Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Age of Innocence & Ethan Frome

I recently bought a historical fiction book about Edith Wharton that I've been wanting to read...The Age of Desire, if you're curious.  However, before I read it, I wanted to read a little bit of Edith Wharton's work for some background information.  So, I picked up The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome recently.  Really, I was just planning on reading The Age of Innocence because my SIL bought it for me for Christmas, but when I was finished I wanted another quick read and Ethan Frome is less than 200 pages.  How's that for quick?

What's funny is the similarities in these two stories.  The Age of Innocence's protagonist, Newland, struggles with his amorous feelings that develop for his fiancee/wife's cousin, the Countess Olenska.  Initially, Newland doesn't really want anything to do with the Countess Olenska other than helping his future wife's family welcome her into New York society.  The countess wants a divorce from her husband and the family is diligently attempting to dissuade her.  One of Newland's associates at work (he's a lawyer) ends up requesting that he, Newland, be the one to bring home to Countess Olenska that it would be such a poor decision.  And it works.

The majority of this novel explores the societal norms of New York society, especially the scandal a divorce could bring, but it also largely is a story of unrequited love.  Newland and the countess never fully consummate their relationship once the mutual feelings of love are shared between them.  In fact, I think Newland's wife is rather clever in how she manages to separate them...but, you'll have to read the book to find out how she does it.

Ethan Frome is very similar to The Age of Innocence in that while Ethan is married to Zeena, he falls in love with her cousin, Mattie, who has come to live with them because she is unmarried and Zeena is so sickly.  Therefore, Mattie attempts to clean and cook while carrying for her never-satisfied, hypochondriac cousin.  This story is a tragic story of unrequited love because in the end, all three are living together in despair.  In an attempt at dual suicide, on the night that Zeena has banished Mattie, Ethan and Mattie purposefully crash into an elm tree causing Mattie to be paralyzed and Ethan partially so, causing a permanent limp.  How perfectly horrific and sad...definitely a tragedy.

I'm currently reading The House of Mirth and once I've finished it, I'll probably eventually pick up The Age of Desire.  However, at this point I'm wondering if Edith Wharton had a real-life incident where her short-lived marriage to husband, Edward Wharton, had a "thing" for one of her cousins...

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