she could work in the public sphere in a few reputable occupations, such as teacher, nurse, or stenographer. But each of these, of course, required training and education, which few could afford; more-over, they were mainly available only to white women. The alternative was work in a factory, sweat-shop, department store, retail establishment, hotel, or boardinghouse, with, again, racial segregation severely limiting the availability of jobs for women of color. Otherwise, no matter who she was, a single woman could move in with a relative and serve, often around the clock, as maid, child rearer, all-purpose hired girl, and/or cook in return for room and board. Each of these occupations, from working in a factory to living with a relative, was exhausting, often health impairing or even dangerous, low-or non-paying, and almost always precarious and stressful, since there was no job security and no protection from the whims and abuses, including sexual, of bosses.
Anna Garlin Spencer, a contemporary of Edith Wharton, describes this situation in Woman’s Share in Social Culture (1912), published one year after Ethan Frome. Spencer explains that even women who worked only between graduation from the eighth grade and marriage, that is, from the ages of about fourteen to twenty, often permanently lost their health. “The fact is that because women are the cheapest of laborers and because young women must all work for pay between their school life and their marriage in the case of the poverty-bound, the poorest-paid and many of the hardest and most health-destroying of employments are given them as almost a monopoly” (Spencer 247). Spencer describes the situation faced by young women workers:
In the canning factories 2,400 rapid and regular motions a day in tin-cutting for the girls employed…. In the confectionery business, 3,000 chocolates “dipped” every day at a fever heat of energy. In the cracker-making trade, the girls standing or walking [all day] not six feet from the ovens … as they handle a hundred dozen a day…. In the garment trades the sewing machines speeded to almost incredible limits, the unshaded electric bulbs and the swift motion of the needle giving early “eye-blur” and a nerve strain that enables the strongest to earn only five to six dollars a week…. The law that requires seats in the department stores is so much a dead letter that the girls laugh bitterly at any question concerning its enforcement. In places where five or six hundred girls are employed nineteen to thirty seats may be provided; but to use even these may cost the girl her position.
And these are the lucky ones—the young women able to find work in factories or stores, white women who were not, as were most women of color, barred from workplaces because of racism or anti-immigrant nativism.
For all young women unable to find employment in the kinds of jobs described by Spencer or as live-in help in a relative’s home, two options remained: prostitution or domestic service. A young woman could sell her body either in the sex trade or in the household labor market. Both placed her at the mercy of an employer who could abuse and exploit her with-out many, or even any, other people knowing.
Given these realities, it is not surprising that many poor white women regarded an economically dependent marriage—even if loveless—as the best alternative. Yet even this option, especially in isolated rural areas, carried with it high risks. Domestic abuse, the physical debilitation caused by repeated childbearing, exhaustion from overwork, constant anxiety about the family’s financial survival, and the mental strain of being cut off for days or even weeks from adult contact with anyone other than one’s husband represented serious issues for poor rural wives. Depression, incapacitating illness (real or imagined), and early death were facts of life for many rural married women, especially in the failing farm economy of New England that Edith Wharton saw around her.
Ethan Frome looks at the impact of these feminist economic issues not only on women but also on men. As in all of Edith Wharton’s fiction, situations faced by female characters directly and indirectly affect male characters as well, which means, in this particular text, not only the title character, Ethan Frome, but also the narrator, since the text identifies that figure as an engineer, a profession open only to men at the turn of the nineteenth century. Wharton’s story poses important questions about socially constructed gender roles in white rural America, about marriage as an institution, and about the possibility—or impossibility—of heterosexual love and erotic passion. It interrogates the great American myth that “we” (who?) can start over, reinvent ourselves—join Twain’s Huck and “light out for the Territory.” Also, the text forces us to ask why Wharton makes her narrator male. It may simply be a technical experiment on her part, or it may be that the book suggests some more complicated or hidden argument through this narrative cross-dressing, this adoption by a woman writer of a male narrative persona. How do we interpret this authorial move?
Edith Wharton enjoyed a long, prolific, and very successful career. She published many novels—Ethan Frome was her sixteenth book in thirteen years—and scores of short stories and essays; she made money from her writing and managed to remain productive up until her death in 1937. While most of her work is set in the United States, she started spending less and less time in the States even before her divorce in 1913; and, although she never renounced her U.S. citizenship, she lived most of the last three decades of her life in France. Celebrated in her own lifetime—she won a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence in 1921 and received an honorary degree from Yale University two years later—Wharton influenced younger writers in the 1920s. The famous white Jazz Age author F. Scott Fitzgerald and the well-known African American novelist Jessie Fauset both acknowledged their literary debt to her. And she ranks as one of a small number of women writers—including Emily Dickinson, Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hur-ston, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Toni Morrison—who are unequivocally recognized as canonical in American literature. Her work has generated a sizable and distinguished body of criticism, energized in the 1970s and 1980s by feminist critics’ analyses (Wolff; Ammons 1980) and by R. W. B. Lewis’s authoritative biography. Her fiction continues to be reissued, read, translated, and taught in the United States and worldwide.
Frequently readers and critics associate Edith Wharton with Henry James, as we should. The two were friends, and her work, like his, exhibits remarkable stylistic mastery and moral complexity, even though Wharton’s sensibility is more modern and her prose more economical. Ethan Frome, however, evokes a different precursor. In addition to its local-color genealogy, it signals Wharton’s bond not with James but with Hawthorne. Although she began writing her story about Ethan in French as a language exercise in 1910 and remarked in 1922 on the story’s debt to European and British sources, specifically Balzac and Browning (Wegener 260), the finished novel resonates as a deeply American text with very American roots. The New England setting, the character names “Ethan” and “Zenobia,” and the lonely tombstone of “Endurance Frome” that calls up the Puritan past and its lingering effects on the present all evoke fiction by Hawthorne. Wharton’s story has become a classic in American literature because it is not random, isolated, unique. Ethan Frome exists in a continuum with great American texts that ask us to think about human passion and pain and also about the dark places in the nation’s history and ideology, the ways in which myths of progress and celebrations of the American Dream tell lies, the ways in which poverty, the oppression of women, and narrow thinking crush people. Wharton’s early reviewers were right: her story is bleak. But it is also moving and still important today.
Robin Peel (essay date 2005)
SOURCE: Peel, Robin. “Ethan Frome, Modernism, and a Political Argument (1911).” In Apart from Modernism: Edith Wharton, Politics, and Fiction before World War I, pp. 123-44. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005.
[In the following essay, Peel examines the modernist impulses that populate Ethan Frome, as well as the strong influences of both Morton Fullerton and Henry James upon its creation.]
In 1887 [Louis Poubelle, the Paris Prefect of Police] sought to organise the thousands of workers who came looking for jobs in the Town Hall Square. He wanted this to take place inside, out of sight, and subsidised the first Bourse. Inspired by the Communard Jean Allemane and by the young anarchist journalist Fernand Pelloutier, workers insisted on their right to run the Bourses themselves. They thus created a unique French institution, not only a place to look for jobs, but a space for political development, further training and unions. By 1907 there were 157 Bourses.
—Charles Sowerwine, France since 1870: Culture, Politics and Society
Paralysis and Entropy
Ethan Frome, written in Paris, echoes contemporary European debates and anxieties about health, history, and social decline as well as concerns about intellectual, emotional, and national paralysis. Jennie Kas-sanoff has drawn attention to the class dislocation, illness, and sterility revealed in the final revelatory tableau in the novella, when the narrator sees the crippled, dependent Mattie and the childless, drug-ministering Zenobia for the first time.1 The terrible sleighing accident has transformed the formerly vibrant Mattie Silver into another version of the lifeless Fromes, and drugs signify her fall. Her father inherited a thriving drug business, but it collapsed and Mattie’s parents died. Unlike Lily Bart, Mattie is condemned to survive her own confrontation with death and wither into a terrible old age.
Wharton had written the original version of the story that was to become Ethan Frome in French as an exercise in 1907. Three years earlier James Joyce had completed “Eveline,” later to be published in Dubliners in 1914.2 Both Joyce’s short story and Wharton’s novella explore dreams of escape that are unrealized because of a disastrous combination of crushing social constraints and the failure to experience the full passion of love. Both end with a terrible epiphany.
Though these parallels can be discussed in relation to contemporary commercial and religious pressures (shop-keeping, Protestant land speculation, and Catholicism in Ireland, shop-keeping, industrialization, and Puritanism in Massachusetts), I would first like to follow up the earlier discussion of modernism by considering each text in relation to the label “modernist” to see whether the very different directions taken in their later writing by Joyce and Wharton are anticipated in these works from the early modernist period.
Joyce’s Eveline is a nineteen-year-old Dubliner who dreams of escape from her violent drunken father and the bullying female supervisor in the store where she works. The home setting is one of poverty and bleakness. Eveline sits by a window where the “odour of dusty cretonne”3 invades the nostrils, inactive, allowing the thoughts of her present and past life to drift through her mind. There are some pleasant memories of her father in a playful, friendly mood, but there is also a terrible warning of what might be her own future, as she recalls her mother’s life, “a life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.”4 She dreams of running away with Frank, a sailor who wants her to elope with him to “Buenos Ayres.” She keeps the appointment at the docks, but at the last minute suffers a failure of nerve. Her failure to join Frank on the ship is explained partly by a promise to keep the family home together, but most of all it is explained by a failure to feel, a failure that is attributed by Joyce to the paralyzing effect of a culture that inhibits thought and feeling.
What is striking in this story is the way Joyce reveals this. He does not tell us. He shows us by rendering the description of Eveline’s world in her own language through free indirect discourse. The method itself is not new (Jane Austen uses a form of it all the time) but it is the way that Joyce shows the paralyzing effect of conventional, repeated, and stale forms of language that Eveline has absorbed that is different, as the narrator moves in and out of Eveline’s idiom. The narrative deftly moves into the conventionality of both cliché and euphemism without reverting to direct speech. Eveline thinks of what they might say at the store “when they found out she had run away with a fellow,”5 and how her father “was usually fairly bad of a Saturday night.”6 Most revealingly the poverty of her thought is shown by the way she thinks of her possible escape only in the cliché of romantic novels: “Escape! She must escape! Frank would save he…. Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her.”7 Yet when the moment comes she finds escape impossible and stands at the barrier with a white face “passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.”8
Mattie Silver also finds escape impossible, and after the sleighing accident she, too, is likened to a “little animal twittering” (under the snow). Wharton is similarly interested in showing how culture and circumstances trap people, especially women. But Joyce is particularly keen to demonstrate how the cause of this entrapment can be traced to language, and in so doing he shows us the inescapable tentacles of that language. Wharton, particularly in this novel and its successor, The Reef, is equally interested in showing us how cultural forces work on us. Moreover, both Ethan Frome and The Reef deploy an impressionistic use of language. Later in this chapter I will be exploring the complex way in which Wharton does this in Ethan Frome through the eyes of a speculative, unreliable narrator. But I think we can see enough in “Eveline” of Joyce’s interest in rendering the detail of consciousness through its specific languages to prepare us for later developments in his work, most immediately (in Blast in 1915) the paragraphs rendered in the language of babyhood and early child-hood at the start of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is in his primary desire to show the relationship of language to perception that makes Joyce most clearly a “modernist” writer. The language in which Eveline conceptualizes the world makes her the person she is.
In Ethan Frome there is a tension between the focus on Ethan, Mattie, and Zenobia as “types” of those living in rural poverty and the distilled focus on the leisurely, professional engineer whose impressions we rely on for this narrative. It is recognized that Ethan Frome can be read as a narrative about narrating, a quality that would seem to qualify it for the label “modernist,” or even “postmodernist.” But though the narrative method greatly interests Wharton, she never lets go of her primary concern, which is not the abstraction of consciousness or self-reflexivity but the impact of social and economic pressure on human behavior.
In this respect Wharton’s novella has more in common with another contemporary story of entropy and paralysis, E. M. Forster’s 1909 short story “The Machine Stops,” unlikely as that may seem. Forster’s story is set in a future in which the world is running down and human beings have virtually no physical or emotional contact with one another. They live underground in individual cells like insects and communicate via speaking tubes. Forster’s target is technology and the dehumanization of the human race. It is the debilitating presence of technology that contributes to the paralysis of human will in “The Machine Stops,” whereas in Ethan Frome it is the absence of technology that is partly the problem (Frome’s old-fashioned sawmill technology and his failure to pursue a course in physics is contrasted with the engineer-narrator’s expertise and successful profession). But despite these differences both Forster and Wharton see the novel as an artistic form of rhetoric rather than a potentially abstract form of art. As a result both occupy the border territory of modernism because their dialogue is not just with the mind, but with the behavior shaped by the individual’s relationship to society, class, and economics. Another way of illustrating this is to emphasize that Wharton’s novel has more in common with the technique of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)9 than it does with the language experiments of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914). Conrad’s novel shares with Wharton’s an investigation into meaning through a narrator trying to make sense of the world’s ambiguities.10 The instability and uncertainty of knowledge is characteristic of the epistemological question raised by modernist fiction, as is the fragmentary way in which that knowledge is presented as an impression rather than a fact. But whereas Marlow fascination with Kurtz ends with a revelation of the horror of the emptiness at the heart of the soul, in Ethan Frome the engineer’s preoccupation is with Frome’s history, and the revelation at the end is not a revelation of a “universe without meaning” but one of hopelessness. Its focus is domestic and on the poverty and selfishness that destroys hope in this isolated small society. That is why I am not persuaded by writers such as Linda Costanzo Cahir and Carol J. Singley who identify Ethan Frome as an unambiguously modernist work either because it confronts a kind of alienation, or because it has a “modernist message” that paradise cannot be regained, or because it has an unreliable narrator.11 Such a verdict assumes that modernism and modernity are synonymous, and ignores the politics of the aesthetic assumptions that underpin modernism. Unlike Gertrude Stein, her neighbor in Paris, Wharton did not believe that good art would emerge from the assumption that sometimes language should be about itself. It is worth considering Stein’s Tender Buttons (1911) for a moment, a work published by Stein in the same year as Ethan Frome, as it illustrates a conception of the “new” writing that explains Wharton’s rejection of this form of modernism.
