From Ethan to Ethan Frome
You might have read my fiction, my diaries or my dream diaries and noticed that I wrote extensively about a man named Ethan McMillan. Ethan McMillan is not his real name—it is one I made up. In any case, he was not available for comment on the publication of any of my works so I decided to give him an alias. I wanted to respect his privacy while still being free to express my experiences and emotions. Ethan played a central role in my life and my spiritual journey, so I couldn’t edit him out all together as Anais Nin edited her husband Hugo out of her original diaries. However, there were reasons I choose the alias that I did.
I realized that, in some ways, I could never accurately portray the real person. Though I write about our actual interactions as well as imagined ones, I wrote knowing that perhaps the Ethan in my diaries is as much a character as he was in my story Wings of Desire.
Anyway, I choose his last name McMillan because it was similar to McMullen and both names are Gaelic Irish/Scottish in origin. There was a movie named The Brothers McMullen that came out in 1995, although, I didn’t see the movie until 1999. It was about three Irish Catholic Brothers who grapple with both family and romantic relationships. Since my Ethan was Irish and Catholic, it seemed appropriate.
The novel Ethan Frome was another inspiration. The novel was published in 1911 by the American author Edith Wharton. Ethan is the main character. He is a 52 year old farmer whose family has lived and died on the same Massachusetts farm for generations. Ethan has a deep, almost mystical appreciation of nature and he is sensitive. He feels a strong connection to the youth, beauty, and vital spirit of Mattie Silver, his wife’s cousin. However, he ultimately lacks the inner strength necessary to escape the oppressive forces of convention, climate, and his sickly wife.
Major themes in Ethan Frome include silence, isolation, illusion, and the consequences of living according to the rules of society. Each of the three major characters is trapped by his/her own silence. Illusion is an important theme in the novel. It is illusion allows Ethan, Zeena and Mattie a way to escape from the reality of the silent and isolated lives they lead.
My Ethan is aptly named. Though he did not live on a farm at the time I met him, he did grow up on one. And although he made his living talking, it seemed that he was strangely silent when it came to personal matters. His silence on his feelings for me—whatever they were or weren’t—spoke volumes. Ethan was isolated because of his many obligations—there was little time to have any real meaningful conversations or interactions with people. He wasn’t physically isolated from the world, but he was emotionally cut off from himself and his passions.
Mattie dreams of spending her life with Ethan and Ethan wants to spend his life with her. Ironically, their illusion of love becomes a twisted reality. She does spend her life with Ethan, but as an invalid cared for by Zeena, not as Ethan’s wife, as she had imagined.
I am most like Mattie in the story, but I never actually physically spent my life with Ethan. However, I was stuck with him haunting my dreams and remaining in my thoughts forever. We never had a physical relationship and Ethan eventually cut off all contact—because of his wife I’d imagine. So, I am isolated from Ethan even if he remains with me in a way. And I am sure whatever feelings he had isolated him from his wife and family as well.
The message that Wharton conveys through Ethan is that when people fear they are violating the rules of society, they risk becoming enslaved by those rules. Ethan doesn’t leave his wife because he feels bound by his marriage vows.
My Ethan was bound by his strict Catholic upbringing. As he once told me, divorce just wasn’t done in his family. He didn’t want to risk his wife divorcing him even if there was a connection there. An affair would have been scandalous and perhaps he would have even been disowned, so it was better not to even place himself in a position to be tempted. The society and family he lived in did not allow him to even entertain any fantasies of being with anyone else but his wife. His obligation and sense of duty kept him from not only being truthful with me, but himself as well.
Some say there are hints of the Gothic Romance genre in novel even though there are no supernatural elements to be found. The color red and the symbols of death scattered throughout the novel are undercurrents or subtexts. The death is not a literal one for the characters, but an emotional one. Their hopes and dreams die while they are still very much trapped in their lonely lives that are led with quiet desperation. It is a sad novel overall, but then my relationship with my Ethan didn’t have a happy ending either. Ethan Frome is a perfect pretext or subtext for my own life and my own story when you take the time to think about it.