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Ethan Frome - Introduction Post by :bembaman Category :Long Stories Author :Edith Wharton Date :March 2011 Read :3376

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Ethan Frome - Introduction

I Had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally
happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.

If you know Starkfield, Massachusetts, you know the post-office. If
you know the post-office you must have seen Ethan Frome drive up to
it, drop the reins on his hollow-backed bay and drag himself across
the brick pavement to the white colonnade: and you must have asked
who he was.

It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time;
and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking
figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. 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: it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a
lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain. There was
something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so
stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was
surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two. I had this
from Harmon Gow, who had driven the stage from Bettsbridge to
Starkfield in pre-trolley days and knew the chronicle of all the
families on his line.

"He's looked that way ever since he had his smash-up; and that's
twenty-four years ago come next February," Harmon threw out between
reminiscent pauses.

The "smash-up" it was-I gathered from the same informant-which,
besides drawing the red gash across Ethan Frome's forehead, had so
shortened and warped his right side that it cost him a visible
effort to take the few steps from his buggy to the post-office
window. He used to drive in from his farm every day at about noon,
and as that was my own hour for fetching my mail I often passed him
in the porch or stood beside him while we waited on the motions of
the distributing hand behind the grating. I noticed that, though he
came so punctually, he seldom received anything but a copy of the
Bettsbridge Eagle, which he put without a glance into his sagging
pocket. At intervals, however, the post-master would hand him an
envelope addressed to Mrs. Zenobia-or Mrs. Zeena-Frome, and usually
bearing conspicuously in the upper left-hand corner the address of
some manufacturer of patent medicine and the name of his specific.
These documents my neighbour would also pocket without a glance, as
if too much used to them to wonder at their number and variety, and
would then turn away with a silent nod to the post-master.

Every one in Starkfield knew him and gave him a greeting tempered to
his own grave mien; but his taciturnity was respected and it was
only on rare occasions that one of the older men of the place
detained him for a word. When this happened he would listen quietly,
his blue eyes on the speaker's face, and answer in so low a tone
that his words never reached me; then he would climb stiffly into
his buggy, gather up the reins in his left hand and drive slowly
away in the direction of his farm.

"It was a pretty bad smash-up?" I questioned Harmon, looking after
Frome's retreating figure, and thinking how gallantly his lean brown
head, with its shock of light hair, must have sat on his strong
shoulders before they were bent out of shape.

"Wust kind," my informant assented. "More'n enough to kill most men.
But the Fromes are tough. Ethan'll likely touch a hundred."

"Good God!" I exclaimed. At the moment Ethan Frome, after climbing
to his seat, had leaned over to assure himself of the security of a
wooden box-also with a druggist's label on it-which he had placed in
the back of the buggy, and I saw his face as it probably looked when
he thought himself alone. "That man touch a hundred? He looks as if
he was dead and in hell now!"

Harmon drew a slab of tobacco from his pocket, cut off a wedge and
pressed it into the leather pouch of his cheek. "Guess he's been in
Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away."

"Why didn't he?"

"Somebody had to stay and care for the folks. There warn't ever
anybody but Ethan. Fust his father-then his mother-then his wife."

"And then the smash-up?"

Harmon chuckled sardonically. "That's so. He had to stay then."

"I see. And since then they've had to care for him?"

Harmon thoughtfully passed his tobacco to the other cheek. "Oh, as
to that: I guess it's always Ethan done the caring."

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 the sense that the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps.
But one phrase stuck in my memory and served as the nucleus about
which I grouped my subsequent inferences: "Guess he's been in
Starkfield too many winters."

Before my own time there was up I had learned to know what that
meant. Yet I had come in the degenerate day of trolley, bicycle and
rural delivery, when communication was easy between the scattered
mountain villages, and the bigger towns in the valleys, such as
Bettsbridge and Shadd's Falls, had libraries, theatres and Y. M. C.
A. halls to which the youth of the hills could descend for
recreation. But when winter shut down on Starkfield and the village
lay under a sheet of snow perpetually renewed from the pale skies, I
began to see what life there-or rather its negation-must have been
in Ethan Frome's young manhood.

I had been sent up by my employers on a job connected with the big
power-house at Corbury Junction, and a long-drawn carpenters' strike
had so delayed the work that I found myself anchored at
Starkfield-the nearest habitable spot-for the best part of the
winter. I chafed at first, and then, under the hypnotising effect of
routine, gradually began to find a grim satisfaction in the life.
During the early part of my stay I had been struck by the contrast
between the vitality 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 in an intenser 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. When I had
been there a little longer, and had seen this phase of crystal
clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the
storms of February had pitched their white tents about the. devoted
village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to
their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its
six months' siege like a starved garrison capitulating without
quarter. Twenty years earlier the means of resistance must have been
far fewer, and the enemy in command of almost all the lines of
access between the beleaguered villages; and, considering these
things, I felt the sinister force of Harmon's phrase: "Most of the
smart ones get away." But if that were the case, how could any
combination of obstacles have hindered the flight of a man like
Ethan Frome?

