Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
Study Guides on Works and Writers
(New York: Scribners, 1911)
Born into a well-to-do New York family, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was an astute observer of old New York society. She came of age accustomed to travels throughout Europe; in fact, she often appeared far more at ease in Europe than in America. In Europe she could escape the role of debutante that plagued her in her native New York. From early on a shy, imaginative, and intellectual child, Wharton found both Europe and literature havens from the encroachment of such a social and invasive lifestyle that was New York at the time. While many of her novels (for example, The House of Mirth, 1905; The Custom of the Country, 1913; and The Age of Innocence, 1920) focus upon the countless nuances and limitless strata of class distinctions and rules, there is a novella that emerges like a diamond in the rough amid these other novels: Ethan Frome. To use Wharton’s own imagery, Ethan Frome and its characters are like “granite outcroppings,” rarely noticed and often inarticulate but present and enduring nonetheless. Wharton wrote a book a year in the twenty-six years of her life after Ethan Frome. She died of a heart attack on 11 August 1937 at her eighteenth-century house in Saint-Brice-sous-Foret and is buried in the American cemetery in Versailles, France.
Ethan Frome was first published serially in Scribner’s Magazine in the summer of 1911. It was published in book form in September of that year, and its relative lack of success was one reason Wharton ended her partnership with the house of Scribner. With the recent revival of interest in her writings, however, Ethan Frome has attracted renewed attention. There was a 1993 film based on the novella. Although set in the fictional village of Starkfield, Massachusetts, the novella was written while Wharton resided in Paris, and the first draft was crafted in French as an exercise in improving her language proficiency. It was later translated into English by Wharton as her marriage was dissolving and during her affair with Morton Fullerton. Torn between a life of literary, cultural, and sexual freedom and life with her often ill, mentally troubled, and extremely nervous husband, Wharton created one of her most haunting characters, Ethan Frome.
Told within a frame narrative, Ethan Frome is the tale of a disturbingly stark love triangle: Ethan Frome; his wife, Zenobia (Zeena); and Zeena’s young cousin, Mattie Silver. Ethan married Zeena after she cared for his mother until her death. Alone on the stark Massachusetts farm, Ethan turned to Zeena for companionship, but he soon discovered that she was not nearly as stoic and strong as he thought. She is frequently sick and helpless, testing every new medical treatment and offering little comfort to Ethan. To help out, Mattie has come to live with the Fromes and she does what she can to earn her keep. Soft and spirited, Mattie is the antithesis of Zeena, and Ethan falls deeply in love with her. Upon discerning the truth of the situation, Zeena sends Mattie away and hires a girl to replace her. Ethan is trapped in this situation. On the way to the train station, Ethan and Mattie decide to commit suicide by sledding down the mountain and smashing into a large elm. The sledding scene, perhaps the most famous in all of Wharton’s fiction, turns grotesquely wrong. Ethan is left disfigured and limping, and Mattie is left paralyzed; both are left at the mercy of Zeena, who ironically becomes their caregiver. All three are trapped in the bleak house with their squandered hopes and dreams.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. One of the most structurally adept features of the novella is Wharton’s use of a frame tale. The opening and closing of the novella is narrated by an unnamed outsider in Starkfield on business. Frequently seeing Ethan, with his limp and his austere and silenced countenance, he cannot help but wonder about Ethan and his story. One evening Ethan offers to lodge the narrator at his home for the night. The opening frame ends with the narrator’s remark: “It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story.” The reader is swept along by the tale that the narrator constructs, often forgetting that it is a “vision” only. The truth of Ethan’s life is never revealed. In her introduction, Wharton notes that each of her “chroniclers contributes to the narrative just so much as he or she is capable of understanding of what, to them, is a complicated and mysterious case; and only the narrator of the tale has scope enough to see it all, to resolve it back into simplicity, and to put it in its rightful place among his larger categories.” By the close of the novella, the narrator has gleaned some scattered facts, but the questions remain: Is the story constructed by the narrator accurate and true, and if so, does it matter?
