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 novella 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]


The novel is framed by the literary device of an extended flashback. The prologue opens with an unnamed male narrator spending a winter in Starkfield, a fictional town in New England, while in the area on business. He spots a limping, quiet man around the village, who is somehow compelling in his demeanor and carriage. Curious, the narrator sets out to learn about him, learning the man's name as Ethan Frome. He learns that Frome's limp arose from having been injured in a "smash-up" twenty-four years before, but further details are not forthcoming.

Chance circumstances arise that allow the narrator to hire Frome as his driver for a week. A severe snowstorm during one of their journeys forces Frome to allow the narrator to shelter at his home one night. Just as the two are entering Frome's house, the prologue ends. We then embark on the "first" chapter (Chapter I), which takes place twenty-four years prior. The narration switches from the first-person narrator of the prologue to a limited third-person narrator.

In Chapter I, Ethan is waiting outside a church dance to walk home Mattie, his wife’s cousin, who has for a year lived with Ethan and his sickly wife, Zeena (Zenobia), in order to help out around the house and farm. It is quickly clear that Ethan has feelings for Mattie. It also becomes clear that Zeena has observed enough to understand that he has these feelings and resents them.

When Zeena leaves for an overnight visit to a doctor in a neighboring town, Ethan is excited to have an evening alone with Mattie. Mattie makes supper using Zeena's treasured pickle dish which she received as a wedding present. Unfortunately, the Frome's cat jumps on the table and knocks off the pickle dish, shattering it beyond repair. Ethan decides to hide the damage until he is able to purchase glue by setting the dish's pieces neatly in the cupboard.

In the morning, Ethan goes into town to buy glue for the broken pickle dish and, upon his return, finds that Zeena has already come home. Zeena informs Ethan that the doctor told her she needed to do as little work as possible and that she has already hired another girl to replace Mattie, who will be forced to leave.

Ethan is angry and frustrated by the thought of losing Mattie and accidentally tells Mattie of Zeena’s plans to send her away. Mattie reacts with shock but rapid acceptance, trying to calm Ethan, while Ethan becomes more agitated and begins to insist that he will not let her go. Ethan kisses her. Moments later, they are interrupted by Zeena.

After supper, Zeena discovers the broken pickle dish and is enraged. Ethan, miserable at the thought of losing Mattie, considers running away with Mattie, but he lacks the money to do so.

The next morning, Zeena describes her imminent plans for sending Mattie away. Panicked, Ethan rushes into town to try to get a cash advance from a customer for a load of lumber in order to have the money with which to run away with Mattie. He changes his mind after the customer’s wife expresses compassion for his lot and he realizes that he cannot lie to this kindly woman and her husband.

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 together as a way of delaying their sad parting. After their first run, Mattie suggests a suicide pact: that they go down again, and steer the sled directly into a tree, so they will never be parted and so that they may spend their last moments together. At first, Ethan refuses the plan, but, in his despair, he ultimately agrees. On the way down the hill, a vision of Zeena's face startles Ethan into swerving a bit, but he corrects their course, and they crash into the elm tree. Ethan regains consciousness after the accident, but Mattie lies beside him "cheeping" in pain like a small wounded animal. Ethan is also injured, and the reader is left to understand that this was the "smash-up" that left Ethan with a permanent limp.

The final chapter (or epilogue) switches back to the first-person narrator point of view of the prologue, as Frome and his visitor, the narrator, enter the Frome household two decades later. The narrator hears a complaining female voice which turns out to be Mattie, who now lives with the Fromes due to having been paralyzed in the accident. Zeena is now forced to care for her as well as Ethan. Ironically, Ethan and Mattie have gotten their wish to stay together, but in mutual discontent instead of happiness.


The story of Ethan Frome had initially begun as a French-language composition that Wharton had to write while studying the language in Paris,[2] but several years later she took the story up again and transformed it into the novel it now is, basing her sense of New England culture and place on her 10 years of living at The Mount, her home in Lenox, Massachusetts. She would read portions of her novel-in-progress each day to her good friend Walter Berry, who was an international lawyer. Wharton likely based the story of Ethan and Mattie's sledding experience 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. Kate Spencer suffered from a hip injury in the accident and also had facial injuries. It is among the few works by Wharton with a rural setting.[3] 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.

Lenox is also where Wharton had traveled extensively and had come into contact with at least one of the victims of the accident; victims of the accident are buried in graves nearby Wharton family members. 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.[4]


The novel was criticized by Lionel Trilling as lacking in moral or ethical significance.[2] The New York Times called Ethan Frome "a compelling and haunting story."[5] 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. Lionel Trilling thinks that the ending is "terrible to contemplate," but that "the mind can do nothing with it, can only endure it."[6]

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.[7]


  1. ^ Canby, Vincent (March 12, 1993). "Liam Neeson in Lead Of Wharton Classic". The New York Times. Archived from the original on May 19, 2011. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  2. ^ a b Springer, Marlene (1993). Ethan Frome: A Nightmare of Need. Twayne's Masterwork Studies. New York City: Twayne Publishers. 
  3. ^ a b "Ethan Frome – Context". SparkNotes. 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  4. ^ Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975.
  5. ^ "Three Lives in Supreme Torture" (PDF). The New York Times. October 8, 1911. p. BR603. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  6. ^ "Review of Ethan Frome". NovelGuide: Ethan Frome., n.d. February 24, 2010.
  7. ^ Lilburn, Jeffrey. "Ethan Frome (Criticism)." Retrieved 2010-02-24.

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