Stein experimented with language in ways that show the influence of the ideas of William James and Berg-son about consciousness and time. The experiments have been described as scientific, and surreal rather than cubist.12 The title Tender Buttons must be metaphoric, but what the metaphor stands for (a nipple? an absurdity?) remains deliberately obscure. The prose writing is in a form which abandons narrative, attacks denotation, and is not “explained” by Stein’s description of it as poetry. The starting point may be an everyday object, but the “still life” studies of objects frequently defy shared understanding or communication:
A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.13
The effect is similar to that of aphasia and anticipates the randomness of automatic writing, be it that of the Dadaists or Burrough’s “cut-up” method. In such later instances the aim of the writing was to bypass rationality and order, a purpose Wharton regarded as evidence of insanity. Stein retained the belief that the artist had a special role in disclosing the essence of perception (and thus did not regard her “art” as a correspondence to a meaningless world) but in David Lodge’s words, Stein’s artistic aim in 1911 “was to eliminate the human altogether, because the human carried with it ineradicable vestiges of time as a continuum rather than as a continuous present.”14 Wharton believed that the desirability of such an elimination could be conceived only by someone who felt herself to be apart from society. Cubist philosophy, whether applied to writing or painting, produced an art that Wharton fundamentally rejected.
I am not suggesting that Stein’s language experiments represent the essence of modernism, for modernism took many forms, but that it is useful to regard them as occupying the other side of a line that Wharton would not cross. That line is the perceived limit that separates an aesthetic that seeks to stay within the social and human world from one that sees art as something that transcends society. These stem from contrasting and irreconcilable political assumptions, and only one side of the line provided the geography that would take modernism to the conclusion that it reached after World War I. It was not Wharton’s side of the line that provided this territory.
The different politics that underpin Ethan Frome and separate it from Tender Buttons are crucial, and to assist an understanding of these politics it is helpful to consider Edith Wharton’s intellectual relationship with Morton Fullerton, a man whose political influence is often overlooked because he was also Wharton’s onetime lover. His political thought had arguably a greater influence on Wharton than that of the politically experienced close friend, Walter Berry, not least because Fullerton was as much a critic as an agent of the status quo. And Fullerton published books in which, in other circumstances, Wharton might not have taken keen interest.
A Political Triangle
The relationship between Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Morton Fullerton is sometimes discussed as a complex triangle of transferred eroticism, with Wharton as James’s surrogate acting out an amour with Fullerton, with James as voyeur and with Fullerton as Wharton’s sexual surrogate for the “inner circle” of male companions who were so easily distracted by beautiful women such as Sybil Cutting.15 Alongside such discussion comes an awareness of the professional, literary nature of this triangle, with James advising Wharton about her work and Wharton advising Fullerton about his. What is often underplayed is the extent to which this was a triangle that supplied a site for a reading of global politics, the special field of Fullerton the journalist. To trace this process, we must go back twenty-one years.
Fullerton’s study “English and Americans,” which had just appeared in two parts in the Fortnightly Review,16 is referred to in a February 1890 letter to Fullerton from James, who promises that the article will be the subject of discussion when they meet.17 The letter provides evidence that James was a reader of the Fortnightly Review, a journal that concerned itself with international affairs and historical and literary topics, featuring articles such as “Europe and the Annexation of Bosnia Herzogovena.”18 Though the literary subject matter was only part of its remit, its contributors during the first fifteen years of the twentieth century reads like a roll call of Edwardian writing and included Maeterlinck, Max Nordau, Belloc, Gissing, Gosse, Swinburne, Edward Garnett, Galsworthy, Violet Hunt, May Sinclair, Arthur Ran-some, H. G. Wells,19 Ford Madox Hueffer, Havelock Ellis, G. K. Chesterton, E. F. Benson, Thomas Hardy, Eden Philpotts, and Ezra Pound.
Fullerton’s article, which was to be included in Patriotism and Science three years later,20 offers a genial analysis of English conservatism and gradualism, showing how the English are flattered by praise from Americans, and have a long experience of making subtle concessions to change when necessary as the means of avoiding revolution and rebellion. It offers an analysis of the temperaments of the two countries, a subject that forms the center of so much of James’s fiction. The novelist’s letters to Fullerton show that he is a reader of the Times, for whom Fullerton worked as a journalist, first in London and then in Paris. James had a low opinion of the newspaper, redolent as it was of the less attractive features of the British mind: “The British mind is the most wondrous thing in nature—unspeakable, immeasurable, awful. And to see it bare its mounded riches to the heavens and the nations with childlike confidence—over the placid water closet of The Times, as it were, is to see an unforgettable thing.”21
James would probably have advised Fullerton on his first book publication, In Cairo (1891), in which Fullerton uses the term that has later been applied in a description of Wharton’s position in Europe when she decided to settle there: “And to be dépaysee, as Frenchmen sometimes say in a word untranslatable in English by one equally precise, is for travellers such a common experience of pain.”22 Although largely an impressionistic travel guide for the Englishman (or American) abroad, In Cairo provides evidence of Fullerton’s interest in national cultures, an interest that was to be informed by stays in Paris and Spain. In his Times reports, and in his essays, Fullerton offered a perspective on international relations that Walter Berry, who also knew Egypt as an international judge, would have provided a much narrower insight into. As we know from Wharton’s opinion of James’s later works, liking the person does not automatically lead to an interest and sympathy in his/ her writing, but with Fullerton there is ample evidence of this interest from Wharton, who was a careful and shrewd reader of his work. An eye and ear for a polished style may have been her specialty, but in reading Fullerton for style she would have encountered ideas about states, power, and imperialism that contributed to her political awareness. In considering what it means to be an American in France, or in England, Wharton decided to confront the fundamental question of American identity. James had advised her to “do America,” but though she had followed his advice and examined American Old New York society and Massachusetts industry, there was an older European America, that of the rural poor, that she had yet to address.
Edith Wharton started and completed Ethan Frome in Paris, and at first it is difficult to see any connection between the novel’s account of life in rural Massachusetts and the French city in which it was written.23 Wharton tells us a great deal about one important aspect of her Paris life of this period, and that is her immersion in the life of the salon, but the world of the artist, flourishing though it was in the decade or so of the belle époque, is totally divorced from the life of a struggling sawmill owner in the hard winter of the New England woods. Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes may have signaled the rising modernist temperature in Paris in 1909 as Wharton wrote, but her tale concerns a place in which there is no room for art. The world of strikes, of new technology, and the French argument about the separation of church and state, also seem distant from the world of her novel. In France the political rhetoric was antimilitarist, pacifist, and internationalist, and it must be remembered that on the eve of World War I France had a socialist government. The rise of Germany produced a fear fueled by the memory of the defeat of 1870, so that the common foes of capitalism and Germany were synonymous. The years 1904 to 1914 may have been the years of the entente cordiale, but they were also the years of the alliance with Russia, a country plunging into revolution. Such politics appear alien to the world inhabited by Edith Wharton.
Yet French culture and its attitude to modernism provided an endorsement of many of the attitudes to art, social organization, and tradition that had by 1911 become second nature to Wharton. Paris may have been the city in which Stravinsksy’s The Rite of Spring and cubism made their appearance, but each met with huge opposition from the forces of reaction and tradition. The antiauthoritarianism of the artist-rebels earned them the condemnation of a French cultural hegemony that pride itself on the authority of the state. There was such a tremendous reaction from the conservative and establishment elements in French society, stimulated by the fear of anarchy (for such was the perceived outcome of the strikes and art that the rebellious factions fermented) that there was a flight into classicism and nationalism. Cubists (partly because of Picasso) were described as metéques or “damned foreigners,” and their art as “anti-French.” Eric Cahm24 identifies the three central values in classical French culture with which modernism collided, and each of these values had a sympathetic ally in Wharton. The first of these, says Cahm, is “the concept of harmonious order in cultural and political affairs, an order which can be achieved by the voluntary, or enforced, adherence of the individual to norms laid down from above.” The second is the “unshakeable adherence to reason” and the third is the vision of man in universal rather than individual terms.
Paris was a creative city that fostered the performance of the new, but would draw the line (the line that Wharton would never cross) when “the new” seemed to promise anarchy. It is precisely this experience of a separate confident culture, with its own strong and specific sense of history, identity, and cultural assumptions that permitted Wharton to reassess in her 1911 novel an aspect of her own history and identity as an American. Wharton’s imaginative visit to her subject from the urban sophistication of establishment Paris parallels the journey made by her narrator from his world to that of Ethan’s. It is a journey to the very heart of the myth of American identity.
Metafiction and the Politics of American Identity
One of the reasons the philosopher Richard Rorty claims to prefer poetry and the novel to philosophy and the discourse of reason is that prose fiction in general, and the novel in particular, can incorporate a multiplicity of discourses, and is capable of weaving into a text its own metadiscourse.25 Rorty is not simply alluding to metafiction, which explicitly draws attention to its own process of composition, but to fiction as an intrinsically dialogic form, as described by Bakhtin.26
Among other things Ethan Frome is a story about storytelling. Its subject is the art of narration itself, or more precisely the fleshing out of the narrative from the scant facts available to the narrator. This is not without irony: New England Puritanism, with which the early inhabitants of Starkfield are associated (in the original manuscript Starkfield is located in Vermont, but this has been crossed out by Wharton and replaced with the word Massachusetts), regarded art as artifice and at odds with “truth.” This is a novel that is as much metatextual as intertextual. The important and unusual lines of dots that precede the main narrative signal entry into a constructed world, and do so in a very deliberate way. And if this text invites the reader to speculate on the nature of storytelling, it also invites a consideration of myth making—for in presenting the world of rural New England, the novel invites a questioning of the foundation myth of America itself.
It does so by contrasting the rural poor, who are the late nineteenth-century inheritors of the land peopled by the Pilgrim Fathers, with the modern American world that has left them behind. Such a contrast is effected by engaging with the new discourse of the modern world, empirical science. It is significant that this study of America was written in Europe, which the colonists had left behind at the beginning of the age of scientific technology. Ethan Frome was written in Wharton’s Paris apartment, and between the successful commercial year of 1905 and the disastrous personal year of 1913 Wharton spent long periods away from her Massachusetts home, moving regularly between France and England.27 During this period, debates about knowledge and the expansion of education crossed the channel and centered on the question “what kind of learning is appropriate for the nation’s children in the twentieth century?” Was a classical arts education to be superseded by the need for a knowledge of science and the needs of indus-ttry? All these questions are harnessed to empire, because for France, England, and America the acquisition of new colonial territory required engineers to domesticate it and an educated civil service to manage it.
Education, Engineering, and Empire
In the nineteenth century there had been a battle over which discourse should sit at the center of the curriculum in schools in England, with modernizers like Huxley arguing for science and classicists like Thomas Arnold arguing for literature. In England, by 1911 literary study was sensing signs of victory: the English Association had been established in 1906 and literary study was enjoying growing prestige. The Times Literary Supplement appeared as an additional section in the Times. Literature was enjoying a prestige and a circulation that it had not known before.
The curriculum subject English defined itself largely in opposition to science, and there are glimpses of this dialectic between art and science in Ethan Frome. The narrator may be a storyteller through enforced idleness, but he is an engineer and scientist by inclination and profession. Ethan borrows the narrator’s book on popular science—the narrator recalls that it may have been a book on developments in biochemistry—and the moment signals an early foreshadowing of the idea of the dream-not-realized. Although the relationship between science and the novel has been well documented in discussions of British and Irish novels such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the emphasis on the gothic is often at the expense of the detail of the scientific discourse with which the narrative events contest. It is a mistake to see science as just another ingredient in the recipe of fiction.
In France the debates about science and education had raged no less fiercely. French Catholic schools, with their antirationalist ethos, were arguably responsible for diverting influential “elites” away from industry and science while the abstract training of the École Polytechnique led to a disdainful view of “practical” engineers.28
Such debates, about practicality and abstraction, engineering and science, touch on this 1911 novel, and were more developed in France than they were in New England America where practical ability had always assumed prominence. These debates should be mapped against the perspective on political life that Fullerton introduced and the relationship of this perspective to Durkheim’s pessimistic sociological reading of material progress that was touched on in chapter 2.29 In The House of Mirth Wharton had traced a world in which a woman is adrift in a culture that seems to have lost all sense of value. In The Fruit of the Tree Wharton had moved her focus to the industrial world and depicted an attempt to apply an idealistic and philanthropic vision to the world of factory work, as Robert Owen had done in the nineteenth century. Both novels conclude on a pessimistic note, with an argument that coincides with Durkheim’s view, published in 1895 and widely disseminated by 1911, that selfishness undermines progress in the late nineteenth-century world of Western industrialism. Science and technology, which others thought could advance human evolution, was not doing so.
A more recent French essay that contributed to contemporary debates about politics, philosophy, and culture in 1910-11 was Georges Sorel’s Réflexions sur la violence (1908), which attacked the idea of inevitable progress and argued for the positive, even creative role of myth and violence in the historical progress. Sorel had trained as a civil engineer until 1892, but then abandoned this career to become a revolutionary syndicalist when he discovered Marxism in 1893. He defended Dreyfus with a passion, but in all other respects his socialist ideas would have been anathema to Wharton. His argument that resistance to the state’s coercive force, a power often abused by the state, was the creative historical role of violence had a Nietzschean ring to it, however, that might indirectly have had a bearing on Wharton’s decision to draw on a fatal sledding accident reported in the local Lenox newspaper in 1904 and make the pivotal moment in her 1911 narrative Ethan’s attempt to end his own social entrapment with a dramatic act of self-inflicted violence. This is not a matter of Wharton reading Sorel but of his ideas informing a discourse that Wharton absorbed, the cultural process demonstrated by Kassanoff in her discussion of The Fruit of the Tree. 30
In 1893 Fullerton had published Patriotism and Science, a book whose final section on “Democracy” has as its starting point the claim that “equality of political rights, and an inequality in social conditions is the great peril of the modern democracies.”31 This observation, made by Emile de Laveleye,32 is acknowledged by Fullerton to be a fine axiom, but in his view it is one that takes us nowhere. The crucial question is the one that asks how social inequality can best be ended: “Are there no discernible causes tending to the extinction of or else the taming in the savagery in, inequality of conditions?”33 Fullerton provides one simple but unamplified answer. Science will forward the move toward social equality and therefore there must be scientific advance at prodigious speed. It was a view that still commanded considerable support in the early 1890s.
