I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, New York, 1911, at page 1

At the turn of the twentieth century, a visiting engineer endures a harsh New England winter in a remote farming village. As he picks up his mail at the local post office, his curiosity is piqued by the striking appearance of Ethan Frome – a ruined, twisted hulk of a man whose grim expression conveys despairing resignation. After making casual inquiries with several locals, the engineer slowly begins to piece together the disturbing circumstances surrounding Ethan’s “accident” some twenty-four years earlier. 

Through the bleak setting of an impoverished and isolated rural farmhouse and an oppressive winter climate, Wharton examines the impact of our environment on our mental health. Ethan’s well-being is compromised by a lack of meaningful human connection and intellectual starvation. This is a theme that echoes for counsel regarding solitary confinement in our correctional facilities. 

The story is a case study of an emotionally abusive relationship. The manipulations of Ethan’s wife Zenobia serve as a stark reminder that harmful abuse may be psychological, as well as physical. The practice of law is as much about understanding human nature as it is mastering the law, and literature assists us in recognizing underlying patterns of behaviour. Zenobia is a prime example of individuals who use toxic psychological tactics to exert influence over others.

Wharton also reminds us that we have less control over our lives than we like to admit. As Ethan learns, life imposes burdens on us that are out of our control and influence the choices that we make. The neat and tidy narratives that we tell others are usually imposed after-the-fact upon the messier, more chaotic truth.

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