Ethan Frome - Edith Wharton Pathos for the sake of pathos.

Edith Wharton’s short classic is a snapshot of infatuation. Wharton masterfully depicts subtle longing and the oppressive loneliness experienced in an unhappy relationship. But, having recently read the Greek tragedicians, I couldn’t help wondering about whether the story was really a tragedy. The choices made by the characters were exactly that: choices. Maybe poor choices, but still just choices. There was no other fate propelling them to some sort of destiny that they rebelled against to their detriment. They were simply unhappy.

Though no unhappiness can be easily dismissed as simple, I had difficulty seeing what, if any, point Wharton was trying to make. I recently listened Jonathan Lethem on NPR regarding his new book in which he talks about the purpose of writing. The interviewer kept coming back to the idea that when he reads, he seeks out some purpose of the book, something that helps him understand the world in which he lives. Lethem, the son of visual artists, surprisingly disagreed.

“Can a book really do that?” he said, or words to that effect. Or, possibly more appropriately, should it? For Lethem, art is not about purpose; it is about creativity. To assign purpose makes art simply a utilitarian tool.

I’m not sure I agree, but I see Ethan Frome in that light. People may relate in various ways to the moments of desire and isolation, but one doesn’t walk away with anything more than the experience of reading it. The emotions are created, they are experienced vicariously, the book ends and you move on having experienced something. Maybe Wharton’s creation should be appreciated on its ability to craft those emotions, not on its ability to convey a purpose.

Or maybe I just couldn’t find anything else to say about it.