Wharton was interested in, and knowledgeable about, the sciences of evolution, anthropology, and sociology. They were consistent with her belief in the need for laws, order, and form in art. It is not this, but Fullerton’s call for the removal of inequalities in society that challenged two assumptions that informed Wharton’s thinking. It challenged the assumption that inequality is a necessary evil, because for art to survive a privileged leisure class must survive. It also challenges the assumption, an assumption to which Wharton subscribed, that the material progress brought about by science is ruining humanity. Fullerton does not call for radical political change, but he argues that the class system needs to be eroded, if not abolished altogether, if democracy is to survive. He notes that the search for equality is “instanced everywhere in the rise of socialism.”34 Everywhere in the West there is evidence of what he calls the “laic” movement, the modern spirit expressed in the impulses that make the temper of a person resentful of authority. Matthew Arnold’s “Philistines,” he observes, have been overtaken. Theirs was a tendency toward conservation that acted as a brake on change. Science exerted a force that released that brake.
Ethan Frome is set in rural Massachusetts in a world that has been influenced by science and technology. The railroad has replaced the stagecoach, there is electricity, and there are new brick buildings in Starkfield. Inscribed in this novel are debates about technological determinism,35 the belief that changes in technology provide the dominant force in society and exert a far greater influence on societies and their processes than anything else. Ethan’s sawmill is water driven, and water-driven sawmills were being phased out in the 1830s, long before the setting of this novel (which is in the age of electricity). Ethan is all too aware of the opportunities he has missed. He wanted to be an engineer and had taken a year’s course at a technical college in Worcester. Kate Gsch-wend argues that Mattie, too, is unable to adapt to modern methods. She has an unsuccessful past as a stenographer and as an assistant in a department store. One reading of this narrative, therefore, is that their failure to adapt is indicative of a psychological paralysis, and that this is then confirmed by their physical infirmities, caused by their sledge disaster. This reading would support Fullerton’s call for the need for all to embrace the developments offered by science and technology, as the engineer-narrator clearly has.
The problem with this is that Starkfield as a whole has not been bypassed by change, yet the benefits are not unequivocal. Harmon Gow was the stage-driver before the trolley arrived, and the coming of the railroad has not made the town any more community-like than it was before. In fact the new business methods in the new brick grocery store may make it more efficient, but the old store had a more human face. These observations match Durkheim’s view that technological change can lead to a disintegration of the moral fabric of society. As for the narrator himself, he represents a similar ambiguity, an engineer/ scientist engaged in the artistic practice of imaginative story construction.
The figure of the engineer is an important trope in Wharton’s work and one that often signifies colonial enterprise.36 He is a new professional “type” in America and elsewhere, and invariably a commanding figure. His mystique made him a cultural hero,37 and magazines such as McClure’s, Century, Harper’s, and Scribner’s (the magazine to which Wharton contributed regularly) frequently published at the turn of the century articles about engineers and their awe-inspiring achievements. Conquering nature was a central part of the imperial project, and the triumph of the engineer over the land and sea parallels the triumph of American imperialism over its rivals. Frederick Wegener sees traces of the discourse of imperialism in the language used by the engineer narrator in Ethan Frome, where Ethan is described with the eye of the occupying colonial power. The narrator’s first description of Ethan is that he is the “most striking figure in Starkfield. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the ‘natives’ were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed.”38 Wegener notes that the narrator’s perspective “resembles that of a detached colonial explorer recording the practices and inhabitants of an alien tribal culture.”39
The narrator is thus more French intellectual than no-nonsense practical Yankee. His language, however, shares something in common with the discourse of the ethnographer, which is how the tone of the detached narrative voice in Wharton’s novel, The Custom of the Country, has been read, as we shall see in chapter 6. But the rhetoric of imperialism is something that Wharton would have been familiar with, following closely as she did the essays by Morton Fullerton published in the National Review between 1910 and 1911. Fullerton approved of American expansionism, taking the subject beyond the vision of a well-known work by one of Wharton’s contacts in the Rue du Varenne during 1906-7, Archibald Coolidge. Coolidge’s The United States as a World Power,40 published in 1908, sees U.S. imperialism as an extension of Manifest Destiny and this would have met with the approval of what Wegener describes as Wharton’s “imperial sensibility.”41 She had, as noted earlier, described herself, only half ironically, as a “rabid imperialist.” Wegener notes that “the socially and intellectually conservative disposition of Wharton’s circle in the Faubourg Saint Germain” came close to representing “the entire proimperialist elite of the belle époque.”42 In other words, there is indeed a connection between the politics of Ethan Frome and the discourses Wharton was hearing in the city in which it was written. But the imperialist voice is only one aspect of the novel.
Intertexuality, History, and the Formative Function of Literature
A reader who approaches Ethan Frome having read novels from the mid-nineteenth century and the New England fiction of dark romanticism, whether the Brontës or Hawthorne, will immediately recognize Wharton’s homage to these earlier fictions. The framing devices tap into the genre of dark romanticism, but she stops short of employing more sensational gothic machinery, which even in her ghost stories she avoids. As noted earlier Henry James had provided a model of how to use the uncanny for an exploration of the psychological in The Turn of the Screw (1898). In Ethan Frome, however, the only ghosts are the ghosts of memory and those recollections of former selves and earlier happiness.
Successful intertextuality does not signify limitation or derivation, and in deliberately including elements that remind us of texts with foregrounded troubled narrators (Lockwood in Wuthering Heights, the narrator in The Blithedale Romance), the novel offers a historical, but uncertain reading of behavior. Like such novels as Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter, which use the gothic-derived features of dark romanticism as devices that permit the subversion of conventional moral practice and behavior (adultery versus marriage in each case), Ethan Frome uses literary allusion to challenge the normative message of the bourgeois realist novel that marriage is always best. At the same time the novel seems to act as a commentary on the American Dream.
To demonstrate this point it is useful to be reminded of the features of American character identified by J. Hector St. Jean de Crévecoeur in Letters from an American Farmer (1782),43 features that include openness, the absence of class, the appetite for work, and the belief in success and the optimism that was central to this formation of a new political identity. They contrast with the dark sense of foreboding that informs many of Hawthorne’s novels. Such an atmosphere of gloom questions the shining optimism of the American Dream, and Hawthorne is the New England writer above all others who steers Wharton from the light of the city to the darkness of the human soul. In entering this landscape, Wharton was revisiting the preindustrial world.
Ethan Frome pays homage to Hawthorne in a number of ways. Like The Scarlet Letter,Ethan Frome is an exploration of the effects of concealment, but there is no Hester Prynne figure in Starkfield. Mattie, who initially holds promise as the passionate woman, lover, and liberator, ends up a more shrunken figure than Zeena, defeated by her physical injury in a way that contrasts with Hester’s subversion of her badge of humiliation and punishment. In another, passing Hawthorne allusion, Zenobia Frome is clearly the antithesis of Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance, a woman who becomes the object of the narrator Coverdale’s voyeuristic and fetishistic description, as in a moment of sexual reverie he constructs in his imagination her ample body unclothed and subjects it to his gaze. As for the legendary Zenobia, queen of Palmyra and ruler of the eastern Roman Empire for a time, Wharton’s powerless New Englander could not be more of a contrast. Zenobia of Syria married a Roman senator and lived at Tivoli. Roman writers refer to her energy, her dark beauty, and her pleasure in luxury. The Zenobia allusion is deliberate in its irony, and it is likely that Wharton had both the original Zenobia and Hawthorne’s character in mind when she chose the name to replace the one of Ann that appears in the French exercise written in 1907, for as a child Edith Newbold Jones had a direct link with the world of Hawthorne. At the age of thirteen Edith had met Emelyn Washburn, a young woman of nineteen, who was the daughter of Emerson’s cousin and so part of the Concord circle. From Emelyn Wharton is likely to have learned of Margaret Fuller, on whom Hawthorne’s Zenobia is clearly based, and there is a mischievous archness in making the Zenobia of Ethan Frome so frail, cold, and asexual. Hawthorne could dissect American Puritanism, but recognized the power of life that the Puritans struggled to suppress. The Puritans themselves, ironically, were a passionate group. They were passionate about religion and good works, if fearful about sexuality and art. In Hawthorne they are seen to be prospering, so that when in Ethan Frome Wharton confronts failure, poverty, and marriage her interrogation of America is an explicitly political act.
This Massachusetts novel also interacts with a later Wharton text, Summer (1917). Ethan Frome was called Hiver in its French form, just as Summer was called a “hot Ethan” by Edith Wharton herself. The parallels are obvious, in the setting, the sense of entrapment, the theme of illicit love. But in Summer everything is again in reverse, this time in reverse to the situation in Ethan Frome. It is warm summer to Ethan winter, it is the woman who is trapped by men and not the other way around, and the sexual desire is released in passionate meetings in an abandoned house. If Ethan Frome is harsh realism, Summer has properties we associate with Hawthorne’s reading of romance: the dark symbolic Mountain with its sinful people, the ambiguity of its “sinners,” such as lawyer Royall, the moments of festivity that end in disappointment, the sense of a harsh judgmental community that is almost eager for the exposure of sin on which its bigotry and narrow self-righteousness can feed. Even the summer is tinged with the promise of autumn, and the fleeting nature of pleasure is made clear.
Any consideration of the relationship of Wharton to Hawthorne will also need to consider a reading of Ethan Frome as allegory or cautionary tale, with the moral purpose that Wharton thought essential. The role of the narrative in the formation of the reader-subject is well established. Shotter (1989) has argued that the function of language is to provide constraints that are formative and not, primarily, communicative. Thus, for example, the concept of the ownership and possession of property is not just part of the currency of dialogue, it also shapes identity and behavior.44
It is no coincidence that Wharton was writing at a time when it was being argued in support of the teaching of English in schools and universities that literature can teach us how to live. Narratives may not originally have had a normative function, but they readily serve this purpose. Gilbert and Gubar make this connection when they describe Ethan Frome as an investigation into the laws of culture “and the anti-romantic family romances that may have ultimately determined those laws.”45 In this sense Ethan Frome asks to be read as a cautionary narrative, a Blithedale Romance without the wryness. The warning concerns the crushing consequences of residual Puritanism, commercial change, and rural poverty. This anti-Puritanical reading takes the rhetorical slant of the novel to be that if we suppress our passions, we become discontented and suicidal. But equally the rhetoric can be interpreted as a warning about the consequences of transgression, of indulging the passions and deliberately straying from the path, when that path teaches duty, with commitment to work and commercial activity as the only acceptable channel for the passions. So, analogously, Wharton shows how the personal constraint of living within the bounds of a loveless marriage is translated into the oppression and cruelty of the constraints of an enclosed world.
The novel is ambiguous in its presentation of the individual’s dream of escape through illicit romance. But more fundamentally it shows the limitation on behavior imposed by real poverty, the theme introduced in “Bunner Sisters,’ sidestepped in The Valley of Decision and The Fruit of the Tree, and only partially confronted at the end of The House of Mirth, as Gavin Jones has shown. An anonymous contemporary critic saw Ethan Frome as an argument for socialism in that if a crew of wrecked sailors were washed up on a desert island, society would not expect them to endure their fate.46 The narrative sup-pports a number of contradictory readings: the rhetoric condemns the traditions that deny the possibility of pleasure, but is also harsh on those who are tempted to turn their backs on tradition. It exposes the paradoxes in the construction of Puritan identity.
In the absence of support from society at large, such oppression and the self-regulatory sacrifice that we find in the novel is the product of the need to survive and endure a harsh landscape, and there is a displacement of the hardness bred by the climate and remoteness into the hardness of personal relations. Like Lockwood in Wuthering Heights, the narrator becomes increasingly shocked by the brutality of the people into whose story he has intruded. But Wharton’s novel also shows traces of another Brontë novel, Jane Eyre. In Ethan Frome there is a similar dark secret concerning a marriage made in hope turning horribly into a marriage in name only, the discovery of which causes Jane Eyre to flee. Eventually, when Rochester is maimed and in need of her, Jane returns, but there is no such happy ending for Ethan or for Mattie. All have learned to crush their feelings, rather like the women in the story of self-denial written more than ten years earlier, ‘Bunner Sisters.’ And in the emphasis on the repressed, the abject, and the denial of the yearning for illicit pleasure, the narrative examines the New England “origins” of America and the Puritan territory of sublimated desire.
The Politics of Sexuality: Desire, Transgression, and Power
Desire is often defined as a discursive practice: it can be just as culturally specific as gender or sexual practice and, as Catherine Belsey notes,47 it is not one of the “givens.”48 Desire for the unobtainable, for the Lacanian “lack,” may be discussed in terms of transgression, a process that has the effect of throwing the norms of gender boundaries and sexual orientation into relief, or the displacement that occurs when desire is articulated in relation to objects.
Plato identified desire as the sign of imperfection, the longing for something outside the soul, a longing that materializes in the form of the body. The perfect, winged soul desires nothing outside itself, and the loss of wings causes the soul to fall into materiality. For Aristotle there are differing types of desire: the active, rational, controlled desire and the natural desire associated with passivity. These are not necessarily gendered, but have lent themselves to a binary that corresponds to cultural constructions of gender, and they can be deconstructed through a reading of the transgressive, be it incest, insanity, or moral starvation. The incest theme is explored more fully in Summer, but Ethan and Mattie are related, and the crippling of the transgressive Ethan and Mattie is suggestive of the blinding of Oedipus, whose very name draws attention to his lameness. The commodi-fication of desire is also hinted at earlier, when at the dance Mattie passed down the line of men, and Ethan fears that he has lost her to Denis Eady, son of the ambitious and prosperous Irish grocer Michael Eady. Earlier I suggested that the principal character in the text is not Ethan but the narrator, whom we may read as a signifier of the lack that propels desire. He has no lover (as far as we can tell), he has no work (for the duration of the winter), and he has no involvement with events other than to speculate on them. He relies on others to drive him around, to feed and amuse him. He is dependent on Ethan. He is the watcher/listener and in his writing there is a sense of the priest listening to and reporting the confession of the New England community.
In The Second Sex49 Simone de Beauvoir emphasizes the link between Puritanism and the fear of sexuality, while in The History of Sexuality, Foucault (1986) describes confession as one of the discourses of sexual practice, especially in Western Christianity. Although the act of confession is something we associate with Roman Catholicism, the drive to expose in court sexual desires and adultery was one of the significant practices of early Puritanism, as the Salem witch trials demonstrated. Furthermore, the zeal with which confession was pursued, and the absorption of the sexual energies into the quarrying and detective practices of the inquisitor, suggests a sublimation of desire in cases of so-called possession, ranging from Catholic Loudun to Protestant Salem. The narrator in Ethan Frome is very clearly acting out the role of the inquisitor, and like the inquisitors in cases of witchcraft, it is up to him to put a construction on the story from the evidence available. Moreover, all such stories are at root stories of an alleged sexual relationship, and in Foucault’s terms provide an opportunity to talk openly and at length about that which is usually considered forbidden; such impropriety requires silence.
