Monday, August 9, 2010

Ethan Frome and Other Short Fiction - Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome and Other Stories contains Ethan Frome, The Touchstone, "The Last Asset," "Xingu," and "The Other Two." While I own Wharton's The House of Mirth, I hadn't read any of her works prior to this book, which I read for AP English Literature. I will divide this review into five parts, one for each work - this will make my post rather long, but I hope you don't mind. :) I wrote each section just after finishing that piece, so they are organized in the order I read them.

Ethan Frome
The book Ethan Frome is about (funnily enough) Ethan Frome, a farmer who lives in a rural New England town. Frome's already fragile relationship with his wife Zenobia, or "Zeena," is tested when Zeena's cousin, Mattie, comes to stay with them and take care of Zeena. Ethan clearly has feelings for Mattie that Zeena notices and naturally does not approve of. When Zeena announces that she is getting a hired girl and that Mattie will have to leave, Ethan and Mattie sled down a hill into a large maple tree, hoping to die together rather than live apart. Unfortunately, they are only crippled, and Mattie, Zeena, and Ethan end up living together, though unhappily, for the rest of their lives.

Knowing that Edith Wharton came from a prominent New York family and never experienced rural life or financial hardship, I was quite impressed with how well she portrayed the characters, as well as their financial situations and stations in life. It did not feel as though Wharton was condescending to the rural poor, or as though she had no idea what she was writing about. Aside from that, I enjoyed the story quite a lot - Wharton's imagery depicting the New England countryside created a beautiful, desolate setting that was very appropriate for the characters and story. I felt compassion for the Fromes and for Mattie, and enjoyed reading the book. I know there is symbolism in the book, but I usually don't pay attention to symbols while reading, so I'll be interested to study Ethan Frome in English this year.

The Touchstone
The Touchstone is a novella about Glennard, a man whose love for a woman (Alexa) he cannot marry without greater finances drives him to sell hundreds of love letters from a newly deceased famous author, Mrs. Aubyn. The letters are made into a book, and while Glennard does marry Alexa, he doesn't tell her - or anyone else - that he was the recipient or even the seller of the letters. The book, titled The Aubyn Letters, becomes an object of horror among the women of Alexa's circle, who all think that the man who received and sold the letters must have been a cretin to do such a thing to poor Mrs. Aubyn. Glennard feels more and more remorseful, and though he wants Alexa to know what he has done, he does not want to tell her himself. Instead, he gives her a stack of papers to sort through, and leaves a receipt from a check clearly indicating him as the one who sold the Aubyn letters in the pile hoping she will understand and say something to him. Weeks go by, and even after going through the letters Alexa does not mention the receipt. Finally, Glennard confronts Alexa, and...well, I just can't bring myself to tell you what happens.

I absolutely loved The Touchstone. The characters were very real to me, Wharton's writing was as descriptive and lovely as in Ethan Frome, and the plot was very engaging. While my favorite part of the book was the very end, I loved the whole thing and I can't wait to discuss it in English. I find myself falling in love with Wharton already, and I haven't even read the last three stories yet.

"The Last Asset"
In the short story"The Last Asset," Paul Garnett is asked to do a favor for acquaintance Mrs. Newell - Miss Hermione Newell is engaged, but the groom's parents will call off the wedding if Mr. Newell does not attend. While Mr. and Mrs. Newell are still married, they do not have regular contact and Mrs. Newell insists that Mr. Newell would not welcome a visit from her. Garnett agrees to do the favor, though he is motivated by Hermione Newell's wishes more than those of her mother. I enjoyed this story very much - I wish that Wharton had revealed whatever caused the rift between Mr. and Mrs. Newell, but that wasn't in any way a deal-breaker for me. I found the characters as interesting and real as in The Touchstone - I especially enjoyed reading about Mrs. Newell, who I found rather ridiculous. The plot wasn't very complex (though I don't suppose it could be in the amount of pages it takes up), but did have a couple twists and turns that I enjoyed, and I would recommend it.

When I started "Xingu," I had absolutely no idea what it was about. However, I definitely didn't expect what I got. "Xingu" is a short story about the Lunch Club, a small group of upper-class women who like to think of themselves as erudite and scholarly. When the club manages to get a notable woman writer, Osric Dane, to attend one of their luncheons, everyone is terribly excited. The day of the luncheon arrives, and when Osric Dane arrives, the conversation stalls. Finally, Mrs. Roby - who is generally agreed upon to be the least desirable member of the Lunch Club and the least "up" on current topics - asks Mrs. Dane what her opinion on Xingu is. An intense conversation on the subject follows, and when the conversation begins to turn to Dane's most recent novel, a subject which clearly bores Dane, Mrs. Roby announces that she has to leave for a bridge meeting. Osric Dane then runs out after her, wanting to know more about Xingu, and the Lunch Club ladies are left, embarrassingly, on their own. Of course, it turns out that none of them, even those who proclaimed to have had their lives changed by it, have the faintest idea what Xingu is. I must say, I kind of had an idea how the whole "Xingu" thing was going to turn out (thoughI'm not going to tell you). That said, the fact that I saw what was coming in at least one respect didn't diminish my enjoyment of "Xingu" one slight bit. The whole story was absolutely hilarious from beginning to end - while it's not the type of humor everyone would appreciate, I loved it. I definitely didn't expect humor from Wharton, and while "The Last Asset" had elements of humor and satire, "Xingu" was satirical humor at its best. I laughed out loud quite a few times during this twenty-one page story, occasionally startling my mother. I would definitely, definitely recommend "Xingu," and I think it's my favorite story so far.

"The Other Two"
Mr. and Mrs. Waythorn are happily married. Though Mrs. Waythorn has been married twice before, to a Mr. Haskett and then to a Mr. Varrick, she does not have much to do with either of them, and the Waythorns live peacefully on their own with Lily, Mrs. Waythorn's daughter from her marriage to Mr. Haskett. However, the situation is complicated when Lily falls ill with cholera, requiring Mr. Haskett to visit her at the house rather than having Lily visit him. On top of that, Mr. Waythorn is required to engage in business with Mr. Varrick in the stead of Waythorn's partner, who is laid up with gout. In the climax of the novel, all the characters (excepting Lily) manage to end up in the same room together, resulting in embarrassment particularly on the part of Mrs. Waythorn. I don't think I'm managing to make this sound like a very interesting story, but I quite liked it. It's similar to "The Last Asset" in that you never find out exactly what happened in the past - in this case, what caused Mrs. Waythorn to divorce Mr. Haskett and Mr. Varrick. While I would've liked to find this out, I still greatly enjoyed "The Other Two," and I regret that it is the end of my Edith Wharton reading for the time being.

In conclusion, I loved all the pieces in Ethan Frome and Other Short Stories, and I will definitely be reading more of Wharton. If you made it through this whole post, congratulations and thank you!

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