During my stay at Starkfield I lodged with a middle-aged widow
colloquially known as Mrs. Ned Hale. Mrs. Hale's father had been the
village lawyer of the previous generation, and "lawyer Varnum's
house," where my landlady still lived with her mother, was the most
considerable mansion in the village. It stood at one end of the main
street, its classic portico and small-paned windows looking down a
flagged path between Norway spruces to the slim white steeple of the
Congregational church. It was clear that the Varnum fortunes were at
the ebb, but the two women did what they could to preserve a decent
dignity; and Mrs. Hale, in particular, had a certain wan refinement
not out of keeping with her pale old-fashioned house.

In the "best parlour," with its black horse-hair and mahogany weakly
illuminated by a gurgling Carcel lamp, I listened every evening to
another and more delicately shaded version of the Starkfield
chronicle. It was not that Mrs. Ned Hale felt, or affected, any
social superiority to the people about her; it was only that the
accident of a finer sensibility and a little more education had put
just enough distance between herself and her neighbours to enable
her to judge them with detachment. She was not unwilling to exercise
this faculty, and 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 co-ordinate the facts I knew. Her mind was a store-house
of innocuous anecdote and any question about her acquaintances
brought forth a volume of detail; but on the subject of Ethan Frome
I found her unexpectedly reticent. There was no hint of disapproval
in her reserve; I merely felt in her an insurmountable reluctance to
speak of him or his affairs, a low "Yes, I knew them both... it was
awful..." seeming to be the utmost concession that her distress
could make to my curiosity.

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.

"Ruth Varnum was always as nervous as a rat; and, come to think of
it, she was the first one to see 'em after they was picked up. It
happened right below lawyer Varnum's, down at the bend of the
Corbury road, just round about the time that Ruth got engaged to Ned
Hale. The young folks was all friends, and I guess she just can't
bear to talk about it. She's had troubles enough of her own."

All the dwellers in Starkfield, as in more notable communities, had
had troubles enough of their own to make them comparatively
indifferent to those of their neighbours; and though all conceded
that Ethan Frome's 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. Nevertheless, I might have contented myself with the story
pieced together from these hints had it not been for the provocation
of Mrs. Hale's silence, and-a little later-for the accident of
personal contact with the man.

On my arrival at Starkfield, Denis Eady, the rich Irish grocer, who
was the proprietor of Starkfield's nearest approach to a livery
stable, had entered into an agreement to send me over daily to
Corbury Flats, where I had to pick up my train for the Junction. But
about the middle of the winter Eady's horses fell ill of a local
epidemic. The illness spread to the other Starkfield stables and for
a day or two I was put to it to find a means of transport. Then
Harmon Gow suggested that Ethan Frome's bay was still on his legs
and that his owner might be glad to drive me over.

I stared at the suggestion. "Ethan Frome? But I've never even spoken
to him. Why on earth should he put himself out for me?"

Harmon's answer surprised me still more. "I don't know as he would;
but I know he wouldn't be sorry to earn a dollar."

I had been told that Frome was poor, and that the saw-mill and the
arid acres of his farm yielded scarcely enough to keep his household
through the winter; but I had not supposed him to be in such want as
Harmon's words implied, and I expressed my wonder.

"Well, matters ain't gone any too well with him," Harmon said. "When
a man's been setting round like a hulk for twenty years or more,
seeing things that want doing, it eats inter him, and he loses his
grit. 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 sunup 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. Fust
his father got a kick, out haying, and went soft in the brain, and
gave away money like Bible texts afore he died. Then his mother got
queer and dragged along for years as weak as a baby; and his wife
Zeena, she's always been the greatest hand at doctoring in the
county. Sickness and trouble: that's what Ethan's had his plate full
up with, ever since the very first helping."

The next morning, when I looked out, I saw the hollow-backed bay
between the Varnum spruces, and Ethan Frome, throwing back his worn
bearskin, made room for me in the sleigh at his side. After that,
for a week, he drove me over every morning to Corbury Flats, and on
my return in the afternoon met me again and carried me back through
the icy night to Starkfield. The distance each way was barely three
miles, but the old bay's pace was slow, and even with firm snow
under the runners we were nearly an hour on the way. Ethan Frome
drove in silence, the reins loosely held in his left hand, his brown
seamed profile, under the helmet-like peak of the cap, relieved
against the banks of snow like the bronze image of a hero. He never
turned his face to mine, or answered, except in monosyllables, the
questions I put, or such slight pleasantries as I ventured. He
seemed a 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; but there was nothing unfriendly in his
silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation
too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his
loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic
as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted,
the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.