Although not attracted to any of the living members of the triangle of Mattie, Zeena, and Ethan, the narrator is drawn to the romance of the young Mattie and the young Ethan, and makes their story his own (we do not know if his version corresponds to the events). But just as Lockwood—and we noted how consciously Wharton drew parallels between the re-moteness of her setting and the remoteness of the moors in Wuthering Heights—is interrupted in his interest in the surviving Cathy when he realizes that she is attracted to Hareton, so the narrator in Ethan Frome experiences a great shock when he discovers that the young desirable Mattie, last visualized in language suggestive of a rush of sexual ecstasy as they slide with gathering speed down the hill toward “death” with Mattie locked between Ethan’s legs, is now merely the bitter invalid who sits paralyzed at the Frome table.
Desire is inextricably linked to power, or its lack. In their discussion of schizoanalysis and literature Deleuze and Guattari (1975) argue that desire is power. In 1908, three years before the completion of Ethan Frome, Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Inversion was published, and although restricted to the medical profession in America after legal proceedings against the first volume in the series (1897), this and other books by Ellis, such as Man and Woman (1894), were extremely well known. Ellis (like Deleuze and Guattari) was influenced by Nietzsche, and his “sexology” is informed by a theory of the male will to power and female masochism.
In Ethan Frome it is Zeena who enjoys the triumph of power. This power comes from “caring” and from nursing, and it was in the role of “nurse” that she first met Ethan. Once again there are echoes of Brontë, as Jane Eyre’s first contact with Rochester is through nursing him when he has fallen from his horse, and Jane eventually marries him as nurse/wife to care for him in his blindness. In such a context the inequalities of power between men and women are removed, and men submit to the temporary power of the nurse. This is the only outlet for power that Zeena has, however, and when no one else seems to need her nursing, she turns her nursing power on to herself. But in the end she has two adults to nurse, though in the way that she is realized imaginatively by Wharton, she falls a little short of becoming the phallic woman, the “powerful and dominating humiliator” (Kaplan 1991).
In psychoanalytical terms the hegemonic effect of patriarchy is that the repression of the feminine is acted out by women. So Zeena’s hatred of Mattie is not simply the corollary of her desire for Ethan and the hatred of the insecure or the usurped for her (potential) rival, it is the hatred of one sex for its own. Mattie represents the feminine of dreams, she is forgetful and dreamy, and stands for a particular kind of female aesthetic. Ethan, a dreamer himself, responds to this: “He had always been more sensitive than the people around him to the appeal of natural beauty.”
What strikes many readers is the rhetoric of loss—the cooling of desire through lack, as represented by the loss of movement (paralysis and lameness) and property. These are linked when Frome looks at his reduced farmhouse, when an association of ideas caused him “to see in the diminished dwelling the image of his own shrunken body.”50
These are sentiments that run counter to the more canonical construction of American identity that celebrates desire and fulfillment, achievement and success in pursuit of the American Dream. Countering this unquestionably powerful sense of lack and deprivation there is another less obvious rhetoric. This is the production of new images through desire, which creates a new object for itself and gains access to that object. As Wharton had written passionately to Fullerton in the period immediately preceding the writing of Ethan Frome: “All the ghosts of the old kisses come back, Darling, and live again in the one I send you tonight.”51
The mingling of death and pleasure, of love and ghosts should not be surprising when we consider that she was in the middle of writing a series of ghost stories. Earlier that year, in June 1908, in a letter to Morton Fullerton that seems to foreshadow the ending of Ethan Frome, she had described her reactions when she heard that the motor had crashed into a tree: “I felt the wish that I had been in it, and smashed with it and nothing left of all this disquiet but ‘coeur arrête.”’52
When Tales of Men and Ghosts was finished in June 1910 Edith Wharton began work on Ethan Frome, drawing on a sketch she had done as an exercise when she was learning French in Paris three years before. The plot predates the actual affair with Fullerton, but not their meeting in the city where he was employed as an assistant to the Paris correspondent for the Times. The writing that had commenced in June was interrupted by her own illness and the need to care for Teddy during the autumn of 1910, but was completed following a six-week uninterrupted burst starting in January 1911. So it was a winter composition, produced in the aftermath of nursing her husband, with no prospect of a reunion with Fullerton in sight. The novel is informed by this sense of gloom.
The differences between the 1907 French version and the full narrative are not as substantial as one might imagine, except in one important respect. The triangular relationship remains the same: a married saw-mill owner, the young female relative that he loves, his sickly wife that she works for as a servant. The drive toward death is there, described very explicitly in the French version:
The harsh, stubborn willpower, which led the first inhabitants of New England into these wildernesses, has made their descendants creatures of passion and self-denial. Strong religious faith has left behind a flavour of martyrdom, and a type of implacable uprightness which master the most violent emotions. But the drab, monotonous life, a long history of wasted life and repressed instincts, too often led to a mortal sadness, a loathing for life, even among women and the healthy, which sometimes extended to melancholy and madness.
But Mattie and Hart at least kiss and allow the passion to be expressed, however fleetingly: “He abruptly put his arms around her, pulled her towards him, and kissed her trembling lips…. He had a great desire to look into her eyes one last time” (un-published translation). The kiss is immediately followed by a feeling of gloom, which the narrator identifies as endemic, in the longer paragraph that was just quoted. But there is a positive side to this self-denial that the narrator also acknowledges, for what holds Hart back is actually a virtue, an act of altruism: “He would have liked to speak, to tell her about his tender feelings and his despair; but a generosity held him back. Since he could do nothing for her, since his love could be nothing but a source of misery and suffering for her, it was better to keep quiet, to brace himself this last attack on his senses and his heart” (unpublished translation).
Although the rhetoric of the text encourages us to read this as a noble action (“a generosity held him back”), this reading is immediately subverted by the succeeding paragraph, which speaks of harsh stubborn willpower and the crippling effects of self-denial. The text reveals an inner dialogue, a dialectic on the subject of duty, pleasure, and sacrifice, while the published version seems to conclude with a verdict on the side of duty.
One of the more obvious changes is in the names. Mattie remains the same, but Anna becomes Zeena and Hart becomes Ethan Frome, Hart being a little too obvious, and Anna not sufficiently allusive. The most significant plot difference between the two texts is the inclusion of the sledging crash, and its consequences, in the published version. The sense of squander and waste in the 1907 French version at least allows the reader to hope that Anna might really be ill and the situation resolved through her merciful death, or that Mattie might suddenly see a way of escaping into a world where there is no scandal, a hope expressed by Archer in The Age of Innocence. In that novel Ellen Olenska dismisses Archer’s hope as fantasy, but in Ethan Frome hope is extinguished through showing as well as telling. In the final scene Mattie is revealed to be as bitter and twisted as Zeena—and it is by taking the narrative forward twenty years that Wharton crushes us in a way that we are spared in The Age of Innocence, where Archer does not enter the building to see the Madame Olenska that it is now too late for him to be with.
But the most significant difference of all between the two versions is the framing device of the narrator, who consciously weaves his own tale based on the information that is available to him. The novel is sometimes criticized for moving from the narrator’s viewpoint into that of the characters in ways that the narrator said would not be done. But the narrator reminds us constantly of what he is doing, and as noted earlier, this text explores and exhibits the way that desire expressed through writing constructs its own subject and object. This is not modernism, but it has the self-consciousness of modernism, another characteristic of which is the uncertainty and unreliability of the observer, and the way in which desire and narration are refracted through the prism of consciousness.
Freud is the modernist presence that seems to hover over Ethan Frome, and many critics have discussed Freudian themes. Gloria Erlich explores the consequences, for a sexual education, of multiple mothering, where the child’s affection is divided between mother and one or more nanny figures. In Erlich’s reading, the consequence of this for Wharton’s fantasy life is “the displacement of her sexuality onto words and books.”54 Applied to Ethan Frome Erli-ch’s theory would mean that the narrator’s construction of this tale of failed adultery is a fantasy that is the site of transferred, thwarted desire. Carol Wer-shoven discusses the figure of the female intruder whose arrival in Wharton’s novels results in a questioning of the society into which she makes her entrance, a questioning she herself articulates or that she forces others to confront. Clearly Mattie is less perceptive and less enigmatic than Ellen Olenska or Lily Bart, but to Wershoven Ethan Frome is the archetypal Wharton novel: “It is the essential conflict, the recurring motif, of the woman who is at once more vital, braver, and more receptive to all of life than the society she must confront or challenge.”55
Wershoven goes on to argue that Ethan Frome, like The Valley of Decision (1902), exposes the “warping and distortion of personalities through imprisonment in a static, nightmare world.”56 It is a novel of destruction, arguing for the terrible consequences of the paralysis of desire. Wharton may not have liked the extinction of desire that she encountered in The Wings of the Dove, Henry James’s 1902 novel with its own triangular relationship, but she had written her own novel of destruction in which not only the situation but the telling of it has become the subject. It is not so very far from the method practiced in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, whose impressionism acts as a convenient bridge between realism and modernism.
2. “Eveline”probably dates from 1903. Many of the stories included in Dubliners were published in newspapers before being published in book form. See Stan Gebler Davies, James Joyce: Portrait of the Artist (London: Sphere Books, 1977) 85–86.
24. Eric Cahm, “Revolt, Conservatism and Reaction in Paris, 1905–1935,” in Bradbury and McFarlane, Modernism: A Guide to European Literature (1991), 162-71. For Cahm’s discussion of classical French values see 168-69.
25. See, for example, the section “Philosophy in the Conversation of Mankind,” with its allusion to Michael Oakeshott’s “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” in Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 389-94.
27. Wharton had observed the world of rural Massachusetts from her car seat during excursions from The Mount in her recently acquired automobile. Thus in writing Ethan Frome, she was imagining this world with the feeling of displacement experienced by the narrator. Morton Fullerton had grown up in Waltham, Massachusetts, so the setting had a variety of personal associations.
French secondary and higher education has been attacked for its failure to adapt to the requirements of an industrial society. Critics point to the failure of For-toul’s efforts to create a scientific baccalauréat syllabus, and to the continued higher prestige of the classical and philosophy streams in the lycées. Observers like Renan cited the poor quality of university science and the absence of both financing and research as a major factor in the war defeat of 1870. The continued expansion of Catholic secondary schooling, which came to control 50 percent of pupils, was, obviously, not the fault of republican anticlerical politicians. Yet the anti-positivist, anti-rationalist ethos of these colleges, and their tendency to “cram” pupils for baccalauréat exams as an entry to military and bureaucratic careers, could be viewed as diverting sections of the elites away from industry and science. Although Durey’s technical schools had 900 pupils by 1871, and had been designed to supply industry with its qualified “NCOs,” their success was limited. They lacked prestige, and failed to expand. One 1913 survey claimed that only 7 percent of entrants to commerce and industry had adequate technical training. As Terry Shin concludes, the dominance of the École Polytechnique was healthy neither for France higher education nor for industry.… Their training was largely abstract, with little experimental work. They tended to despise “practical” engineers… The net outcome has sometimes been portrayed in pessimistic terms. Camille Cavillier, head of the Pont-à-Mousson engineering works, claimed to be driven “mad with rage to see that in our country, where education is pursued to a high level, it so impractical… the young are all studying to be scholars, none to do anything practically useful.” Yet the professed gloom of such technocratic philistines was a little exaggerated by 1900…. Chemistry faculties flourished in Nancy and Paris, hydroelectricity courses emerged at Grenoble, regional industry began to rely on the applied science of its local university… C. Day has emphasized the significant role played by the École Centrale des Arts et Métiers in attracting pupils from the middle bourgeoisie and training graduates in applied science for the engineering, chemical and electrical sectors. Between 1897 and 1909 five major provincial universities established engineering degrees. The society of professional engineers quadrupled its membership to 6,000 between 1882 and 1914.
While the nuances of the interrelationship between commercial exigencies abroad and their imaginative assimilation in Wharton’s writing need to be scrutinized more fully, one cannot avoid noticing the degree to which her fiction—alertly registering so many aspects of colonial business enterprise—tacitly assents to the emergence of an imperial economy in the West. No-where is this alertness sharper than in her attention to the dominance of Western investment in the sort of projects she has in mind in praising the “the interior development of Morocco” under the French Protectorate (IM.218)—the construction of roads, bridges, rail-ways, ports, and so on. This attention underlies the remarkable frequency with which Wharton’s imagination gravitates toward the figure of the engineer, a commanding new professional “type” in the United States and elsewhere by the time her literary career began.
Frederick Wegener, “‘Rabid Imperialist’: Edith Wharton and the Obligations of Empire in Modern American Fiction,” in American Literature 72, 4 (December 2000), 783–812. The cited quotation is from 796–97. “IM” is Wegener’s citing of Wharton’s Inside Morocco (New York: Scribner’s, 1920).
As one explores the lives and writing of those whom Wharton came to know in “that compact and amiable little world” of prewar Paris the unanimity of their beliefs regarding colonialism in France becomes more and more conspicuous. Even among the friends and acquaintances only briefly mentioned in her letters and memoirs, it is hard to find an exception to this consensus on the worthiness of the new Gallic empire. Scholars have long been aware of the socially and intellectually conservative disposition of Wharton’s circle in the Faubourg Saint-Germain; only some slight additional probing is required to demonstrate just how close its members all came to represent the entire pro-imperialist elite of the belle époque.
Wegener, “‘Rabid Imperialist,’” 791. The quotation describing “that compact… world” is from Edith Wharton’s A Backward Glance (New York: Appleton, 1934), 259.
43. For example, “Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigor, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle.” Letters from an American Farmer (1782), letter 3. Reprinted in Christopher Ricks and William L. Vance, eds., The Faber Book of America (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 242.
