Book Look - Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton

This book reminded me forcefully of the Greek tragedies one reads in college. From the very first pages you can see the calamity coming, but there's nothing anyone can do - not Ethan Frome, the tragic hero of this tale; not the tale's author, Edith Wharton; and certainly not the reader - to prevent it from unfolding.

Like a short story, the novel limits itself to just a few characters, a single plot, and a single theme - one even older than Greek tragedy: Ethan Frome, a simple Massachusetts farmer, finds himself married to one woman but in love with another.

You see the tragedy coming because such tales never come to a good end in real life either.

Frome's tragic flaw (Aristotle requires a fatal flaw, after all) is one that most of us probably share - believing that we have some sort of right to happiness. Alas, as this tale reminds us, fate doesn't always work that way.

Edith Wharton delivers the tale starkly, handing the narrative over to her characters and then stepping back to let them tell the tale in their own way. This has the effect of intensifying the feeling of mounting dread, because it eliminates, early on, any hope or expectation of intervention by an empathetic narrator. And since this isn't actually a Greek drama, there isn't much hope of divine intervention either.

If catharsis is as good for your soul as the Greeks posited, then you're bound to feel thoroughly cleansed after this well-crafted but bleak tale.

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