Pages

Search This Blog

Saturday, November 15, 2003

"BROTHERS UNDER THE SKIN: ACHEBE ON HEART OF DARKNESS."

Fleming, Bruce. "BROTHERS UNDER THE SKIN: ACHEBE ON HEART OF DARKNESS." College Literature, 00933139, Oct92-Feb93, Vol. 19/20, Issue 3/1

Brothers Under the Skin: Achebe on Heart of Darkness, explains the viewpoint of the author, Bruce Fleming, and his fundamental agreement with Achebe’s lecture in 1975 on the Heart of Darkness. Achebe believed the Conrad was racist, not just in his portrayal of the natives, but also in the “denial of common “humanity” to the Africans.” In other words, Conrad was focusing on the differences between the indigenous people’s and the Europeans, but he in no way portrayed the natives in the way he represented the Europeans. We never read of the thoughts and feelings or observations of the “Black forms,” they were barely characterized as humans.

Fleming disagrees with Achebe that novelists can forgo entirely this methodology of character representation and that other writers (Watts, Weeks, Naipaul, Thiong, and Brantlinger) hold opposing views with Achebe. Fleming gives a brief explanation of the stance each writer takes; however, the focus is approximately a summary of the lecture by Achebe. For readers who do not understand the connection Achebe’s writings have to Conrad’s work, Fleming’s article will clarify that relationship.

One of the strongest arguments that Achebe makes is that not even the most powerful Africans have command of speech in Heart of Darkness. “The only time Conrad allows them speech… they express themselves in a caricature of English… “Mistah Kurtz-he dead.”’ He uses this example in his lecture, using the pidgin within the confines of his formal elocution, to emphasize the difference between Conrad’s depiction and reality.

Fleming goes to deconstruct the speech (“diction and syntax”) and choice of story lines of Achebe’s lecture and his writing. He investigates Achebe’s premeditation in enabling the Europeans to comprehend Ibo concepts and customs and acknowledge them because they are contained in verbal communications the Europeans will appreciate.

"Colonizers, Cannibals, and the Horror of Good Intentions in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness."

-- Literary Research 03f Honakerl [ Conrad Bibliography ]
Kaplin, Carola M. "Colonizers, Cannibals, and the Horror of Good Intentions in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Studies in Short Fiction, Summer97, Vol. 34 Issue 3, p323, 11p;




The journal article, Colonizers, Cannibals, and the Horror of Good Intentions in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, makes the distinction between truth and lies in the "self and the other," from Marlow's perspective. The "other," is what draws colonialism, it has an attractive power. Marlow's opinions, that there is a " clear distinction between lies and truth, turns out to be a fallacy because everything is turned upon its head. Carola M. Kaplan, the author, discusses the "other" and makes a claim that our unconscious drives us to "contain" unknown lands, and people that are terrifying by their differences to the colonizing society. Kaplan further states that this impulse is rooted in our childhood and is played out in the two types of texts in colonialist literature; the "imaginary" and the "symbolic." It suggests that that Marlow's view is "imaginary" while Conrad's view is "symbolic."

Kaplan’s examination of the text includes illumination of the “Binary Oppositions” that the character of Marlow represents. Marlow, “detest and avoids lies, yet acknowledges three separate lies in the course of the narrative- to the station manager, to Kurtz, and to the intended.” Marlow offers up his principles and values, but throughout the text, he contradicts himself. Observations he makes to the listeners reveal his true moral reality. According to Kaplan, Marlow is “self-deluding.” He tries to disconnect the actions of the natives from the actions of the Europeans, but “many of his distinctions blur.” Marlow also seeks to “denigrate women.”