Only once or twice was the distance between us bridged for a moment;
and the glimpses thus gained confirmed my desire to know more. Once
I happened to speak of an engineering job I had been on the previous
year in Florida, and of the contrast between the winter landscape
about us and that in which I had found myself the year before; and
to my surprise Frome said suddenly: "Yes: I was down there once, and
for a good while afterward I could call up the sight of it in
winter. But now it's all snowed under."

He said no more, and I had to guess the rest from the inflection of
his voice and his sharp relapse into silence.

Another day, on getting into my train at the Flats, I missed a
volume of popular science-I think it was on some recent discoveries
in bio-chemistry-which I had carried with me to read on the way. I
thought no more about it till I got into the sleigh again that
evening, and saw the book in Frome's hand.

"I found it after you were gone," he said.

I put the volume into my pocket and we dropped back into our usual
silence; but as we began to crawl up the long hill from Corbury
Flats to the Starkfield ridge I became aware in the dusk that he had
turned his face to mine.

"There are things in that book that I didn't know the first word
about," he said.

I wondered less at his words than at the queer note of resentment in
his voice. He was evidently surprised and slightly aggrieved at his
own ignorance.

"Does that sort of thing interest you?" I asked.

"It used to."

"There are one or two rather new things in the book: there have been
some big strides lately in that particular line of research." I
waited a moment for an answer that did not come; then I said: "If
you'd like to look the book through I'd be glad to leave it with
you."

He hesitated, and I had the impression that he felt himself about to
yield to a stealing tide of inertia; then, "Thank you-I'll take it,"
he answered shortly.

I hoped that this incident might set up some more direct
communication between us. Frome was so simple and straightforward
that I was sure his curiosity about the book was based on a genuine
interest in its subject. Such tastes and acquirements in a man of
his condition made the contrast more poignant between his outer
situation and his inner needs, and I hoped that the chance of giving
expression to the latter might at least unseal his lips. But
something in his past history, or in his present way of living, had
apparently driven him too deeply into himself for any casual impulse
to draw him back to his kind. At our next meeting he made no
allusion to the book, and our intercourse seemed fated to remain as
negative and one-sided as if there had been no break in his reserve.

Frome had been driving me over to the Flats for about a week when
one morning I looked out of my window into a thick snow-fall. The
height of the white waves massed against the garden-fence and along
the wall of the church showed that the storm must have been going on
all night, and that the drifts were likely to be heavy in the open.
I thought it probable that my train would be delayed; but I had to
be at the power-house for an hour or two that afternoon, and I
decided, if Frome turned up, to push through to the Flats and wait
there till my train came in. I don't know why I put it in the
conditional, however, for I never doubted that Frome would appear.
He was not the kind of man to be turned from his business by any
commotion of the elements; and at the appointed hour his sleigh
glided up through the snow like a stage-apparition behind thickening
veils of gauze.

I was getting to know him too well to express either wonder or
gratitude at his keeping his appointment; but I exclaimed in
surprise as I saw him turn his horse in a direction opposite to that
of the Corbury road.

"The railroad's blocked by a freight-train that got stuck in a drift
below the Flats," he explained, as we jogged off into the stinging
whiteness.

"But look here-where are you taking me, then?"

"Straight to the Junction, by the shortest way," he answered,
pointing up School House Hill with his whip.

"To the Junction-in this storm? Why, it's a good ten miles!"

"The bay'll do it if you give him time. You said you had some
business there this afternoon. I'll see you get there."

He said it so quietly that I could only answer: "You're doing me the
biggest kind of a favour."

"That's all right," he rejoined.

Abreast of the schoolhouse the road forked, and we dipped down a
lane to the left, between hemlock boughs bent inward to their trunks
by the weight of the snow. I had often walked that way on Sundays,
and knew that the solitary roof showing through bare branches near
the bottom of the hill was that of Frome's saw-mill. It looked
exanimate enough, with its idle wheel looming above the black stream
dashed with yellow-white spume, and its cluster of sheds sagging
under their white load. Frome did not even turn his head as we drove
by, and still in silence we began to mount the next slope. About a
mile farther, on a road I had never travelled, we came to an orchard
of starved apple-trees writhing over a hillside among outcroppings
of slate that nuzzled up through the snow like animals pushing out
their noses to breathe. Beyond the orchard lay a field or two, their
boundaries lost under drifts; and above the fields, huddled against
the white immensities of land and sky, one of those lonely New
England farm-houses that make the landscape lonelier.

