On Reading Well

Karen Swallow Prior

Ethan Frome 
Chapter Eight
By Edith Wharton

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

~Matthew 5:27-28

What is lust?  Is that a silly question? It might not be as simple as you think.  Chapter Eight of Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well examines the virtue of Chastity with examples drawn from Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.  

As Karen wrote

Ethan Frome’s lust embodies each of the kinds of lust the Bible warns against: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). David L. Allen explains that the Greek term for lust that is used in this passage carries the sense of being “hot after something,” and it denotes things sought apart from God. “Lust of the flesh” refers to the worldly desires of our corrupted human nature as opposed to the will of God. The phrase “describes what it means to live life dominated by the senses” and neglectful of spiritual things. “Lust of the eyes” refers to desires for the things we can see—whether material possessions, beautiful persons, or successful status—again, pursued apart from God’s will. It describes the condition of being consumed by outward appearances. Finally, “the pride of life,” Allen explains, “describes the arrogant spirit of self-sufficiency.”

In sum, lust of the flesh centers on temptations that originate within the body, with our inner appetites (sexual or otherwise), and lust of the eyes on temptations originating externally, with things we perceive and then desire to possess. The pride of life combines the two, appealing to the internal desire to be like God and seeking fulfillment of this through external shows of power. Each of these lusts is at work in Ethan. His story depicts how chastity involves the whole person and, within the context of a marriage, every aspect of the marriage: physical, emotional, and spiritual.

How do the various kinds of lusts work against chastity, both in Ethan Frome and in real life?

On Reading Well


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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life