He “downplays his aunt’s power,” even though Marlow could not gain employment without her. Marlow feels that the old woman with the cat is “most improper.” His “glib generalizations about women,” are his “attempts to deny the power of the “other”.” Marlow’s imagery of the natives and women are “reductive.” In the case of the “savage” woman, he “highlights her beauty, leadership, and ferocity,” but attributes her directly with the downfall of Kurtz. He views her as a threat and the force that, according to Kaplan, “ has claimed Kurtz for its harem.” His admiration of the cannibal’s restraint is embedded in the term “cannibal,” which is deliberately connotative of violence. We never see evidence of cannibalism. He uses this term to “justify intrusion, usurpation, and conversion.” Marlow’s language when applied to the natives is designated to take away their human attributes. They are “criminals,” “enemies,” and “dark forms.” Marlow’s conventional account of the women and the natives “enables him to deny both their importance for him and his affinity with them.”

Marlow’s attempts to divide the world of the Congo from the drawing room world of the “intended,” falls far short. He felt, “a sensation of panic in my heart as though I had blundered into a place of cruel and absurd mysteries not fit for a human being to behold.” We see similar sentiment when he is describing the dark clearing where the criminals had retired to die. Kaplan makes the interesting point that the world of the drawing room is a simple reflection of the madness of the Congo and of the outer world. It grows darker and more menacing, “more connected with evil.” He attempts to blur class distinction on the boat “ in which a plain seaman rubs elbows with a lawyer and director of companies,” but his narrative purposely points out the differences that exist even “in the jungle class where barriers exist between colonial officials and working men such as mechanics and boiler-makers.”

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Mother-child relationships in Flannery O'Connor's Stories

