I’ve just read this book for the first time and I think my heart is broken. I knew it wouldn’t end happily ever after. When I taught high school, I did Ethan Frome with my eleventh graders year after year. I love that book, and it broke my heart every time I reread it. So every time I thought things might end with passionate love prevailing in this book, I’d tell myself, no, this is the woman who wrote Ethan Frome! The last third of the book at least, I see-sawed up and down, hoping, knowing better, and hoping again. And yet it is the only ending for this tale.
The setting is New York City, about 1870, among the small elite society that Edith Wharton herself inhabited. Archer is engaged to be married to a lovely girl whom he hopes to lead to her potential as a self-aware, reflective woman. He wants more from her than the conventional smiles and the expected responses of a young woman in her milieu. Then he meets her cousin, who already is self-aware, reflective, and mildly unconventional. But Archer is himself bound by convention, and the cousin respects those constraints. Both are intent on doing what is right, and so their love has to be suppressed for the sake of the ingénue and all the aunts, uncles, and so on.
I’m not even sure they ever actually consummated their love even the one time they agreed would be the first and last encounter. I’ve just read it on a Kindle, and it’s hard to thumb back through and reread this passage, but Archer receives a key in the mail from the cousin and no more is intimated about the intimate encounter. Did they do it or not? It doesn’t much matter to the story, but it would sting a little less I guess if they had had at least one hour of satisfaction. Or not.
I suppose what hurts the most is not an unfilled romance. It’s the quiet desperation that ol’ Thoreau speaks of that pains me. Archer and the beloved cousin live with a large dose of that desperation, which made me sorrowful. But, as Archer accepts toward the end, perhaps that thwarted love has been the supporting piers of his life. Maybe a constant suffering beneath the ordinary joys and tribulations lend life a resonance and purpose that would have been lacking otherwise. Archer wanted a deeper existence than the superficial life expected of him. I guess the hidden pain at least gave him that.
If you’ve read it and had the same strong reaction, do tell me about it, please.