Published in 1911, Ethan Frome is one of Wharton's masterpieces and her most famous novella. It is, in fact, the work by which Wharton is most widely known, and it is a perfect example of the way in which Wharton's painstakingly detailed portrait of a community and its landscape proves that the environment decides an individual's behavior, personality, and ultimate fate. In Ethan Frome, Wharton revolutionized the concept of American "realism" by capturing seamlessly the cold, hard, fatalistic bareness of the New England landscape and the bleak, slow, hopeless existence of the individuals who inhabit it and who assume the environment's air of pessimism and solitude.
You have to wonder how someone as fabulously wealthy, intelligent, and privileged as Edith Wharton came up with the idea of Ethan Frome, which will probably be the most depressing, heart wrenching story that you will ever read in your lifetime. As socially gifted and outwardly happy as Wharton may have seemed, however, both the political conditions surrounding the nation and the private traumas that affected her own life can help to explain how she created such a cynical, fatalistic piece of fiction.
The America at the turn of the century was radically different from the America of the 1930's. Prior to the nation's involvement in World War I, many Americans were optimistic do-gooders who honestly believed that world peace could be a reality instead of an ideal. As you may remember, Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations was the perfect example of how Americans thought that they could change the world, through compromise and negotiation -- but this altruism and hope soon was soon replaced by cynicism and bitterness. However, when the war went into full swing during the 1910's, this optimism had faded as millions of soldiers and innocent civilians were brutally killed. As a result of the violence and cruelty that soon came to define the First World War, Americans quickly became disillusioned and fatalistic, and Wharton was not immune to this pessimism, a feeling that pervades Ethan Frome. In fact, Wharton was one of many American expatriates who fled to France during the war because of their disillusionment with American society.
Unlike her other novels, Ethan Frome describes a small, economically stagnant community in which the citizens seek financial stability instead of intellectual advancement and social position. However, even in this seemingly bleak setting, Wharton still toys with the idea of forbidden love because she, as a result of her own unhappy marriage, was fascinated with the complications of unfulfilling marriages, and stimulating, exciting extramarital affairs.
Many have suggested that Ethan Frome is really Edith Wharton. This novella is one of the most depressing and thought-provoking books that you will ever read in your lifetime, and the author who produced it tapped into her own suffering and unhappiness to create it. Like Ethan, Wharton was also involved in an extremely unhappy marriage with a sickly, needy spouse and often dreamed of finding an escape in the name of love. In fact, just as Ethan finally finds comfort in Mattie, so too did Wharton carry on an affair with a journalist named Morton Fullerton because she sought intellectual excitement. Wharton's husband, Teddy, who was thirteen years older, shared none of her many intellectual interests, and even though he was deeply in love with her (he often followed her around with his pockets bulging with cash in case she saw something in a store window that she wanted), he did not satisfy her intellectually. Teddy's father, who had been a close friend of Edith's parents, had had a mental illness, and shortly before 1911, the year that Edith wrote Ethan Frome, he suffered his first nervous breakdown. He never recovered after his third breakdown, and in the character of Ethan, we can see the same suffering and bitterness that Edith herself must have felt after caring for a man who she never even loved.
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