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor contain some of the most depressing, tragic, depictions of familial relations that I have ever read. O’Connor paints mothers in an unflattering light, not only from the eyes of their children, but also from the narrator’s point of view. To be fair, the children, both young and old, receive no mercy either; she displays their faults openly, leaving their selfishness and apathy out on a platter for us to digest.
The six stories selected for reading contain themes that suggest that the mothers are stubborn and willfully override the wishes of their children. They are full of pride in their own accomplishments, and most always believe that they are right and their children are wrong. The mothers tend to view their children as adolescents, rather than grown adults, they make excuses to the world about why their children are so indifferent and unable to make their own way. Some are mothers that sacrifice all for their children, so that they may better themselves. In return, the children view their mothers with disdain that goes far beyond the “know it all” stage. Indeed, some know too much to be of any use to anyone. Throughout these following stories, we see mothers that believe they are clever, put forth their own ideas and plans in both passive and overt forms. The children do the same. This lack of generosity and understanding, combined with their need to punish one another, leads to the downfall of all. The biblical sin of pride peppers each story and exposes it as a destructive force.
In “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, we glean that the grandmother apparently loves her son, but persistently uses her wits to get her own way. She is not interested in what Bailey wants, she turns each event into a situation where she knows better than he about what course to take. She does not blatantly say Bailey is wrong; the grandmother uses subtle, prideful, innuendo instead:
“ I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”
“In my time…children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else.”
“There was a secret panel in the is house,” she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were”… "It’s not far from here, I know… It wouldn’t take over twenty minutes.”
The grandmother knows exactly which buttons to push on her grandchildren; she realizes that her attempts to guide the trip will meet a challenge in Bailey, but that he is reachable through his children. After she realizes her mistake, rather than confess she hides her unintended crime and becomes the instrument of death for the whole family. She is unable to admit that she was wrong. When she recognizes the Misfit, she does not contain herself, but acts like the kid in school that always knows the answer. She must proclaim her knowledge of him and even preens before him with her “clean handkerchief” and the delusion that he “wouldn’t shoot a lady”.
The nature of a short story does not permit many details, so we receive the explanation of Bailey’s relationship with his mother, through the actions of his children. They feel free to mock her:
“If you don’t want to go to Florida, why doncha stay at home?”
“She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day, June Star said without raising her yellow head. … Afraid she’s miss something.”
If Bailey had any respect for his mother, his children would have echoed that respect in their dealings with their grandmother. It is quite clear that they do not. Respect for mothers is not high on O’Connor’s list here. When the grandmother sees The Misfit about to cry, she likens him to one of her own children and that is his breaking point, he shoots her in response. This is the least likely action we expect at this moment for whom would shoot their own mother? In this group of short stories, it is not unthinkable at all. Another point that I found ironic was that the grandmother was ready for death on the highway because she was dressed properly, as if that was the most important preparation for death rather than having a peaceful relationship with her son.
The narrator shows the grandmother’s low opinion of Bailey’s wishes through her action of bringing the cat with her even though she knows her son will disapprove. She reveals her prideful nature. “She asked Bailey if he would like to dance but he only glared at her. He didn’t have a naturally sunny disposition like she did.” It may be just one line, but within the brief confines of a short story, every word is deliberate and takes on a more important meaning.
The old woman in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”, treats her thirty-something daughter as a young girl. We do not have a family backdrop in this story to learn how the mother and the daughter get along, but we do have the observations of Mr. Shiftlet, brief as they are.
“ Mr. Shiftlet said that the trouble with the world was that nobody cared, or stopped and took any trouble. He said he never would have been able to teach Lucynell to say a word if he hadn’t cared and stopped long enough.”
This statement exposes Lucynell capable of learning, but her own mother did not take the “trouble” and kept her mental level low to suit her own needs. Her needs are to have someone to take care of the things that she cannot handle.
“The old woman is “ravenous for a son-in-law”.
Her daughter is the “sweetest girl in the world” because “She can sweep the floor, cook, wash, feed the chickens, and hoe”. The old woman does not mind Mr. Shiftlet teaching her daughter because she is sure that she can lure him to stay and marry Lucynell and still come out the winner in the deal. “ Any man come after her,” the old woman said, “ll have to stay around the place.”
The story explores the theme of pride; the old woman is quite sure of her actions and believes she is shrewd.
“She could tell, even from a distance, that he was a tramp and no one to be afraid of.”
“Lemme tell you something: there ain’t any place in the world for a poor disabled friendless drifting man.”
