The Morality of Inertia

“The Morality of Inertia.” Essay in Great Moral Dilemmas in Literature, Past and Present, edited by Robert MacIver (New York: Harper and Bros., 1956).


A theological seminary in New York planned a series of lectures on “The Literary Presentations of Great Moral Issues,” and invited me to give one of the talks. Since I have a weakness for the general subject, I was disposed to accept the invitation. But I hesitated over the particular instance, for I was asked to discuss the moral issues in Ethan Frome. I had not read Edith Wharton’s little novel in a good many years, and I remembered it with no pleasure or admiration. I recalled it as not at all the sort of book that deserved to stand in a list which included The Brothers Karamazov and Billy Budd, Foretopman. If it presented a moral issue at all, I could not bring to mind what that issue was. And so I postponed my acceptance of the invitation and made it conditional upon my being able to come to terms with the subject assigned to me.

Ethan Frome, when I read it again, turned out to be pretty much as I had recalled it, not a great book or even a fine book, but a factitious book, perhaps even a cruel book. I was puzzled to understand how it ever came to be put on the list, why anyone should want to have it discussed as an example of moral perception. Then I remembered its reputation, which, in America, is very considerable. It is sometimes spoken of as an American classic. It is often assigned to high-school and college students as a text for study.

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