44. Here Shotter is discussing C. B. Macpherson’s “The Politician’s Theory of Possessive Individuals”: “Macpherson’s account could very well figure as one of the major texts of identity explored in this book, for he shows how the notion of ‘possession,’ although clearly not the source of other important concepts—such as freedom, rights, obligations and justice—has none the less powerfully shaped their interpretations, and hence our notions of how we are (or should be) related to one another and hence, what and who we are” (136). J. Shotter, “Social Accountability and the Social Construction of ‘You,’” in Texts of Identity, ed. John Shotter and Kenneth J. Gergen, 136. (London: Sage Publications, 1989).
48. Neither is it a very easy term to use, signifying different practices in different contexts. Its use usually indicates that the writer is interested in the construction of the discursive subject, but discussions of such constructions may be informed by a Lacanian notion of lack and unrealizable desire for the other, or they may be informed by a more “positive” concept of desire as motivating force, which cuts across structural oppositions (mind/body, nature/culture) and functions as an imperative that motivates.
Jennifer Travis (essay date 2005)
SOURCE: Travis, Jennifer. “The Science of Affect: Professionals Reading and the Case of Ethan Frome.” In Wounded Hearts: Masculinity, Law, and Literature in American Culture, pp. 137-61. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
[In the following essay, Travis studies how Ethan Frome offered a dramatic departure from the sentimental novels of Wharton’s era with its frank depiction of emotional pain.]
The last twenty years have produced an incessant fluctuation of opinion, both as to what a work of fiction should be, and as to how it should be written. If there has been one thing constant in this critical upheaval it is the conviction of the reviewers that they can enlighten novelists on both these points.
—Edith Wharton, “A Cycle of Reviewing, ” Spectator (1928)
In an early review of Ethan Frome (1911), critic Edwin Bjorkman described Edith Wharton’s novel as “so overwhelming that the modern mind rebels against it as a typical specimen of human experience.”1 The pain it produces in its reader, he suggested, is so profound that the reader must read it as something other than itself; she must abstract the experience of the characters into a larger social critique. “If it had no social side,” Bjorkman wrote, “if it implied only what it brought of suffering and sorrow to the partakers in it, then we could do little but cry out in self-protective impatience: ‘Sweep off the shambles and let us pass on!’” (296). It is similar concerns with the feelings of pain and suffering produced in the novel’s readers, indeed, displayed in the novel itself, that led Lionel Trilling some forty years later to dismiss the then widely popular novel by saying, “I am quite unable to overcome my belief that Ethan Frome enjoys its high reputation because it still satisfies our modern snobbishness about tragedy and pain.”2 Trilling rejected the novel’s public and critical acclaim, at once acknowledging its acute rendering of pain but nonetheless remaining unhappy with its effect: “It is terrible to contemplate, it is unfforgettable, but the mind can do nothing with it, can only endure it” (139). Like Trilling, Irving Howe maintained that Ethan Frome was a “severe depiction of gratuitous human suffering in a New England village”; he called the novel a “work meant to shock and depress,” one that often had been received “wrongly [as] being so successfully the tour de force Mrs. Wharton meant it to be—that is, for leaving [its readers] with a sense of admiration for the visible rigor of its mechanics and a sense of pain because of its total assault upon our emotions.”3 While the novel garnered praise by some early critics for its narrative technique, its style, its “mechanics,” the most urgent concerns to emerge from the novel’s reception immediately following its publication into the first fifty years of critical dialogue about it had to do with the problems of suffering that the novel not only witnessed but also produced. What was the purpose of this emotional “assault,” critics repeatedly asked, and what end were readers to draw from it?
When Edith Wharton wrote in 1905 to Dr. Morgan Dix that no “novel worth anything can be anything but a ‘novel with a purpose,”’ her words, given the above queries, seemed virtually prescient. Like William Dean Howells, who urged that novelists must “cease to lie about life,” Wharton began writing about the unseemly “motives” and thwarted “passions” of “common folk.” Her efforts led to what was to become widely regarded as her most tragic work of fiction. The narrative of Ethan Frome unfolds in a bleak New England town appropriately called Stark-field and tells the story of three of its inhabitants: Zeena and Ethan Frome and Zeena’s cousin Mattie. The narrator, an engineer held up in Starkfield because of a factory strike, sets about to uncover Ethan’s story when he becomes intrigued by what appears to him to be the “contrast” between Ethan’s “outer situation and his inner needs” (6). Although the reticent townspeople tell the narrator little about Frome’s outer or inner condition, the narrator pieces together a tale that largely unfolded twenty-four years earlier, one that details Ethan’s growing love for Mattie, who has come to live with the Fromes in order to help the hypochondriacal and mean-spirited Zeena with the housework on the farm. As Zeena comes to suspect Ethan and Mattie’s mutual affection, she arranges for Mattie’s abrupt dismissal. With their separation imminent, Ethan and Mattie make a failed suicide attempt that leaves both of them disabled and under the watchful “care” of Zeena. By the time the narrator meets Ethan, these events have turned th previously sweet Mattie “sour” and provide some explanation for the “dead” look in Ethan’s face (6). Although this bleak tale is Wharton’s narrative of “men and women as they are,” to invoke Howells’s prescription for realistic literature, Wharton’s realism was met at its publication with puzzlement and dismay for its apparent lack of “purpose.” Whereas A Modern Instance was praised for its accuracy and acumen regarding the contentious issue of divorce, for example, Wharton’s account of unattainable love so wounded the sensibilities of its contemporary readers that critics decried, “to what end?”
Critical responses shortly following the novel’s publication anticipated the broad discomfort that influential literary critics of the mid-twentieth century such as Trilling and Howe would later voice: what, these critics asked, is the effect of pain and suffering in a literary work? Although Bjorkman lavished some praise on the novel, exclaiming, “Mrs. Wharton has passed from individual to social art; from the art that excites to that which incites” (299), other reviewers were less receptive. In the Bookman, Frederic Taber Cooper cautioned: “It is hard to forgive Mrs. Wharton for the utter remorselessness of her latest volume, Ethan Frome, for nowhere has she done anything more hopelessly, endlessly gray with blank despair.” Taro, foreshadowing Trilling, questioned the end to which the novel’s portrayal of suffering is put, finally concluding that “art for art’s sake is the one justification of a piece of work as perfect in technique as it is relentless in substance.”4 A critic for the North American Review was more sympathetic, if not with the novel than with Wharton herself, and speculated that “there is a certain inexorableness about Mrs. Wharton, as if she herself were constitutionally opposed to happiness, as if she were somewhat compelled to interpret life in terms of pain.”5
The difficulty of representing and interpreting emotional pain had been a problem for literary criticism before Ethan Frome. We need only recall the beleaguered Civil War soldier who could convey the facts and figures of battle wounds in his letters, diaries, and memoirs, but more rarely, as critics lamented, the emotional complexity of their experiences. Or Howells, who bemoaned the plethora of harms that the mid-nineteenth-century novel seemed to occasion and so rewrote the subjects and objects of injury, giving them new shape, texture, and methods of redress. As Lionel Trilling suggested in the mid-twentieth century, pain is quintessential literary sub-ject matter. More recently, Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain (1985) has described what she takes to be the intimate relation between pain and the imagination: “Pain and imagining are the ‘framing events’ within whose boundaries all other perceptual, somatic, and emotional events occur; thus, between the two extremes can be mapped the whole terrain of the human psyche.”6 If the novel may be considered one terrain in which pain dwells, perhaps literary criticism should be described as a mapping of this landscape. One could trace a cartography of critical response to pain and artistic production at least back to Aristotle, for whom the enjoyment of tragedy and the paradox of suffering rendered “pleasurable” was a central question.7 Indeed, the problem posed by Aristotle became, in manifold guises and to differing degrees, the issue posed again and again for those seeking to explain the centrality of pain in art, from Edmund Burke and Friedrich Nietzsche to Wharton’s colleagues William Dean Howells and Henry James through her most vocal mid-twentieth-century critics, Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe. Perhaps questions about pain and the imagination, questions posed by a long history of writers, philosophers, and theorists, might be summed up by what now seems a familiar observation, one offered by a critic in The Nation who declared of Wharton’s Ethan Frome, “The wonder is that the spectacle of so much pain can be made to yield so much beauty.”8
Interpreting emotional pain became a matter of increasing cultural debate at the turn of the century, and novel reading played a significant part in that debate. As inquiries about the spectacle of pain flourished well beyond an Aristotelian philosophical tradition, such concerns defined the discipline of literary scholarship shortly before the publication of Ethan Frome. The critical reception of Wharton’s novel, which puzzled over the function of emotional pain, especially male emotional pain, followed upon a heated dispute within a growing profession of male readers who questioned the extent and place of the critic’s engagement with the emotions. Early literary critics such as Bliss Perry, who wrote one of the first full-length studies of American literature, and Calvin Thomas, an early president of the Modern Language Association (MLA), argued over the role the contemporary novel might play in departments of literature. Does the novel have a social function, these critics asked, and if so, what is the critics’ role with regard to it? The bewildered responses to Wharton’s novel are representative of a process by which critics inside the academy and without began to articulate just what the role of the contemporary novel and its readers would be. Literature, many of these critics argued, provided an eye onto the world of emotion at a time of increasing cultural demands to expand understandings of the emotive realm. In fact, for literary critics under institutional pressure to claim a social function in a university culture that, as Christopher Newfield describes, “evolved within an industrial capitalism that was ponderously, aggressively, even anxiously, instrumental,” their self-proclaimed expertise at reading pain and emotion became a way to defend their professional authority.9 As literature and its emotional effects increasingly became an object of professional literary study in the university by century’s end, a subject with which this chapter itself ends, emotion came to be treated by an emerging group of male literary professionals as a new science built upon the necessity of reading. The discourse on emotion within departments of literature and within the university served a crucial function: it became the groundwork for “blending” the “apparent opposites of autonomy and manageability” central to the production of what later would become known as the “knowledge worker” (Newfield, 93). To read emotional pain and to make sense of it became part of a cultural drive toward the quantification of emotion, a cultural imperative that, as we have seen in prior chapters, flourished across disciplines.
This chapter begins with the critical debate that emerged just after the publication of Wharton’s novel, and it ends by examining how that debate is reflected in the early professionalization of criticism and the making of a discipline of professional readers. This chapter argues that the unmet critical expectations for Wharton’s novel—pain to what end?—suggest that Ethan Frome may trouble the dream of emotional manageability that the new scientists of affect, male literary critics, appeared to court. The pages that follow examine the presentation of emotional pain in Ethan Frome not only as a crucial departure from the explanatory paths of the sentimental novel—in which suffering often denotes a path toward redemption—but also as a resistance against contemporary cultural pressures, met in part by male literary critics, to read pain in a compensatory way. Wharton’s novel refuses the science of affect by the manner in which it remakes the role of the sympathizing intermediary, the way it articulates not only the necessity of understanding pain but the duplicities of judgment about it. These qualities play an important role within the novel itself and in the increasingly impersonal world beyond its borders. Ethan Frome thematizes new problems of sympathetic mediation for the reader, for whom reading was no longer simply a physical act to take place in leisure but also a skill that relied upon the ability to extend, to project, and to imagine—to navigate a delicate balance of fact and affect; this way of reading was at once announcing itself as a challenge for male literary critics and as a mandate for contemporary readers across cultural texts.
There can be little doubt that Wharton, at least in part, perceives herself as a moderator of sympathy in Ethan Frome; in her preface, the first she was ever to write, she refers to herself in just these terms, as a “sympathizing intermediary.” “If he [the author] is capable of seeing all around him, no violence is done to probability in allowing him to exercise this faculty: it is natural enough that he should act as the sympathizing intermediary between his rudimentary characters and the more complicated minds to whom he is trying to present them” (viii). It does not seem particularly unusual, given Wharton’s assessment, to assert the power of the novel in navigating strong feeling; indeed, the notion of “sympathy” was a successful rhetorical strategy even before the popularity of the sentimental novel in the United States. By the time Wharton wrote Ethan Frome, a novelist’s role as “sympathizing intermediary” had become a common idiom in U.S. literature and culture. Critics might even argue that the problem of emotional pain presented in Ethan Frome is merely a legacy of its most immediate forebear, the sentimental novel, which made suffering intelligible and pain visible to a mass culture in the United States at midcentury.10 If Lionel Trilling’s criticisms are reliant upon an Aristotelian tradition of catharsis, for example, his criticisms also adapt the teachings of the sentimental tradition, a tradition in the United States that took a decidedly moral rather than purely aesthetic stance with regard to the presentation of pain. Though Trilling and other critics in the mid-twentieth century did not turn their attentions to the sentimental novel of the mid-nineteenth, sentimental literature provided the most direct connection to what Trilling longed for: a causal link between the “artistic” presentation of pain and its affective relations. Such novels, written primarily by women authors, deliberately sought to develop empathy in their readers, to point readers beyond the confines of the novel, and to instruct their readers on how to live and lead moral lives. Since Ann Douglas’s well-known critique, The Feminization of American Culture (1977), sentimentalism has been a source of extensive critical debate concerning the agency, effect, and influence of these authors and their novels, although it is beyond the scope of this chapter to chart all the turns this debate has since taken.11 Certainly the connection between sentimental literature and its “cultural work” has been scrutinized not for its lack of “effect” (the criticism Trilling levels at Wharton) but precisely because of its extensive efficacy in American culture, from its influence in the abolition movement to its contributions to the consumer marketplace. A sentimental novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), for instance, could elicit sympathy for suffering slaves and call its readers into the joint enterprise of feeling (feeling that might result in action). At the very least, the sentimental novel helped to demonize bodily pain and punishment to slave or master in the cultural psyche. Richard Brod-head has argued persuasively in “Sparing the Rod,” for example, that the sentimental novel functioned to instill what he calls “disciplinary intimacy” in its readers; reading novels restrained and trained readers in the place of physical punishment.12
The wide emotive scope envisioned by a novel like Ethan Frome, in which not only the male body but also male feeling and its expression comes to be cen-ttral, certainly owes a debt to the emotive landscape of the sentimental novel. The novel’s presentation of irresolvable emotional pain is manifest through Wharton’s interest in the sentimentalized and disabled body, for example; Ethan’s disfigurement is the navigating tool through which the novel begins its presentation of suffering. Although “but the ruin of a man,” Ethan’s disabled body initiates the narrator’s inquiry (and in turn ours) into the dimensions, the conditions, and the domain of pain. Bodily difference is the object of curiosity from the novel’s start: Ethan’s “lameness check[ed] each step like the jerk of a chain.”13 That body also drops away as a reference point when the story flashes back twenty-four years earlier, as we follow young Ethan hasten “at a quick pace” to meet his wife’s cousin, Mattie Silver (11). Readers discover that the elder Ethan’s wounded limbs are not the primary source of his pain. Harmon Gow, a neighbor, early on tells the narrator that “sickness and trouble” have filled Ethan’s plate “since the very first helping” (5). Ethan’s wounded limbs are but the perpetual symbol of his wounded feelings, and the problem of long-dormant feeling is at the heart of Ethan’s troubles.