The description Mr. Shiftlet gives of his life’s wanderings mirrors that of The Misfit in the previous story. Here we get a foreshadowing that tragedy will strike again but that the old woman is not privy to our knowledge. When we watch scary movies, we know where the killer is lurking, and the victim does not, so we feel like screaming, “don’t open that door!” Of course, they cannot hear us, and we look at them in disbelief that they could be so stupid about such transparent situations.
There are other mother-child relationships depicted in this story, that of the young boy who runs away from his mom and that of Mr. Shiftlet with his own mother. When Mr. Shiftlet starts speaking about how wonderful mothers are, it resembles a parody. Because we know him to be a criminal, we get the idea that his mother could not have actually taught him right from wrong. If he had enjoyed a mother’s love, he never could have destroyed the old woman’s life by throwing her only daughter away. The young boy, angry at this farce of a story, reveals the truth, as he knows it. “ My old woman is a flea bag and yours is a stinking pole cat!” His relationship with his own mother is so far gone that references to motherhood do not touch him but serve only to inflame his fury
Joy is the primary focus of O’Connor’s derision in “Good Country People”. A Disabled girl in her thirties who “slams” about the house, Joy is constantly trying to annoy her mother. Her name is ironically, the antitheses of her behavior. She received her PH.D. However, she was as useless as if she had never received any schooling at all. While her mother makes excuses for Joy’s consistently rude behavior, Joy does everything in her power to avoid her mother and put everyone around her down.
“Woman! Do you ever look inside and see what you are not?”
“She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.”
“One of her major triumphs was that her mother had not been able to turn her dust in Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn it herself into Hulga.”
Joy reacts with complete contempt towards their Bible salesman, which admittedly, he deserves, but she does not act this way out of suspicion for his character, this is the way she treats everyone. In the end, she gets what she deserves, believing herself above “good country people, like her mother before her, she is shown how unenlightened she is herself. Her fantasy of seducing him becomes the nightmare of reality. He is much smarter than she will ever be and the loss of her leg is a metaphor for the greater loss of her pride. The phrase “good country people” means to keep people in their “place”. Mrs. Hopewell uses it to remind everyone that she is in power, while appearing to be extolling the virtues of her hired help. Joy uses it to try to shame Manly Pointer into giving her the leg back. Mrs. Hopewell, in her charity, or actually, her desire to point out how noble she could be to her daughter, invites the “salt of the earth” in to dine.
In “The Comforts of Home,” we read of yet another mother who unwisely invites a criminal into the home. She uses her charity as an example to her son, when challenged by Thomas about his mother’s ability to help this girl, his mother turns it back on him by proclaiming that she would want someone to help her son if he was in trouble. Thomas uses his mother’s “charity”, as a device to make her appear ridiculous. They both are so busy trying to make each other look wrong, that they allow tragedy to stalk them.
“ She proceeded always from the tritest of considerations-it was the nice thing to do- into the most foolhardy engagements with the devil, whom of course, she never recognized.”
This recurring theme of stubborn, vain, women is quite prominent in O’Connor’s stories, Julian’s mother in “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” is knocked down by the Black woman because she is trying to force her outdated view of benevolence on the little boy, just as she has always done with her own son. Determination to have her way over that of the “scrub-human” is what kills Mrs. May in “Greenleaf”, not the bull. Their smugness and self-importance blind them to reality. Julian’s mother has subjugated her life in favor of her son’s but he despises her anyway. He revels in her realization that a black woman has the same social status as his mother and can sit in the same place and wear the same clothing. O'Connor paints Julian with the same vain brush as his mother, he only attempts to make conversation with Blacks of social stature, and they see right through his pathetic attempts. He shows no concern for his mother after the other woman punches her; he relentlessly pursues teaching her a lesson that he himself has not learned. Mrs. May cannot expect her children to be helpful if she edifies their social position. She has taught them to be above those whom work for her and they cannot seek that level because they know she views the Greenleaf boys with disdain. She prefers to look askew at Mr. Greenleaf’s sons. No matter how successful and hardworking his sons are, Mrs. May will not forget where they came from. Her own boys, who are mostly apathetic and show no desire to help her, she views as superior. It is a warped view that she has perpetuated in her offspring.
O’Connor’s stories present mothers in such a vivid, negative light that it becomes quite hard to identify or sympathize with most of them. They remind us how our daily sins of pride can hurt our relationships with our children. Certain children, in an effort to be anything but what their parents were, go overboard and became the exactly opposite of what the mothers intended. Some of these women, who view themselves as superior to those less fortunate, wind up stuck with children who act the same way as they themselves do and like their children less for the experience. Most of the characters in these stories are unlikable and have few redeeming qualities. O’Connor appears to be showing us such bad examples of mothers and children in an effort to point out a better path for us to follow.

