In Praise of Short Books: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome


I will probably never read Marlon James’ Man Booker Prize winning, A Brief History of Seven Killings. I am sure it’s an intelligent, well-written book, and I celebrate the Jamaican writer’s well-earned success. I also applaud the judges’ decision to award an experimental novel by a little known author about Jamaican gangs, drugs, violence and political ostracization. But I won’t read it. I won’t read it for the same reason that I probably won’t ever read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and I struggled through the first 100 pages of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch. Namely, A Brief History of Seven Killings is anything but brief; it’s 704 pages. I am a big fan of experimental literature, and I embrace the subject matter, but carrying 704 pages back and forth across the Channel while I commute on the Eurostar is never going to happen. And also, because I tend to finish what I start–an indication of how confused I found The Goldfinch as I gave up after those first 100 pages I don’t want to get trapped with 704 pages for the unforeseeable future.

The practicalities of preferring short books for the commute aside, I don’t know why all these long books get such applause. Most of today’s long books are long, not because length is necessary for the development of character or the denouement of plot. I am not against long books per se. I would read Dickens until the end of time. And George Eliot’s books with their vast sweep of culture and history played out through the lives of single characters are never too long. And there are contemporary writers, Robert Bolano’ 2666, to name just one essential read. But mostly, in a world where publishers don’t have the money to pay good editors, and the cult of the individual author as visionary is alive and well, we are too often asked to read 700-800 pages that should have been edited to half as many.

A book doesn’t need to be long to be masterpiece. I recently read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. It was the most satisfying 102 pages I have read in years. Why? Because it is superbly written, with every word carefully chosen to sculpt a world into which I am irresistibly drawn. Wharton’s 102 pages see the undoing of its three protagonists’ lives over the course of one year. And we learn the transformation of the New England community over two generations, the suffering of poverty, what it means to be trapped by the reality of routine, the consequences of one’s decisions. And all of this is mirrored in the inexorable environment that articulates Ethan.

The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations. (p. 14)

We feel the chill in the ice cold winter air of a rural New England Sunday. And there is no wondering about the reach of this frigid world: it so perfectly describes the loveless marriage of Ethan to Zeena. Or the tension between Ethan and Mattie as it is caught in the leap of the cat into Zeena’s chair on the night he is left alone with the young woman. The desperation of New England winter, the poverty of a man who at one time had dreamed of a better life, Ethan’s living death on his struggling farm.

Wharton’s 102 pages are complete with flashbacks and a whole hundred years of family history, we learn about Mattie’s family, about the characters in the village, about the devastating fall that Ethan has on the sleigh – it’s a fall that not only cripples him, but further imprisons him, takes away all hope of love and joy and light that might otherwise have come his way. Every move, every gesture, every falling snow flake is so filled with a depth of expansive meanings that Wharton doesn’t need another 600 pages to complete the devastation of her story.

Wharton has a way of using language to make it full, round, bursting with significances that are nowhere found in the words themselves. And she achieves a temporal reach with the same words: it feels like an eternity passes across the course of the book – but we share only one year in Ethan’s life. Why would I need to struggle through 700 pages when I can read Ethan Frome and revel in the sumptuous world of a literary genius? And when I come up for air I am a different person for having experienced Ethan’s tribulations and Wharton’s storytelling.

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