Readers who were trained in empathy from the pages of the sentimental novel, who first saw others experience pain—indeed, who cried on its very pages—were being asked to acquire faculties by which to read pain differently in a novel like Ethan Frome. Though the sentimental novel presented bodily suffering as undeserved and often cruel, pain was always explicable to the novels’ readers with recourse to religion and the figure of ultimate suffering, Jesus. If the recompense for suffering in the sentimental tradition was eternal bliss, what accompanied the secularization of suffering, suffering given shape and substance in a realistic novel like Wharton’s, must be a new method of recompense, if not a new structure for the justification of pain. Whereas the sentimental novel actively solicited readers’ feelings, feelings that had clearly defined objects and subjects for expression, in Ethan Frome both illicit relations and complex feelings are hidden. The novel, therefore, relies upon the sentimental tradition and departs from it, offering a different kind of engagement for the reader of feeling. This is evident in the novel’s be-wildered critical reception. Ethan Frome refuses to contain the pain it presents in a safe moralized sense; pain and suffering in the novel are not paths toward redemption, and there is no clear moral authority at work. That Wharton does not create a narrator whose moral voice is well-known to the community and does not choose to have the tale told by a character whose intentions are seemingly self-evident indicates a shift in the framework through which to read the novel. If her narrator had been a pastor, as he is in the most contemporary film version of Wharton’s novel, for instance, we might read the novel as a warning, however unsolicited, against illicit desire. The difficulty in Ethan Frome comes from the recognition that pain, particularly the male pain that the novel imagines, must be theorized and acted upon in a new way. Wharton, by secularizing her tale of suffering, takes the issues of psychic pain, lust, and revenge outside the more predictable paths of explanation and accountability. Different from the novel’s association with the domestic sphere of female sympathies, and different from the redemptive tale, the story of Ethan’s emotional wounds evokes a cognitive crisis, one that requires a new structure of justification for emotional pain and in light of which a whole set of “cures” concurrently emerged across the culture outside the novel in order to relieve it, from psychology to tort law to literary criticism itself. Wharton’s early readers were forced to interpret the secularization of suffering in a growing culture of pain.
When we first meet Ethan Frome, we are told he seems “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” (5). The novel bears witness to Ethan’s struggle to find a path for sentience to resurface. Every time Ethan tries to express his feelings, however, words seem to betray him; in fact, when he nears some method of realizing his emotion, all that comes out is a gruff and unsophisticated mumble. We see this for the first time when Ethan picks Mattie up after the dance and surprises her by remaining hidden while she “rejects” a ride from Dennis Eady. “Ethan had the sense of having done something arch and ingenious. To prolong the effect he groped for a dazzling phrase, and brought out, in a growl of rapture: ‘Come along’” (19). Ethan often feels himself on “the brink of eloquence,” and although the reader continually sees him struggling for an effective line to convey his feeling, he always falls short. During Mattie and Ethan’s dinner together, their long-awaited time alone, his words never reach beyond the mundane: “At last, after casing about for an effective opening, he took a long gulp of tea, cleared his throat, and said: ‘looks as if there’d be more snow”’ (34). Through Ethan’s relations with Mattie, however, he first learns the possibility for expression of what is described as his “bliss of feeling” (14). Mattie seems to speak what Ethan feels; her words become his: “Words at last had been found to utter his secret soul” (14). But this shared feeling of pleasure is limited to their few long walks in the snow, for, as we learn, within the Frome household the relation between Ethan and Zeena is plagued by painful silence: “Within a year of their marriage she [Zeena] developed the ‘sickliness’ which had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances…. Then she too fell silent” (30). The problem of the novel for Zeena, and most acutely for Ethan himself, is how feeling is rendered.
Unlike Ethan, who struggles with deeply submerged emotions, Zeena’s feelings are continually manifest upon her body; the neglect and anger that the narrative suggests she harbors readily present themselves in her medical symptomology. Likewise, Zeena has a medical vocabulary available to her; it comes through the mail from manufacturers of “patent medicine,” and it allows Zeena to be, in Harmon Gow’s words, “the greatest hand at doctoring in the country” (5). Being “wholly absorbed in her health” becomes a social occasion for Zeena (26). She visits Aunt Martha Pierce in Bettsbridge, and she confers with friend Eliza Spears about the skill of certain doctors. Recalling the symptomology of the hysteric, Zeena’s body speaks; it speaks for a seeming want of sympathy, or perhaps for a deep wound in her unconscious. Her physical pain is a measure of her mental suffering.14 For Ethan, the attention paid to his wounded body at the beginning and at the end of Wharton’s novel is a framing device; it is one meant to draw the reader into an axis of pain and measure of feeling unconfined by the dimensions of his body. The narrator directs the reader inward early on: “Though all had conceded that Ethan Frome’s [troubles] had been beyond the common measure, no one gave me an explanation of the look in his face which, as I persisted in thinking, neither poverty nor physical suffering could have put there” (4). Ethan requires a vocabulary different from Zeena’s to present and account for his suffering; in fact, he is not even cognizant of his feelings until Mattie seems to speak the words that he discovers have been muffled deep within.
Wharton dramatizes a struggle over the nature and very texture of pain, particularly through the distinctions continually drawn between the “facts” of Zee-na’s physical ailments and Ethan’s affective struggles: his emotional awakening. In the manner the narrator presents the tale to us, the novel assigns to its readers the difficult task of discerning “true” pain from “false” pain by focusing on a competition of suffering—a competitive structure of injury—that ensues between Ethan and Zeena. Zeena, as the model of the hysteric who too readily and too easily suffers—who, in fact, quantifies her suffering—is contrasted with Ethan, the martyr of silent suffering. “All I know,” Zeena cautions, “is I can’t go on the way I am much longer. The pains are clear way down to my ankles now” (27). Zeena is presented in the narrative as vocal and demanding about her physical illness, while Ethan is silent and succumbs to his emotional pain. Although the narrative suggests that Ethan’s incapacity to express his pain is at its source a problem, his silent suffering, his disaffection from the excesses of language, also is presented as ennobling, particularly in the face of what is described as Zeena’s “faultfinding” and her obsessive devotion to “complex ailments” (25). Zeena’s pain is a means of getting attention, and when she fails to receive it from Ethan upon her return to Starkfield, she becomes determined to dismiss Mattie (27). Indeed, Zeena’s pain-ridden body becomes both the cause and the remedy when Zeena wants to turn Mattie out of the house. Mattie must go so that Zeena can have a “hired girl.” But more than that, Mattie must go so that Zeena can once again command her household and Ethan’s attentions, so that he may feel, as she feels, the full scope of her suffering.
The problem of judging who may be the novel’s most tragic victim is further dramatized by the secondary characters in the novel, who describe the Fromes differently and from whom we have opposing interpretations of the novel’s final “accident” and its outcome. According to Harmon Gow, it is Ethan who always has been caretaker in the Frome house: “I guess it’s always Ethan done the caring” (2). At the end of the novel, Mrs. Hale, in a keenly ironic moment, claims that it is Zeena who has taken on the burden of care: “Zeena’s done for her [Mattie] and done for Ethan as good as she could. It was a miracle, considering how sick she was—but she seemed to be raised right up just when the call came to her…. [S]he’s had the strength given her to care for those two for over twenty years, and before the accident came she thought she couldn’t even care for herself” (76). Of course, the narrator reminds the reader that what appears to Mrs. Hale as Zeena’s sympathy and goodwill some twenty years later is never quite as it seems: the reader is told that before the “smash-up” “the one pleasure left,” for Zeena “was to inflict pain” on Ethan (56). The opposing interpretations of the “accident” and of the Fromes’ subsequent claims to suffering and injury further serve to complicate our discernment. Readers are finally left contemplating the extent to which Zeena’s miraculous recovery rubs pain into Ethan’s never-healing wounds, enabling an eternity of querulousness rather than what Mattie and Ethan sought in their suicide attempt, an eternity of peaceful silence.
The narrator, the readers’ teller of secrets, becomes obsessed with uncovering the love triangle and its tragic sufferers. As a model for the reader and a stranger to the town of Starkfield, the narrator must piece together a puzzle. He must reconstruct the story of Ethan’s “ruin” from reticent strangers, collecting “the facts” of the case, although, as he warns his listeners, these “facts” may not come easily: “Though Harmon Gow developed the tale as far as his mental and moral reach permitted there were perceptible gaps between his facts, and I had a sense that the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps” (2). Staying at Mrs. Ned Hale’s house, the lawyer’s wife, from whom he hoped to acquire some evidence about Ethan Frome, he muses, “I had great hopes of getting from her the missing facts of Ethan Frome’s story, or rather such a key to his character as should coordinate the facts I knew” (2). What the narrator finds, however, is that “her mind was a store-house of innocuous anecdote and any question about her acquaintances brought forth a volume of detail; but on the question of Ethan Frome” she is “unexpectedly reticent” (4). Ethan Frome inspires silence. The narrator’s interest increases not only as a kind of fact-finding mission, but also as a response to the seemingly inexplicable spaces of storytelling by the townspeople; it drives him to find out why Ethan looks as if he suffers so. Yet as readers learn, the significance of Ethan’s story is also in his own silences.
In what appears to be a culture of complaint and narcissism, in which Mrs. Hale is more than willing to speak on any other subject, and of which Zeena Frome would seem to be Starkfield’s most stunning example, Ethan’s silence and the silence about him is mysterious and seductive. It is this silence that intrigues and, consequently, entangles the narrator, who notes that Ethan “lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access” (5). Indeed, Ethan’s feeling, like the facts of his case, is buried: “Emotion had remained in him as a silent ache” (14). What we learn as the story unfolds is that Ethan’s silent suffering is not merely a condition of a stifling winter burial in snow but a condition of relative permanence if not continual struggle. The narrator is deeply mystified by Ethan’s woundedness. In light of the pain apparent in Ethan’s face, the narrator becomes obsessed with its naming. Only when the narrator accompanies Ethan home after a snowstorm threatens to bury both men in its wake does he believe he has found “the clue to Ethan Frome” (10).
Like Wharton’s early reviewers who wanted to read pain and to make sense of it, the narrator searches for explanations in the face of Ethan’s silence. Unlike the narrator, for whom the mystery of the wounded male is partially satisfied by the sighting of querulous women, the early readers’ repeated expectations for understanding pain found its purpose endlessly deferred. Because the early critical debate about Ethan Frome focused on the effects of pain and suffering (how it radiates beyond Starkfield and what it reverberates back), little has been written about the method by which pain is materialized in the novel. Much has been made of the circumstances—a simple farmer caught in his forbidden passion for his wife’s cousin—but less often have critics analyzed the path that suffering takes. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, one of a handful of contemporary critical voices on Ethan Frome, describes the novel as a re-imagination of Wharton’s own troubled romantic relationships told in a different voice, setting, and gender.15 Indeed, Wharton locates sympathy in a rather unlikely subject: a stout, burly, and unsophisticated male farmer. To suggest that Ethan as a protagonist might be a displacement of Edith herself, or that the site of sentiment is gendered from female to male, still doesn’t fully address how pain is manifest. This is a matter over which Wharton worries in her preface: “Any attempt to elaborate and complicate [my protagonists’] sentiments would necessarily have falsified the whole” (vii). Zeena, as I have suggested, wears her emotional pain on her body; Ethan buries his feelings in silence, although his disabled body is the object of curiosity encouraging the narrator and, in turn, the reader, to learn more.
Bodies in the novel repeatedly are presented as receptacles and registries for the expression of emotion and feelings of deep hurt; this dynamic is its most vivid after the sledding accident toward the end of the novel: “The stillness was so profound that he heard a little animal twittering somewhere near by under the snow. It made a small frightened cheep like a field mouse, and he wondered languidly if it were hurt. Then he understood that it must be in pain: pain so excruciating that he seemed, mysteriously, to feel it shooting through his own body” (72–73). In the most striking and tragic moment after Mattie and Ethan’s suicide attempt, Ethan feels his own pain through the “excruciating” noise of what he believes to be a field mouse but soon learns is Mattie. He tries “in vain to roll over in the direction of the sound,” and he stretches “his left arm out across the snow” with little success (73). The sound of the “animal’s suffering” is “intolerable” to him (73). His pain upon hearing her pain is given substance; it becomes real (73). Mattie and Ethan lie buried in the snow as yet unaware that their plans have failed; they have failed to “fetch” the tree that was to bring an end to their separation, their suffering—an end, Ethan thinks, to “feeling” itself (70, 71). Ethan Frome as a novel basks in this failure, in which buried feeling, like Ethan’s and Mattie’s buried bodies, is so intense it can only wound, and these wounds are most painfully self-inflicted. Trapped like his weighted body after the fall and trapped by his inability to act upon his feelings, Ethan struggles to find a recourse, an outlet for his desires and his emotions. Indeed, the inability of Ethan and Mattie to realize their passion for each other leads to their failed suicide attempt and to the moment of futile recognition emerging from Ethan’s perception of his own pain. Yet the manner by which Ethan comes to know his own injury and understands that it must be pain—by thinking he hears a field mouse, by listening and recognizing that it is Mattie—is a central condition in the novel. It is certainly the most excruciating instance of the kinds of displacements that the novel presents: feeling made real and given substance, as in this final scene, through the body, voice, or pain of another.