Sources:
O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1962
Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989 (ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner), Additions 1993-7 (ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner; Michael Proffitt), and 3rd ed. (in progress) Mar. 2000- (ed. John Simpson). OED Online. Oxford University Press. http://dictionary.oed.com
Hacker, Diane A Writers Reference. 5th ed. Boston & New York Bedford/ST. MARTIN’s 2003

Friday, June 13, 2003

The Age of Innocence

Whoever accused Edith Wharton of writing The Age of Innocence without a “strong male character” is not entirely right. To be sure, the main character, Newland Archer, is not one of them, however, there are a few men in the story that I view as particularly arrogant and self-assured. While most of the strong characters in this story are female, Wharton does manage to allow a few men to shake their fists at convention.
Julius Beaufort is a disgraceful philanderer who chases Ellen Olenska openly and relentlessly. He apparently shows no remorse for his unconventional behavior and his offspring appear to marry well in spite of him. The financial scandals connected with his name do nothing to keep his heirs from society. He is a man who lives what he feels and is perhaps the strongest male in this book. He rules his household with an iron fist and his wife had “the most distinguished house in New York”. After his wife dies, he marries his former mistress, Miss Fanny Ring. Beaufort does not have great social power like Henry van der Luyden, who sets conventions instead of following them. Actually, Henry is the safe-keeper of the old standards while having the power to change them.
Lawrence Lefferts, The "model of form" in Newland Archer’s narrow little world, is stronger than Archer, though he outwardly practices “Form,” all the while he is flaunting the rules and cheating on his wife. It is of note that the stronger men in this story cheat on their wives while the weaker men, such as Archer, do not manage the act. It makes me wonder if that is what Wharton intended us to discover. The freedom from restraint that is part and parcel of adultery has been attached to Wharton’s own name; This makes me suspect that either she wanted to cheat on her husband or that he cheated on her.
If Archer were a strong character, he would set the social pace, not follow it. I do not think it was weak of Archer to become annoyed at the attention his fiancé was receiving in the opera box; it is natural that he would not want any hint of a scandal connected to his future bride.
Where he does show weakness is in his early announcement of their engagement. Wanting to protect his fiancé is one thing; to rearrange his life to suit convention is another. It is an ironic situation, for the book opens with an explanation of how he loves to mull over coming delights. Yet, in this situation, he robs himself of that pleasure and announces his betrothal on the same day that May Welland accepts his offer.
Newland is not able to tell the truth to May at the Beaufort’s ball, instead of solidifying their upcoming union by trusting her with his inner thoughts about Madame Olenska, he chooses to protect her and perpetuate the ongoing myth that May is an innocent.
In chapter five Archer suddenly feels sympathetic towards Ellen and insists that she and all women should be free. However, he does not follow this statement up with any real action. He is merely testing his sticky wings a bit in the relative comfort of his own environs. At home, anything he says is likely accepted because he is the power in that environment, however, out in public he shrinks from such rash thoughts and actions.
When Newland begins to doubt his upcoming marriage to May, it is a moment of weakness; it does not make him weak character. It is a merely a psychological mountain that many newly engaged young men must ascend. He reminds me of a leaf caught on the surface of a stream; he is carried wherever the main flow takes him. Every time the scene changes, Newland undergoes a brief transformation into yet another character, sometimes inflexible, like his peers and sometimes liberated, like Madame Olenska. This is what makes him a weak character.
He does not fixate on certain objectives and ideals; rather he mirrors the company that he keeps. This is his most critical flaw. From time to time, he fights against the predictability of his life, but he has no strength to stand up to May and rescind his marriage offer, or pursue Ellen after he learns that May is Pregnant. He is at the mercy of the women in his life, they present him with situations, and when he does have freedom of choice, he never chooses for himself but instead lets “fate” determine his life.
The women in this story share very strong characteristics. May boldly questions Archer about their upcoming nuptials and whether or not he still in love with Mrs. Rushworth, his former mistress. She manages to make Ellen Olensky leave the country by lying about her state of pregnancy, and her persistence of will manages to sooth Archer’s rough edges during the first six months of their marriage. She may play the innocent, but we recognize her for what she is, a clever young woman who will not lose her husband to her cousin. She forms an alliance with the strong women in her family to keep Archer out of the information loop.