"That's my place," said Frome, with a sideway jerk of his lame
elbow; and in the distress and oppression of the scene I did not
know what to answer. The snow had 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.

"The house was bigger in my father's time: I had to take down the
'L,' a while back," Frome continued, checking with a twitch of the
left rein the bay's evident intention of turning in through the
broken-down gate.

I saw then that the unusually forlorn and stunted look of the house
was partly due to the loss of what is known in New England as the
"L": that long deep-roofed adjunct usually built at right angles to
the main house, and connecting it, by way of storerooms and
tool-house, with the wood-shed and cow-barn. Whether because of its
symbolic sense, the image it presents of a life linked with the
soil, and enclosing in itself the chief sources of warmth and
nourishment, or whether merely because of the consolatory thought
that it enables the dwellers in that harsh climate to get to their
morning's work without facing the weather, it is certain that the
"L" rather than the house itself seems to be the centre, the actual
hearth-stone of the New England farm. Perhaps this connection of
ideas, which had often occurred to me in my rambles about
Starkfield, caused me to hear a wistful note in Frome's words, and
to see in the diminished dwelling the image of his own shrunken
body.

"We're kinder side-tracked here now," he added, "but there was
considerable passing before the railroad was carried through to the
Flats." He roused the lagging bay with another twitch; then, as if
the mere sight of the house had let me too deeply into his
confidence for any farther pretence of reserve, he went on slowly:
"I've always set down the worst of mother's trouble to that. When
she got the rheumatism so bad she couldn't move around she used to
sit up there and watch the road by the hour; and one year, when they
was six months mending the Bettsbridge pike after the floods, and
Harmon Gow had to bring his stage round this way, she picked up so
that she used to get down to the gate most days to see him. But
after the trains begun running nobody ever come by here to speak of,
and mother never could get it through her head what had happened,
and it preyed on her right along till she died."

As we turned into the Corbury road the snow began to fall again,
cutting off our last glimpse of the house; and Frome's silence fell
with it, letting down between us the old veil of reticence. This
time the wind did not cease with the return of the snow. Instead, it
sprang up to a gale which now and then, from a tattered sky, flung
pale sweeps of sunlight over a landscape chaotically tossed. But the
bay was as good as Frome's word, and we pushed on to the Junction
through the wild white scene.

In the afternoon the storm held off, and the clearness in the west
seemed to my inexperienced eye the pledge of a fair evening. I
finished my business as quickly as possible, and we set out for
Starkfield with a good chance of getting there for supper. But at
sunset the clouds gathered again, bringing an earlier night, and the
snow began to fall straight and steadily from a sky without wind, in
a soft universal diffusion more confusing than the gusts and eddies
of the morning. It seemed to be a part of the thickening darkness,
to be the winter night itself descending on us layer by layer.

The small ray of Frome's lantern was soon lost in this smothering
medium, in which even his sense of direction, and the bay's homing
instinct, finally ceased to serve us. Two or three times some
ghostly landmark sprang up to warn us that we were astray, and then
was sucked back into the mist; and when we finally regained our road
the old horse began to show signs of exhaustion. I felt myself to
blame for having accepted Frome's offer, and after a short
discussion I persuaded him to let me get out of the sleigh and walk
along through the snow at the bay's side. In this way we struggled
on for another mile or two, and at last reached a point where Frome,
peering into what seemed to me formless night, said: "That's my gate
down yonder."

The last stretch had been the hardest part of the way. The bitter
cold and the heavy going had nearly knocked the wind out of me, and
I could feel the horse's side ticking like a clock under my hand.

"Look here, Frome," I began, "there's no earthly use in your going
any farther-" but he interrupted me: "Nor you neither. There's been
about enough of this for anybody."

I understood that he was offering me a night's shelter at the farm,
and without answering I turned into the gate at his side, and
followed him to the barn, where I helped him to unharness and bed
down the tired horse. When this was done he unhooked the lantern
from the sleigh, stepped out again into the night, and called to me
over his shoulder: "This way."

Far off above us a square of light trembled through the screen of
snow. Staggering along in Frome's wake I floundered toward it, and
in the darkness almost fell into one of the deep drifts against the
front of the house. Frome scrambled up the slippery steps of the
porch, digging a way through the snow with his heavily booted foot.
Then he lifted his lantern, found the latch, and led the way into
the house. I went after him into a low unlit passage, at the back of
which a ladder-like staircase rose into obscurity. On our right a
line of light marked the door of the room which had sent its ray
across the night; and behind the door I heard a woman's voice
droning querulously.

Frome stamped on the worn oil-cloth to shake the snow from his
boots, and set down his lantern on a kitchen chair which was the
only piece of furniture in the hall. Then he opened the door.

"Come in," he said; and as he spoke the droning voice grew still...

It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to
put together this vision of his story.

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