- 2. In addition to her masterful use of the frame device, Wharton also achieves an extremely powerful counterpoint to her own life experiences. Both Ethan and Wharton are caught in marriages that they desperately wish to escape. Wharton, who eventually divorced her mentally ill husband, struggled to earn a place in a New York society that prized women as wives and mothers, not as artists and thinkers. Ethan too had dreams before he married Zeena. With an interest in engineering, Ethan had hoped to move to Florida and follow his passion. Marriage to Zeena forced him to change his plans. As the narrator imagines, “She chose to look down on Starkfield, but she could not have lived in a place which looked down on her. Even Bettsbridge or Shadd’s Falls would not have been sufficiently aware of her, and in the greater cities which attracted Ethan she would have suffered a complete loss of identity.” In addition, both Ethan and Wharton were trapped caring for mates who suffered countless debilitating illnesses. The sole difference between them is that Wharton escapes and Ethan does not.
- 3. This novella also prefigures the modernist juxtaposition of the individual and the group. Faced with sending Mattie away because of the plotting of a jealous Zeena, Ethan considers leaving Zeena and running away with Mattie to the West, fulfilling his own desires and needs. He even goes so far as to write Zeena a goodbye letter. Ethan’s conscience, however, will not allow him to go through with the plan. Because Zeena would be left on a farm she could not work or sell, Ethan realizes his fate will be to live out the rest of his days with her. Not until Mattie suggests suicide by sledding into the tree can Ethan conceive of a plausible escape from his fate.
- 4. Finally, one of the most significant features of the novella is Wharton’s description of a hostile environment as setting. Ethan Frome is packed with connections between nature and the fates of the characters. A freak sickness of the town horses first introduces the narrator to Ethan. A terrible snowstorm provides an opportunity to discover Ethan and his home life at first hand. The cold snows of Starkfield blanket the town, creating an eerie silence that is mimicked and rivaled only by the starkness and silence of the Frome household. Even the cucumber vines outside the Frome home are withered and dying, much like Zeena and eventually Mattie and Ethan. As Wharton herself notes, “I had had an uneasy sense that the New England of fiction bore little—except a vague botanical and dialectical—resemblance to the harsh and beautiful land as I had seen it.” She feared that “the outcropping granite” had “been overlooked.” The characters in Ethan Frome are like the “granite outcroppings,” inarticulate and easily ignored, but worthy of attention.
- 5. Wharton offers a realistic representation of rural New England life in the novella, which she was at pains to distinguish from the more sentimental treatments of the region by Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. She attains a perspective on her characters missing in her previous work. In addition, she provides a glimpse into her own life.
Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton (New York: Knopf, 2007).
The first British biography of Wharton, demonstrating both her modernism and her ties to Europe.
Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977; revised edition, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1985).
A psychobiography that traces Wharton’s development as a writer.
Elizabeth Ammons, Edith Wharton’s Argument with America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980).
Discusses Wharton’s fiction in the context of feminism or “the Woman Question.”
Ammons, “The Myth of Imperiled Whiteness and Ethan Frome,” New England Quarterly, 81 (March 2008): 5-33.
An analysis of the “largely hidden” racist and anti-immigrant subtext of the novella.
Kenneth Bernard, “Imagery and Symbolism in Ethan Frome,” College English, 23 (December 1961): 178-184.
Argues that, given her cast of inarticulate characters, Wharton solved the problem of portraying them “in a masterful way by her use of imagery and symbolism.”
Denise D. Knight, ed., Ethan Frome and Summer: Complete Texts with Introduction, Historical Contexts, Critical Essays (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004).
Authoritative texts of the short novels as well as a rich selection of contextual material and critical essays.
Melissa McFarland Pennell, Student Companion to Edith Wharton (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003).
An introduction to Wharton’s career with a chapter devoted specifically to Ethan Frome.
Orlene Murad, “Edith Wharton and Ethan Frome,” Modern Language Studies, 13 (Summer 1983): 90-103.
An analysis of the narrative technique in the novella.
Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “Cold Ethan and ‘Hot Ethan,’” College Literature, 14 (Fall 1987): 230-245.
An autobiographical reading of the novella in light of Wharton’s relationships with Morton Fullerton and her husband.