Ellen is strong enough to leave her husband and his fortune. Her happiness is more important to her than convention. At the Van der Luyden reception for the Duke, Ellen follows her coda of acting against common practice by leaving the Duke’s side. We do not know if this is a deliberate act, though we guess it might be because she calls the Duke “Boring”, or if Ellen is simply unaware of the customs. After all, she has been away for quite some time and was raised by an eccentric aunt. She is a woman who speaks her mind and does not hide behind the double talk that everyone else in New York uses.
One would think, however, that she would know that it is inappropriate for her to repeatedly invite Newland to her home without his family and fiancé, yet she does it anyway. She issues a clear invitation to Newland at the theatre one night, “What do you do while May is away?” She knows whom she wants and is unafraid of getting him initially.
Ellen captivates Newland; she manages to make him feel that the notions of his society are backward. She easily changes his mind whenever they encounter one another and he becomes obsessed with her.
Mrs. Archer displays some strength in going to see Louisa van der Luyden. She is ready to risk appearing foolish and takes an active role in making the cousin of her son’s fiancé more acceptable to their society. She does not act on her own, but after “a painful period of inward resistance and outward temporizing”. She is not a very strong woman like Mrs. Manson Mingott, the grandmother of Ellen and May, whom is the most socially powerful woman in the book besides Louisa van der Luyden. She willfully built her home away from the rest of society, yet they still troop to her dinners even though the food is dismal. She directs her family’s lives, as matriarchs tend to do and her granddaughters are her supplicants; they seek her approval and monetary support. She is the hand behind many of the decisions in Ellen’s life. While she is the epitome of convention, she is also the one who “tried it on”, regarding allowing Ellen to come back into the family fold. Her and Beaufort were known for their “shortcuts through the conventions”.
The Van der Luydens, the Archers, and the Mingotts represent the kind of society that is scared of change, they have become stodgy and old fashioned. The critical “Form” that people like the Leffertses and the Wellands follow is their way of hiding behind silly conventions because they are too scared to venture out and enjoy themselves. They need someone else to take the risk first as in the case of the Van der Luydens who made Ellen welcome and in the case of Ellen being one of the first New York women to frequent the salon of Mrs. Struthers.
Perhaps Archer does not go to visit Ellen in the final chapter because of Dallas’ revelation that May knew of his passion for Ellen. Once again, it is May controlling Archer, even from the grave. The whole idea of Ellen was that she was free, from the conventions of society and completely unlike any of the boring aspects of Archer’s duty- filled life. To have his feelings validated by dead wife, only makes them less of what they were. Because they meet with approval, his feelings are no longer exciting or important. “Newland Archer, looking out of his hotel window at the stately gaiety of the Paris streets, felt his heart beating with the confusion and eagerness of youth.” May’s insidious stamp of approval is all Archer needs to put out that fire. Archer is also now afraid of Ellen, after all she has had half a lifetime of experiences that he had not and he doesn’t even feel like his attempts at conversation will do. She is an insurmountable idea, now that life with May has “softened” all of Newland’s “sharp edges”.
Many of Wharton’s novels appear to favor strong females such as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth and Zenobia Frome in Ethan Frome. The Age of Innocence is no exception. Wharton manages to portray a variety of strong women in this story. They control the life of Archer, without him realizing it. “Old Mrs. Mingott was delighted with the engagement, which being long foreseen by watchful relatives, had been carefully passed upon in family council”. Since men barely receive mention in relation to the women in this family, they are all dead and buried; the women make the decisions. “Mrs. Manson Mingott’s influence is great throughout her family.” At one point, Archer realizes that his power within the family is dead, because he no longer shares the “tribal” view, and that May has kept information from him and her conscience had not “protested.” The women in this book conduct the lives of their men and offspring with no guilt, they assume that they are the best judge of character and deportment and leave nothing to chance or “fate”.