If language is unable to be a path for the conveyance of feeling for Ethan, is there, we are encouraged to ask, another vehicle? The body, as we have seen in previous chapters, often defined cultural measures of feeling, particularly feelings of pain and injury; it was bodily injury that most often was recognized and, within the parameters of tort law, remedied, in a postbellum nation. More than the structure of physicality or even emotionality that are mediums for understanding and experiencing harm in the novel, what often manages to carry feeling, to convey its structure and to fill the silences and the gaps in the novel, is the material of the everyday. For example, it is Mattie and Ethan’s inability to connect more than the brief touch of two ends of thread that weaves through and makes material each painful moment in the novel: “She sat silent, her hands clasped on her work, and it seemed to him that a warm current flowed toward him along the strip of stuff that still lay unrolled between them. Cautiously he slid his hand palm-downward along the table till his finger tips touched the end of the stuff. A faint vibration of her lashes seemed to show that she was aware of his gesture, and that it had sent a counter-current back to her; and she let her hands lie motionless on the other end of the strip” (40). Ethan and Mattie, alone together in the house for the first time, sit down in front of the stove after they have finished their evening chores. “I’ve been in a dream,’ Ethan thinks, ‘this is the only evening we’ll have together.’ The return to reality was as painful as the return to consciousness after taking an anesthetic. His body and brain ached with indescribable weariness, and he could think of nothing to say or to do that should arrest the mad flight of the moments” (40). It is just then that Ethan sees Mattie’s hand grasping her work “as if it were a part of herself” (40). He too reaches out to her sewing thread as if it could feel his touch, as if it could respond in kind; he thinks he feels his desires acknowledged and reciprocated through the “stuff that still lay unrolled between them” (40). Ethan and Mattie are bound by two ends of thread, a thin “strip” that acts as a conduit for their feelings. Although Ethan realizes at the end of the evening that he has not even managed to lay his hand or his lips on Mattie’s own, he understands that what has passed between them through Mattie’s sewing threads is enough.
This form of mediation permeates several other moments in the narrative as well. When Ethan picks Mattie up at a dance, he thinks nothing would be better than to “stoop his cheek and rub it against her scarf” (19). The scarf, like the sewing threads, absorbs his emotions. The climax of this form of mediation comes when Mattie reveals her feelings for Ethan by retrieving Zeena’s pickle plate from storage in an effort to make the dinner table pretty. When Mattie inadvertently breaks the pickle plate, it becomes the symbolic disclosure of secret desires between Mattie and Ethan. Its use is a confirmation of Mattie’s love for Ethan, the unspoken object that locates their passions. Likewise, the broken pickle plate confirms for Zeena Mattie’s and Ethan’s desire for each other. It is a measure of their feeling, as it becomes for Zeena an estimate of their betrayal. Indeed, Zeena, learning that the pickle plate is broken, is more animated than we have ever seen her; she is described as having “lips twitching with anger, a flush of excitement on her sallow face” (53). With this broken plate, Zeena helps seal Mattie’s and Ethan’s fates: “I tried to keep my things where you couldn’t get at ’ em—and now you’ve took from me the one I cared for most of all” (54). In Zeena’s fury, the pickle plate and Ethan become one; if the broken pickle plate is a measure of Mattie and Ethan’s relationship, so too is it a full indication of Zeena’s loss. The displacement of feeling in Ethan Frome, the manner by which sentience resurfaces in the stuff of the everyday, is not only a literary device; it is also a critique and exploration of the extent to which suffering in a secular idiom could be and, indeed, was taken to be primarily cognizable in material terms. The narrative suggests that the personal relations among subjects within the novel, which are often mediated by material objects, are symptomatic of a struggle at the heart of how cultural fictions constitute subjecthood not only around desire but through the categories of pain, injury, and the recognition and compensation of distress.
For Zeena, pain is a weapon. She measures her illness by what she is given or begrudged to relieve her suffering; more than that, Zeena insists that her sickness is proportionate to her labor. She tells Ethan that she gave up her good health to care for his mother and that her demands for money and, later, for a “hired girl” are thus due her: “I’d’a’ been ashamed to tell him that you grudged me the money to get back my health, when I lost it nursing your own mother!” (48). Zeena demands a kind of workers’ compensation for her household labor; she strikes, refusing to participate in household chores because she perceives herself not adequately compensated. “My folks all told me at the time you couldn’t do no less than marry me after” (48). She talks about what she is “owed,” and readily acquiesces to “exacting a compensation” from Mattie (29, 25). Zeena’s strategy, her domestic walkout, is a method of recognition, if not a strategy for recompense, which should not be far from the reader’s mind. As we learn early on in the novel, the narrator’s stay in Starkfield also is a result of a labor strike: “I had been sent up by my employers on a job connected with the big powerhouse at Corbury Junction, and a long-drawn carpenter’s strike had so delayed the work that I found myself anchored at Starkfield—the nearest habitable spot—for the best part of the winter” (3). Wharton’s novel fictionalizes what perhaps could be read as a more radical version of the labor crisis that occasions the narrative, radical because delineated in a domestic setting in which work was not yet conceived of in these terms. Rather than expand upon the difficult transition between public and private labor in which women’s work became naturalized within the home, however, I want to highlight the issues concerning work to make a broader point about the subject and context for the novel. Accompanying the problem of discerning the dimensions of emotional pain and physical suffering in the novel is the question of how to understand the “labor pains” in which Wharton grounds each disclosure, event, and character.
That Wharton’s vehicle for storytelling in the novel is neither a striking laborer nor employer/owner, and that the narrator’s managerial experience with labor unrest frames the narrative, provides a vocabulary upon which the Fromes’ sad history is disclosed. The narrator, in other words, is not only a model for the reader in her judgment of the characters’ suffering, but also a vehicle for introducing its administration and compensation. He initiates the terms and helps to connote the arenas—labor and, as we shall see, law—in which pain is coming to be quantified, and it is the notion of quantification that permeates his and other townspeople’s assessments of the Frome tragedy. From the moment readers meet Ethan, for example, we are told of his perpetual labor on the farm and its meager compensations: “That Frome farm was always ’bout as bare’s a milkpan when the cat’s been round; and you know what one of them old water-mills is wuth nowadays. When Ethan could sweat over ’em both from sun-up to dark he kinder choked a living out of ’em; but his folks ate up most everything, even then, and I don’t see how he makes out now” (5). Ethan meets the narrator only because he needs the extra money that driving him to the station can provide, although we get the sense that it is also a much-needed respite from a home and farm that are failing. Ethan perceives himself a “prisoner for life” (57) to the farm, and when Mattie, his “one ray of light,” is to be “extinguished,” he seeks to put a permanent end to his labors. Like Ethan, Mattie’s work in the house is a constant subject for scrutiny in the novel; Mattie, according to Zeena, does not work hard enough, which leads to Zeena’s excuse for dismissing her, leaving her cruelly without compe-sation and in the very condition for which Zeena accuses Ethan. With very few prospects for work in town, and with her inevitable separation from Ethan, Mattie too decides to quit life.
It is important to note that Mattie’s and Ethan’s desire to “quit” life, like Zeena’s domestic walkout, is a form of refusal not unlike the labor strike that occasions the narrative. Given that the story is told through the voice of a narrator whose presence in Starkfield is the result of a labor dispute, it is no wonder that the narrative emphasizes the characters’ labor pains; all are “alienated” in Marxian terms, whether from their labor on the farm, their work in the home, or their status in a deadening marriage. The novel engages with the difficulties, the disappointments, and the disaffections of labor. Despite the characters’ agony over their failed labors, the matter-of-fact tone of the narrator concerning the reasons for his stay in Starkfield, what he conveys as the seemingly common character of the labor strike that occasions his story, is indicative of the increasing presence and power of labor at the turn of the century. As Wharton would well know, the towns near Starkfield were mill towns such as Everett and Lawrence, which by 1906 had chartered the National Industrial Union of Textile Workers. In 1911, the year of Ethan Frome’s publication, the union gained momentum for the recognition of work-related injuries by conducting slowdowns and, in one case, holding a four-month strike of cotton workers at a local mill.16 Whether factory hands or builders of the railroads, women and men sought enhanced rights and recompense for the dangerous and often deadly work they performed. While I do not want to suggest that this context for Wharton’s novel demands that she be reconsidered as a voice of labor, I do want to acknowledge the unusual importance in Ethan Frome (a noted departure from Wharton’s other work) of the narrative’s concern with labor pains and their recompense.17 Wharton is especially interested in male pain; she intimately describes Ethan’s suffocation both in his marriage and in his work. Ethan is strangled in Starkfield not only by rural poverty, but also, in a larger sense, by the increasing anonymity of the industrial United States. Like the striking workers who populate the borders of Starkfield and the narrative, Ethan, to restate Marx, is forced to “face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”18 When Ethan’s small recompense, Mattie, is taken from him, his “senses” do not “sober,” they deaden.
If the narrator’s stay in Starkfield reminds us of the “conditions” and “relations” of Ethan’s life of labor, the narrative also foregrounds the underlying tensions between agrarian and industrial America, from the failing farm that Ethan struggles to keep afloat, a failure presented in and against the success of merchants like Dennis Eady and Ned Hale, to Ethan’s own missed chance at becoming a professional engineer. So too is the railroad that passes in and out of town a barometer of technological advance and, more important, of psychological decline in the novel. Ethan notes that with the coming of the railroad when he was a young man, the local traffic of friends and neighbors ceased. Townspeople no longer passed by his house, paying visit to his mother when she was immobilized with rheumatism. It is the isolation inflicted by the mechanism meant to collapse the distance between people that causes Mrs. Frome to turn “queer”: “After the trains began running nobody ever come by here to speak of, and mother never could get it through her head what happened, and it preyed on her right along till she died” (8). Ethan’s cousin Zeena, called in to care for his mother, traveled to the Fromes by that same railroad from a village larger and “nearer to the railway” than Starkfield (29). Soon after his mother’s death, when Ethan and Zeena decide to marry, he thinks she will be eager to move to a larger town; but purchasers for the farm are “slow in coming,” and Ethan learns that “in the greater cities which attracted Ethan,” Zeena “would have suffered a complete loss of identity” (30). Within a year, the reader is told, Zeena fell ill (30). In a gesture against anonymity, Ethan and Zeena do not leave Starkfield with the rest of those who boarded the railroad out. Indeed, the railroad and the transforming technological world that once offered Ethan passage from his dreary circumstances come to plague Ethan, as his mother, and, subsequently, Zeena, are estranged in this world, while Ethan himself loses the skills he needs to participate in it. The novel enters this alienation and explores one of the repercussions and manifestations of its transforming technologies: injuries to the psyche.
If the presentation of psychic pain had been a problem for male literary critics reading the novel Ethan Frome, for a growing public of readers the discernment of pain became central; readers were asked to extend their capacity for acknowledging feeling in an ever more anonymous and impersonal world. Judging and quantifying pain became fundamental to the development of an industrial nation. Not only literary critics, but also psychologists, lawyers, judges, and others were asked to accommodate and account for the seeming proliferation of pain. Wai Chee Dimock calls this “quantify[ing] sentience”; there was great cultural need, beginning in the nineteenth century, “to come up with something like a calculus of pain” (141). Edith Wharton writes Ethan Frome precisely within this calculus, at a time when literary critics, law courts, and corporations alike questioned whether lay persons could expand their capacity to understand suffering and to compensate injuries to body and mind. In 1910, for example, the year before Wharton published her novel, workmen’s compensation legislation was passed in the United States; this legislation confirmed the public’s commitment to extending the cultural “calculus of pain.” I do not wish to assert a mere homology between the problems accorded industrial expansion and the tightening grip around Starkfield or Ethan Frome; rather, I would emphasize that discourses about injury crucially mark the narrator’s work as well as Ethan’s wounded body and psyche. Moreover, to be sufficient readers and interpreters of pain, one quantified sentience. This was not merely a female sentimental literary strategy or a male professional disciplinary practice; it was a growing cultural skill.19
For Trilling and other earlier readers of Wharton’s novel who were perplexed by its rendering of pain, the questions they repeatedly asked were framed precisely in terms of quantification; suffering and injury, they demanded, to what end and at what cost? For an early literary critic like Bjorkman, for example, if the pain presented in Wharton’s novel was not worth something, “we should pass on”; indeed, we might recall that the problem Trilling had reading Wharton’s novel was that for him the pain the story presented was worth nothing. This language of cost accounting was shared by literary critics and nonliterary professionals alike. If the novelist’s task, as Wharton acknowledges in her preface, is to render feelings, and the critics’ task, occasionally to their chagrin, is to discern their meaning, the social sciences, for example, often saw themselves as honing their ability to repair the pain that accompanied them. In fact, literary criticism and legal reasoning seemed to inspire a similar question: How was the lay public to read, listen to, and judge pain in an expanded market not only of literature but also of feeling? Ethan Frome, we will recall, poses this very question by giving its readers the complicated task of discerning “true” pain from “false” pain; the novel presents a competition of suffering among its main characters.
Readers of fiction, as the narrator’s role in Ethan Frome suggests, are both jurors of facts as well as readers of affect in a growing marketplace of pain. This reader/juror was not embraced uncritically, however. Along with an expanding interest in a cultural calculus of pain was a growing distrustfulness in the public’s capacity to make discriminations with regard to these very issues. What might even be called a crisis of reading pain was particularly intense not only for Wharton’s early critics and readers, but also, for example, for lay persons in law courts who as jurors were charged with the public duty of quantifying pain.20 The judiciary, given what appeared to be an expanded cultural capacity for feeling (represented by novels like Wharton’s) if not compensation for feeling, increasingly doubted that the lay public could read pain properly in injury cases and submit just verdicts based upon their “beliefs and practices.”21 Legal scholars sounded like their contemporary literary counterparts when they claimed, as Charles Gregory concluded of the court’s view of the jury process: “This is an evaluating process and in its nature is not much different from judging a beauty contest or a competition among musicians. The conclusion, whatever it be, is not a fact conclusion; it is a value judgment” (40-41). Gregory, who was an early advocate for a more expansive view of negligence in legal cases of pain and suffering, explained the court’s reticence when it came jury decisions in this way: “If the jury were always permitted to pass on the negligence issue, there is no telling what factors might move it to bring in a verdict for the plaintiff.”22 Lay juries, unlike readers of literature, were intended solely to be triers of facts. Because they were perceived as having inadequate skills to satisfy the increasingly complicated demands of “subjective” judgment with regard to pain, they were received as a threat to the functioning of the judicial system.
Amid this threat, and in a concerted effort to rein in what he confirmed was the “lawlessness” of the reading public, early-twentieth-century literary critic Bliss Perry, who would go on to write one of the first full-length studies of American literature, published a PMLA article in which he promoted the study of contemporary fiction in universities. Perry wrote: “This lawless and inconsistent public, craving excitement at any price, journalized daily, neither knowing nor caring what should be the real aim and scope of the novel, has the casting vote, after all, upon great books and little books alike. From its ultimate verdict there is no appeal. It is therefore no small service to literature that the colleges perform, when they send into this public, to serve as laymen, men who know good work from bad, and to know why they know it” (76). The reading of contemporary fiction, with proper instruction, might rein in a lawless public and help create standards of judgment for laymen. For literary critics, feeling threatened, as we shall see, by the institutional prominence of the social sciences, and fearing, moreover, their own insignificance, it seemed that contemporary literature had a social function after all.
