Ethan Frome

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Ethan Frome
Ethan Frome first edition cover.jpg
Author Edith Wharton
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Scribner's
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 195 pp
ISBN 0-486-26690-7

Ethan Frome is a novel published in 1911 by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Edith Wharton. It is set in the fictitious town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. The novel was adapted into a film, Ethan Frome, in 1993.[1]


Ethan Frome is set in a fictional New England town named Starkfield, where an engineer visiting the town tells the story of his encounter with Ethan Frome, a man with dreams and desires that end in an ironic turn of events. The narrator tells the story based on an account from observations at Frome's house when he had to stay there during a winter storm.[2]

The novel is framed by the literary device of an extended flashback. The prologue (neither named as such nor numbered) opens with an unnamed male narrator spending a winter in Starkfield. He sets out to learn about the life of a mysterious local figure named Ethan Frome, a man who had been injured in a horrific "smash-up" twenty-four years before. Frome is described as "the most striking figure in Starkfield", "the ruin of a man" with a "careless powerful look…in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain".

The narrator fails to learn much from Frome's fellow townspeople. However, the narrator hires Frome as his driver for a week. A severe snowstorm forces Frome to take the narrator to his home one night for shelter. Just as the two are entering Frome's house, the prologue ends. The "first" chapter (Chapter I) then flashes back twenty-four years, and the narration switches from the first-person narrator of the prologue to a limited third-person narrator. Ethan is waiting outside a church dance for Mattie, his wife’s cousin, who lives with Ethan and his wife Zeena (Zenobia) to help around the house since Zeena is sickly. Mattie is given the occasional night off to entertain herself in town as partial recompense for taking care of the Frome family without pay, and Ethan has fallen into the habit of walking her home. It is made clear that Ethan has deep feelings for Mattie, and it is equally clear that Zeena suspects these feelings and, understandably, resents them.

When Zeena leaves for an overnight visit to seek treatment for her illnesses in a neighboring town, Ethan is excited to have an evening alone with Mattie, yet neither reveals their love for the other during this time. The Frome's cat breaks Zeena’s favorite pickle dish, which Mattie had set on the table. Ethan sets the dish's pieces neatly in the cupboard with plans to fix it soon. He suppresses the impulse to demonstrate his passion and affection for Mattie.

In the morning Ethan’s plans to reveal his feelings for Mattie are foiled by the presence of his hired man. He runs into town to pick up glue for the broken pickle dish, and upon his return finds that Zeena has returned. Zeena informs him that she plans to send Mattie away and hire a more efficient girl to replace her, as her health is failing more rapidly than ever. Ethan’s passions are inflamed by the thought of losing Mattie, and he finds her in the kitchen after Zeena’s pronouncement. He tells her of Zeena’s plans to dismiss her, but their moment is interrupted by Zeena herself. Zeena discovers the broken pickle dish and is angered, furthering her determination to dismiss Mattie.

Ethan considers running away with Mattie, but he lacks the money to do so. The next morning, Zeena announces her plans to hire a new girl and send Mattie on her way. Ethan rushes into town on an errand to seek out an advance from a customer for a load of lumber in order to have the money with which to elope with Mattie. His plan is unhinged by guilt, however, when his customer’s wife compliments him on his dedication to his sickly wife.

Ethan returns to the farm and picks up Mattie to take her to the train station. They stop at a hill upon which they had once planned to go sledding and decide to sled despite the dangers of the trees. After their first run, Mattie suggests a suicide pact: that they run themselves into a tree so they may spend their last moments together. Ethan refuses to go through with the plan; then, he finally agrees, and they take the ride down together. On the way down, a vision of Zeena's face forces Ethan to turn aside at the last moment, but he nevertheless hits the elm tree. Ethan regains consciousness after the accident but Mattie lies beside him in pain. Ethan is partially paralyzed. Thus went the "smash-up" at the outset of the novel.

The final chapter switches back to the first-person narrator point of view of the first chapter, as Frome and his visitor, the narrator, enter the Frome household two decades later. Mattie lives with Frome but is paralyzed. Her personality has "soured", and with roles reversed, Zeena now cares for her husband and Mattie.