Sources:

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence New York, Toronto, London, Sydney, and Auckland: Bantam Books, 1996

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Ethan Frome - Book Versus Movie

I think I enjoyed the book, Ethan Frome, written by Edith Wharton, much better than the movie. Patricia Arquette is one of my favorite actors and Liam Neeson is always good in whatever I have seen of him, but the story is tough to take in a movie form. It is not often that I go out to see a movie and want to leave the theatre in a sad mood. I guess I am always looking for the happy-ending. Indeed, that last line of the movie by Ruth Hale seems to try to give watchers hope that someday, everything will be all right for Ethan, but really it is an ineffectual little statement that does nothing at all. On the other hand, I enjoy books that make me cry. I find tragedy much easier to digest in a book form. Perhaps that is a narrow-minded view, but it is my preference. However, this is not my only reason for liking the book better, I feel that too much detail gets lost in movie versions and that the characters are not developed as much as they are in books.
There are many differences between the version written by Edith Wharton and the screenplay, written by Richard Nelson. The frame of the story changes, the narrator is not a minister who is told the entire story by his landlady Ruth. In the original story, he is an engineer, who gleaned bits of Ethan’s tragic story from many different sources and figured out the rest of the sad tale during his visit to the Frome farm. The movie version was a much simpler adaptation and does not take as much time to get into the flirtation between Ethan and Mattie. Moviegoers expect some action and even in this dreary, somber tale, the screenwriters are able to make it happen.
The nature of the movie did not allow us a glimpse of what was going on in Ethan Frome’s head. Only the dialogue and actions tell the story, leaving the watcher to complete the story in their own imaginations. Without reading the book first, I am not sure that I would have understood what exactly was going on. I felt that the scene in the store where Mrs. Hale was trying to remind Ethan of his’ wife’s sacrifices was comical. I just wanted to yell out at her, “woman! You go home to his house and take care of that woman! Then come talk to me about what he owes her.” This was a different encounter than the book version. The movie made this scene a judgmental one, Mrs. Hale saw Ethan buying Mattie a present was trying to make him feel bad. The book has takes on a completely different meaning,
“Beaming maternally on Ethan, she bent over to add: "I on'y just heard from Mr. Hale 'bout Zeena's going over to Bettsbridge to see that new doctor. I'm real sorry she's feeling so bad again! I hope he thinks he can do something for her. I don't know anybody round here's had more sickness than Zeena. I always tell Mr. Hale I don't know what she'd 'a' done if she hadn't 'a' had you to look after her; and I used to say the same thing 'bout your mother. You've had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome."
She gave him a last nod of sympathy while her son chirped to the horse; and Ethan, as she drove off, stood in the middle of the road and stared after the retreating sleigh. It was a long time since any one had spoken to him as kindly as Mrs. Hale.”
The fox and the poison were native only to the movie version, perhaps to give us an idea of how desperate the character of Mattie is or perhaps to make the story more exciting, it is hard to say. It does not help much because it makes you wonder why they had to smash into a tree at all, with the poison so handy.
Mattie in Wharton’s book is a much sunnier, optimistic character, she attempts to lighten Ethan’s load by leaving him the note “"Don't trouble, Ethan.” The Mattie in the movie is distinctly different, in her despair; she goes after the poison meant for the fox. She does not want to live as soon as she finds out that she must leave Ethan. The movie couple enjoys a more intimate relationship, we see Ethan going to Mattie in her bedroom, while in the book, and they only kiss in the kitchen.
The book offers a rounder view of Ethan than that of the movie, because we are privy to his inner dialogue. The movie shows an Ethan who had excellent prospects while the book mentions that he spent a brief time (a year) in vocational school. Ethan in the movie is less likable than in the book because he openly flirts with Mattie and because of their intimate relationship. The Ethan in the book, once he realizes that he will hurt people to get away with Mattie, makes the more noble choice. This make us sympathize with him The movie version shows Mattie as the decision maker whilst the book has Ethan making that crucial decision. The movie exposes Ethan not making any decisions at all really; except for the way he treats Mattie. The book reveals so much more of Ethan’s inner struggle that we are aware that he is trying to make decisions in spite of Zeena’s overbearing control.
