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Sex and Character

In a letter to her friend Bernard Berenson, Wharton called Ethan Frome a “large, long-legged hobbledehoy of a young novel” (qtd. in Lewis, Edith Wharton 297). Personifying it with a term the O.E.D. defines as a “clumsy or awkward youth” “between boyhood and manhood,” she described the novel in terms of sexual maturation: “I have let its frocks down every day, and soon it will be in trousers” (qtd. in Lewis, Edith Wharton 297). The story’s intended trajectory can be epitomized in the casting aside of “frocks” for “trousers,” in the hobbledehoy’s progressive shedding of boyhood for manhood characteristics. That narrative progression, Wharton claimed, is notable for its formal unity. “Only the narrator of the tale has the scope to see it all,” she praised the novel’s central consciousness in her introduction, “to resolve it back into simplicity” and to place Ethan Frome’s story “in its rightful place among his larger categories” (xxi). In contrast to the local village bystanders, the narrator achieves the complete “vision of Frome’s story,” resolving its multiplicity into the “simplicity” of received “categories” (xxi). Combining Wharton’s public and private remarks, we might conclude that sex is the most striking of the novel’s “categories,” and that “resolv[ing]” the dilemmas sex poses takes the form of narrative. 1 [End Page 707]

But for nearly every reader of Ethan Frome, the novel’s unexpected ending disrupts any such narrative “simplicity” or unity. At the story’s close, its unlucky hero Ethan is condemned to the misery of a loveless marriage, a disfigured cripple trapped in his maternal home with his two invalid cousins, Mattie and Zeena. Expecting the conclusion of sentimental fiction (his nagging, hypochondriac wife’s early death) or of tragedy (his suicide in the arms of his forbidden love), the reader instead discovers that Frome’s story has no resolution at all. Since Lionel Trilling’s indictment of the protagonist’s “inertia,” critics have continued to blame what Trilling called his “dumb endurance” in the face of “forces beyond his control” and to fault Frome’s moral weakness for this lack of closure (37). Frome’s paralysis has also been explained by Kenneth Bernard in terms of the novel’s “sexual symbolism” (182). In this account, the hero’s masculine sexual identity, initially inert, progressively emerges, as Bernard first noted: “Mattie, as Zeena never does, makes Ethan feel the springs of his masculinity” (184). Masculine sexual identity depends upon what another critic has called the “mobilizing of a particular image of woman” (Poovey 89). But when Zeena, who falls short of such an image, defeats Mattie, whose serene femininity had promised to secure Frome’s masculinity, Frome’s sexual development can be said, following Bernard, to be “crippled.” 2

Thus despite the centrality of personal, especially sexual, development to Ethan Frome, its curiously static ending reveals the unpredictable narrative itinerary of its protagonist’s maturation. Sexual transformations occur in sudden, fitful starts and stops, rather than in successive or progressive stages. Such mutability is perhaps most evident in the unexpectedly similar appearance of Mattie and Zeena, who elsewhere in the novel seem completely unalike, at the novel’s conclusion. Hearing the “whining” sound of the “high thin voice” that is characteristic of Frome’s shrewish wife, the narrator tries to match the voice to one of the two women, but finds that “he cannot tell which had been the speaker” (173, 175). The “bloodless and shrivelled face” whose “witchlike stare” peers out from the gaudy armchair with Zeena-like ghostliness is revealed to be Mattie, not Zeena (174). This abrupt transmutation of Mattie—whose femininity “makes Ethan feel” his “masculinity”—into Zeena—who “never does” provide such gender stabilization—makes characteristics like masculinity seem ephemeral and unstable (Bernard 184). Sex is not the culmination of a predictable [End Page 708] developmental narrative but undergoes mercurial fluctuations. When Frome’s manliness, like Mattie’s femininity, is abruptly and inexplicably stopped in its tracks at the tale’s close, the utter contingency of such attributes will seem to detach sex from narrative altogether...

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