Connection to the author's life[edit]

Ethan Frome was written while Edith Wharton was living at The Mount, her home in Lenox, Massachusetts. Wharton likely based the story on an accident that she had heard about in 1904 in Lenox, Massachusetts.[3] Five people total were involved in the real-life accident, four girls and one boy. They crashed into a lamppost while sledding down Courthouse Hill in Lenox. A girl named Hazel Crosby was killed in the accident. Wharton learned of the accident from one of the girls who survived, Kate Spencer, when the two became friends while both worked at the Lenox Library. The story of Ethan Frome had initially begun as a French-language composition that Wharton had to write while studying the language in Paris.[4] It is among the few works by Wharton with a rural setting.[3] The novel also incorporates a frame narrative, the telling of a story within another story. The audience is first introduced to the narrator's story of meeting Ethan Frome and later is told the story of the accident and events surrounding it in a flashback.[5]

Lenox is also where Wharton had traveled extensively and had come into contact with one of the victims of the accident. Ethan and Mattie cannot escape their dreary life in Starkfield. The connection between the land and the people is a recurring theme of the novel. The narrator is amazed by the harshness of the Starkfield winters and through his experience of the winter he comes to understand the character of the people.[6] In her introduction to the novel, Wharton talks of the "outcropping granite" of New England, the austerity of its land and the stoicism of its people. The connection between land and people is very much a part of naturalism; the environment is a powerful shaper of man's fate, and the novel dwells insistently on the cruelty of Starkfield's winters.[7]


The novel was criticized by Lionel Trilling as lacking in moral or ethical significance.[4] The New York Times called Ethan Frome "a compelling and haunting story".[8] Edith Wharton was able to write an appealing book and separate it from her other works, where her characters in Ethan Frome are not of the elite upper class. However, the problems that the characters endure are still consistently the same, where the protagonist has to decide whether or not to fulfill their duty or follow their heart. Some critics have read the novel as a veiled autobiography where they have interpreted the likeness between Ethan's situation with his wife in the novel to Wharton's unhappy marriage to her husband, Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton. She began writing Ethan Frome in the early 1900s when she was still married. Wharton based the narrative of Ethan Frome on an accident that had occurred in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she had traveled extensively and had come into contact with one of the victims of the accident. Wharton found the notion of the tragic sledding crash to be irresistible as a potential extended metaphor for the wrongdoings of a secret love affair. However, the critic Lionel Trilling thinks that the ending is "terrible to contemplate," but that "the mind can do nothing with it, can only endure it."[9]

Jeffrey Lilburn notes that some find "the suffering endured by Wharton's characters is excessive and unjustified", but others see the difficult moral questions addressed and note that it "provides insightful commentary on the American economic and cultural realities that produced and allowed such suffering". Trilling and other critics found Ethan Frome to have no moral content, but Elizabeth Ammons disagreed with that concept. Wharton was always careful to label Ethan Frome as a tale rather than a novel. Critics did take note of this when reviewing the book. Ammons compared the work to fairy tales. She found a story that is "as moral as the classic fairy tale" and that functions as a "realistic social criticism". The moral concepts, as described by Ammons, are revealed with all of the brutality of Starkfield's winters. Comparing Mattie Silver and Zeena Frome, Ammons suggests that the Matties will grow as frigid and crippled as the Zeenas, so long as such women remain isolated and dependent. Wharton cripples Mattie, says Lilburn, but has her survive in order to demonstrate the cruelty of the culture surrounding women in that period.[10]


  1. ^ Canby, Vincent (March 12, 1993). "Liam Neeson in Lead Of Wharton Classic". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-11. [dead link]
  2. ^ "Ethan Frome – Plot Overview". SparkNotes. 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  3. ^ a b "Ethan Frome – Context". SparkNotes. 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  4. ^ a b Springer, Marlene (1993). Ethan Frome: A Nightmare of Need. Twayne's Masterwork Studies. New York City: Twayne Publishers. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ SparkNotes Editors. "SparkNote on Ethan Frome". SparkNotes LLC. 2003. February 9, 2010.
  7. ^ Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975.
  8. ^ "Three Lives in Supreme Torture" (PDF). The New York Times. October 8, 1911. p. BR603. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  9. ^ "Review of Ethan Frome". NovelGuide: Ethan Frome., n.d. February 24, 2010.
  10. ^ Lilburn, Jeffrey. "Ethan Frome (Criticism)." Retrieved 2010-02-24.

External links[edit]

(Music) "Police Dog Hogan" Ethan Frome Story 2014