Zeena’s role, acted by Joan Allen, was perhaps the best in the movie. She looked exactly as I expected her to when I was reading about her, only better. The way she ate the pie, while saying that she had no appetite, gave me the impression that her sickness was the result of hypochondria. Even though the book explains this and the movie does not, her portrayal filled in the missing blanks here. She is a nasty piece of work who appears to make the all the decisions for everyone involved. The one sour note I found was that I could not imagine Ethan falling in love with her or wanting to marry her in the first place. She looked awful from the start. The movie omitted the inner communication that explained Ethan’s fear of silence if Zeena departed. It leaves us with the unbelievable impression that he found her attractive enough to marry just because he did not want to be lonely. Loneliness is a less powerful emotion than fear any day and it just was not convincing. The glances between Zeena and Ethan were nothing like the looks between Ethan and Mattie.
Neeson plays the part of Ethan quite convincingly, he re-creates Ethan’s tortured walk so well that I was wincing with each step he took. Nevertheless, he was not morose enough during the flashback scenes, he appeared like a man on the make, instead of the miserable husband, stuck with a wife he doesn’t love, in the Wharton version. The “smash-up” in the movie leaves a lot to the viewer’s imagination. We only have Mattie’s words that she “doesn’t want to ever leave this mountain” to base our assumptions on. The book leaves nothing to the imagination in this scene and again I have to wonder how much I would have understood if I had not read the book first. Her wishes were much clearer in the book. "Ethan! Ethan! I want you to take me down again!" "Down where?" "The coast. Right off," she panted. "So 't we'll never come up any more." "Matt! What on earth do you mean?" She put her lips close against his ear to say: "Right into the big elm. You said you could. So 't we'd never have to leave each other any more."
The book illustrates Ethan paying more attention to Mattie after he gets a warning from Zeena that Mattie will leave them to marry someone, they are kindred spirits from the start, but Ethan’s passions are inflamed when he feels a threat to their relationship. In the movie, there is a lack of set-up so we only see his attraction to Mattie from the start. The book meanders around quite a bit before it gets to the part where Zeena is jealous of Mattie’s effect on Ethan. “It was a fact that since Mattie Silver's coming, he had taken to shaving every day; but his wife always seemed to be asleep when he left her side in the winter darkness, and he had stupidly assumed that she would not notice any change in his appearance. Once or twice in the past he had been faintly disquieted by Zenobia's way of letting things happen without seeming to remark them, and then, weeks afterward, in a casual phrase, revealing that she had all along taken her notes and drawn her inferences. Of late, however, there had been no room in his thoughts for such vague apprehensions. Zeena herself, from an oppressive reality, had faded into an insubstantial shade.”
Mattie is described as not very useful in the book, she can trim a hat, recite a bit and play a few tunes on the piano, but the movie depicts a Mattie that Ethan is blown away by. He admires her talents in a very steamy scene.
The movie gives us a Zeena who is a sick individual; we can feel some pity for her for a while. The book coats her in a more negative light, she is the reason they cannot move away, while the lack of offers on the farm are a problem, the narrator leaves us in no doubt that Zeena became sick on purpose in order to remain in a area where she enjoyed some status. She is the reason Ethan is miserable, not her sickness.
The accents in the movie were surprising to me, Even though I knew it was located in New England, when I am reading a book, I rarely think about the accents. The book had language that was indicative of strong accents, but they were secondary to what was going on with the characters. The movie, and Mattie’s particularly strong accent, distracted me a bit from the story, but I found it charming anyway.
The ending of the movie was not as good as the ending of the book, the book depicts a clear trade-off of roles between Zeena and Mattie, while the movie does not show this as strongly. Since the role-reversal is such an integral part of the story, the movie could have developed this better. I will probably always enjoy books over movie translations for this very reason. Too much important detail gets lost in the transformation to film.
The transferring of Ethan Frome to film was artfully done and the moral issue remains, but it is not as rich of a tale as the one told by Wharton. Too much is taken for granted by the director, they seem to believe that if they get it, we do also, but sadly, that is not the case. While each form is open to individual interpretation, books will probably always get us closer to the author’s original intentions. I will admit one notable exception, I could never had understood the game of “Quidditch” from Harry Potter without seeing it in the movie version.

Sources:

Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome New York, New York: Penguin Putnam 2000
Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989 (ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner), Additions 1993-7 (ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner; Michael Proffitt), and 3rd ed. (in progress) Mar. 2000- (ed. John Simpson). OED Online. Oxford University Press. http://dictionary.oed.com

Ethan Frome Dir. John Madden
Perf. Liam Neeson, Patricia Arquette, Joan Allen
American Playhouse @ Theatrical Films and Miramax 1993

There was an error in this gadget