Early-twentieth-century literary critics, adapting the discourse of the social scientists, cultivated and reinvented themselves not merely as writers and reviewers of literature, but also as scientists of emotion: professionals who might best evaluate as well as train others in the reading of feeling. Just as Wharton’s novel disquieted readers who sought the containment of emotional pain in a safe moralized sense, literary critics responded to cultural and institutional pressures to expand their understanding of just what emotion may be and to redefine their work in relation to it. This reconceptualization of the literary scholar’s self-definition and purpose was not without its internal battles, however. In his well-known study Professing Literature (1987), Gerald Graff characterizes the institutional debate over the nature of literary study at the turn of the century as one between scholars who advocated a technical approach to literature (distinguished by its discernment of data) and an emerging group of critics who campaigned for aesthetics (the subjectively sentient).23 The debate hinged on a perceived danger among university scholars in the humanities that criticism was moving away from the objective material of empirical fact into the wholly subjective and speculative domain of feeling. Rhetoric and grammar were being replaced by criticism and literature, a move that many literary scholars feared would prove fatal to the profession.
Literary critics at the same time found themselves struggling over their disciplinary definition and institutional recognition amid a new sea of scientific realism. Men like Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer were proponents of the positivism of “facts,” and their cultural influence and popularity quickly created what one commentator called a positive “mania.” “‘Fact-Worship,”’ noted another observer, “is the popular worship of our times.”24 The scientific spirit would lead many people, as David Shi describes, “to equate belief in facts with the substance of belief itself” (72). The cultural mania for hard data was preceded by higher education’s institutionalization of new disciplines of social science founded upon the scientific method, disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, and economics, which all rapidly gained influence in the universities. Many turn-of-the-century scholars and intellectuals thought that truth, like pain, had a “calculus” and could be quantified, and that social scientists, as opposed to scholars of English—those rarefied bearers of taste and outdated preservers of antiquities—were best equipped to discern it. Scholars of English, with their own specialized departments by the mid- to late nineteenth century, were challenged anew to define their institutional place and their cultural authority. The popular worship of facts accompanied a positive assault upon literary cultures: “Culture is not to be attained by writing essays about it, or by forming ever so clear a literary statement or mental conception of what it is,” wrote William Graham Sumner in his book The Forgotten Man and Other Essays (1919). Education must shun a “superficial literary tradition” that otherwise “befog[s]… reason.”25 Edward Ross, a sociologist at Stanford University, called the literary haze of un-factual figures the “horror of the subjective.”26
Literary scholars who properly failed to shun the “subjective” and venerate facts were threatened with the mark of effeminacy. Facts, as David Shi describes, were “supposedly ‘masculine’ in their objectivity and potency, [and] seemed to offer a formidable new weapon in the assault on ‘feminine’ idealism” (72). Like Oliver Wendell Holmes in chapter 1, who derided what he called the “squashy sentimentalism” of the female population, many agreed with the sentiments of the economist and former Union general Francis Amasa Waler, who scorned what he called the “bankruptcy” of the feminine: “Liberty,” Waler proclaimed, should no longer be embodied as a female but as a “fact.” In the post-Civil War years, the bearers of effeminacy must be shunned, only “facts” and the “stern duties of manhood remain” (qtd. Shi 72). The new scientific spirit appeared to spurn all that could not be subjected with assurance to empirical tests, and literary scholars were impelled to rewrite the assault upon their field of study as if upon their very manhood.
Quite often the mania for facts was less exact than its advocates might have assumed, however. As soldier’s heart challenged the gaze of medicine with the elusiveness of the psyche, as we saw in chapter 1, and as legal domestic disputes, such as those discussed in chapters 2 and 3, expanded the range of actionable and often subjectively defined injuries, a vital component of professional reasoning became the ability to accommodate a domain of injury less visible to the empirical eye. Emotion was not only the stuff of university study or literary criticism, it also was the subject of extensive cross-disciplinary and often rigorously masculine debate at the turn of the century, from the trenches of labor activism to the benches of law courts. For male literary scholars, these subjects were an opportunity rather than a deficit. As theories about pain expanded beyond the body to recognize and, in some cases, compensate injuries to the mind and the emotions, male literary critics found a new calling. They found themselves remaking the sphere of the emotions—traditionally associated with effeminacy and sentimentality—to fit newly scientific conceptions of affect. Literary critics redefined themselves as scientists of affect, those who might best assess as well as instruct others in the reading of feeling. The importance of emotions was reassessed, and their uses remade by male literary critics for their own professional needs.
In his 1896 address as president of the MLA, Calvin Thomas, working to mediate arguments about literary study both within the discipline and without, strongly advocated a middle ground between fact worship and subjective judgment. His lecture titled “Literature and Personality” argued that it was not “a betrayal of the scientific spirit to use one’s judgment,” concluding that “literary criticism is rightly conceived… as the science of the emotional effects produced by literature.”27 Thomas and his supporters looked to reconcile what was perceived to be the scientific enterprise of the scholar with the aesthetic expertise of the critic. “Emotional reactions under the stimulus of literature,” he continued, are “facts which have the same right as other facts, to be carefully recorded and studied for such instruction as they may be capable of yielding” (Thomas, 305).
It was something like the science of affect that Thomas argued the literary critic was becoming trained to discern. As scientists of affect, literary scholars, increasingly in competition with social scientists, could assert their own importance. Social scientists argued, for example, that a faith in facts eventually would help to ease the tensions of an industrial and diverse nation, relieving social ills and promoting social reform; many even welcomed scientific reasoning as a method to advance answers in theology and moral philosophy. No jurisdiction went untouched. Literature and science not only were in competition over authority for moral instruction, therefore, but also over which discipline would “define knowledge itself.”28 Although educators and university presidents like Charles William Eliot argued that a “healthy” “progressive” life in a “democracy” required an education of the spirit (“Nor will the professional and scientific school, however excellent in its kind, supply what is needed” ), literary scholars began to define their own discipline as a unique branch of this scientific school. “We might almost describe our critical science [literary criticism], then,” suggested J. M. Robertson, “as the science of consistency in appreciation, since the science of that would involve the systematic study of all the causes—in ourselves, in a book, and in an author—which go to determine our individual judgments.”29
Unlike the English scholar of old who was a “scientist” of antiquity, laboring over Latin grammar and other linguistic forms, the new literary critic took his role as a scientist of emotion, as one with a special ability to ask questions of the interior life and to render emotive issues visible.30 For those literary critics advocating disciplinary redefinition, aesthetic questions ultimately affirmed an intimate connection between art, material, and, often, political life. James Taft Hatfield, president of the central division of the MLA, opened his talk at the 1901 conference by congratulating literary scholars as “citizens… united in harmonious and effective co-operation [with] a large majority of the real leaders in important fields of study.” Literary scholars, he claimed, advanced the “progress of science as a whole.”31 Joel Elias Sp-ingarn, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, argued that an education in aesthetic thinking would provide both a “deep national insight” and a “wide international outlook.”32 Spingarn and Hatfield, representing the new direction of literary scholarship, suggested that literary criticism could offer something like a meeting ground for the subjectively sentient and the empirically evident, and it was upon these grounds, according to some of these early critics, that a “representative body” of scholars and, by extension, a nation of citizens could thrive. “I hold, then,” concluded Hatfield’s address, “that our first duty and highest function, even as an organization of linguistic specialists, is… political, and that this deep note should be the first sounded at every political gathering: we must place enlightened, trained intellect at the direct service of the state, as the only solvent of the problems of municipal misgovernment, corporate greed, and the tyranny of manual labor” (391). Literary “scientists” of affect, these scholars argued, could affect political life. Of course, not every member of the MLA felt this urgent political calling. For instance, Bliss Perry took a more moderate view about the political potential of “linguistic specialists,” arguing in “Fiction as College Study” that as art records “conversations, thoughts and feelings,” it inspires teachers of English, more modestly, to “bring [this] work into relation with life, to make it bear upon the actual.”33
It is precisely in light of this newly emerging vision of literary critics themselves as mediators between the contemporary art of thoughts and feelings and their relation with sociopolitical life that debate about the critical difficulty of reading Edith Wharton’s novel took shape.34 For critics of Ethan Frome, the rendering of pain and the problem of discerning its ends became a perplexing puzzle. Whether or not Wharton’s readers finally agree with Trilling’s condemnation of the novel for what he called its advocacy of “the morality of inertia,” its lack of agency for moral decision making, or subscribe to more recent psychoanalytic interpretations of the novel’s dilemmas, the reading of emotional pain as a requisite strategy in the novel commands interest, and did so particularly at the time of its publication, when the reading of pain quickly became a substantive cultural skill. Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome is an example of the anxiety that attended new cultural conditions of judgment and recompense. Ethan’s suffering profligates in his inability to articulate his own pain, his seeming misjudgment of others’; yet this also appears to the reader to be an esteemed part of his character, particularly given what Zeena and other inhabitants of Starkfield seem to exemplify: a culture of complaint. His disaffection from language can be read as an indispensable relief in comparison with the querulousness at the end of the novel of both Mattie and Zeena. It is important to note that in Ethan Frome both impulses are present: the privileges of emotionally charged language as well as its excesses, the necessity for the compensation of injury and the withdrawal from the market of need. As a novel that seemed at one time to represent or even to occasion a desire for a “science” of affective relations among its professional male readers, it should not be regarded solely as a mainstream voice of a disciplinary culture. Ethan Frome stubbornly seems to resist all early efforts at pain management sought by its early critics; it is in what one critic labeled its relentlessness, its excesses, that Ethan Frome remains eternally irresolvable.
For literary critics in the early twentieth century who appeared on the verge of losing their claims to moral authority in a culture coming to revere scientific facts, reading the irresolvable was a highly public and manly practice, one that depended upon several faculties skillfully developed for use beyond the parlor or the classroom. As academic men worked to reassert their professional authority and, with that, their manliness, they also insisted that the reading of pain become a cultural requisite of civic duty. Close to a century later, the rhetoric of affect continues to be a crucial arena for scholarly inquiry.
8. Book review of Ethan Frome, Nation 93 (Oct. 26, 1911): 405. For a historical inquiry into spectacles of pain, see Halttunen “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain,” 303. For a discussion of the emotive in literature, see Ox-enhandler, “Changing Concept of Literary Emotion.”
10. The list of works on sympathy and sentiment are vast. To name just a few that have not yet been mentioned in the book: Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability; Barker-Benfield, Culture of Sensibility; Marshall, Surprising Effects of Sympathy; and Crain, American Sympathy.
11. Douglas argues in Feminization of American Culture that such novelists replaced clergy as the voices of moral authority in nineteenth-century America. It would be too long a footnote to detail all the twists the debate has taken since Douglas’s characterization of this literature. Especially prominent voices in the debate shortly following the publication of Douglas’s book were critics Nina Baym and Jane Tompkins. See Nina Baym, American Women Writers, and Tompkins, Sensational Designs.
15. Wolff, “Hot Ethan, Cold Ethan.” For Wharton, imagining a change in the site of sentiment not only constitutes a self-willed autobiographical disguise (as Wolff suggests), but as Edwin Bjorkman’s early review of the novel implies, it may also socially “incite.”For more on masculinity and Wharton, see Farland, “Ethan Frome and the ‘Springs’ of Masculinity.”
17. Wharton would leave the United States for France. Although her biographers have little to say about the social milieu in the United States that may have encouraged Wharton’s stay abroad, it is clear that the events that would become Ethan Frome were in her thoughts. Wolff explains that Wharton’s first writing in French became the beginning of Ethan Frome. See Wolff, Feast of Words, 158–59. See also Ben-stock, No Gifts from Chance, for discussion of Wharton’s life abroad.
19. Abel has called one form of the secularization of suffering, suffering that has come to require material compensation, a “market in sadomasochism” (“Critique of American Tort Law,” 281). Scarry describes the product liability trial as materializing “the counterfactual by endowing it with the material form of compensation” (Body in Pain, 299).
20. This is not to suggest that distrust of the jury system was solely a recent phenomenon, but that it emerged with increasing vigor at this time. For a brief history of the jury system, see Friedman, American Law, 251.
34. American writers, notes Kermit Vanderbilt in his study of the academy, “had only begun to be studied in the colleges, few histories of our infant literature had been attempted, and scholars’ interest in the study of our nation’s authors had no sense of community within the academy” (American Literature and the Academy, 3).
Blackall, Jean Frantz. “The Sledding Accident in Ethan Frome.” Studies in Short Fiction 21, no. 2 (spring 1984): 145-46.
Investigates the historical sources for Ethan Frome’s tragic climax.
Hattenhauer, Darryl. “Wharton’s Ethan Frome.” Explicator 51, no. 4 (summer 1993): 226–27.
Considers the role of sexual innuendo in Wharton’s Ethan Frome.
Hutchinson, Stuart. “Unpackaging Ethan Wharton: Ethan Frome and Summer.” Cambridge Quarterly 27, no. 3 (1998): 219–32.
Compares aspects of Ethan Frome with Wharton’s 1917 work, Summer.
Smith, Christopher, ed. Readings on Ethan Frome. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2000, 174 p.
Book-length compilation of previously published criticism on Ethan Frome.
Additional coverage of Wharton’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 25; Beacham’s Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865–1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 132; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9, 12, 78, 189; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 13; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion, Ed. 1:6; Gothic Literature: A Gale Critical Companion, Ed. 3; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 2, 3; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vols. 5, 11, 15, 20; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, & Gothic Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 6, 7; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 6, 84; Supernatural Fiction Writers; Twayne’s United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 9, 27, 53, 129, 149; 20th-Century Romance and Historical Writers; and World Literature Criticism, Ed. 6.
"Wharton, Edith 1862-1937." Children's Literature Review. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/academic-and-educational-journals/wharton-edith-1862-1937
"Wharton, Edith 1862-1937." Children's Literature Review. . Retrieved September 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/academic-and-educational-journals/wharton-edith-1862-1937
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