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Ethan Frome  
Cover of first edition of Ethan Frome
Author Edith Wharton
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Scribner's
Publication date 1911
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 195 pp

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



Edith Wharton was originally born Edith Jones in 1862. She received a marriage proposal at a young age, but the wedding was opposed by the perception of the snobbery prospective in-laws’ of the well-established Jones family. In 1885, at the age of 23, Edith married Edward Wharton, an older man whom the Jones family found to be of suitably lofty social rank, whose last name she kept after the divorce. Wharton’s success as a writer, so unusual for a woman of her era, could possibly be credited to the fact that her unhappy marriage forced her to devote her energies elsewhere.[2] She believed writing was good therapy to relieve stress and tension. Wharton most-likely based her story on an accident that she had witnessed in 1904 in Lenox, Massachusetts.[3] Five people total were in the actual accident, four girls and one boy. They crashed into a lamppost while sledding down Courthouse Hill in Lenox, Massachusetts . One girl, Hazel Crosby was killed in the accident. Another girl involved in the accident, Kate Spencer, became friends with Wharton while both working at the Lenox Library.This is where Wharton would have learned of the accident. 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] Also, another element that contributes to the story has to with the story being told as frame narrative. The telling of the story is told within another story. The audience is first introduced to the narrator's story of meeting Ethan Frome, and then is told the story of the accident and events surrounding it[5].

General aspects

The story is set in a fictional, wintry New England town named Starkfield, where an unnamed narrator 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.[6] Ethan’s character is one that comes full circle, moving from silent desire to action to quiet submission, ordered by life’s circumstances.The novel is all the more remarkable for its forbidden impressions of rural working-class in New England, especially given that its author was a woman of leisure. The name of the small Massachusetts town represents a bleak, cold and dismal environment. Lenox is also where she 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[7]. In her introduction to the novel, Wharton talks of the "outcropping granite" of New England, the powerful severity of its land and people. This 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 represents this relationship by constantly describing the power and cruelty of Starkfield's winter[8].




The novel is framed with the literary conceit of an extended flashback; the first chapter opens with an unnamed narrator, spending a winter in the New England town of Starkfield, who 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” some two decades before.
The narrator fails to get many details from the townspeople, but makes Frome’s acquaintance when he hires Frome as his driver for a week. A severe snowstorm forces Frome to take the narrator to his home one night for shelter.
The second chapter flashes back twenty years; the narration switches from the first-person narrator of the first chapter to an omniscient third-person narrator. Ethan, 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”, is waiting outside a church dance for Mattie, his wife’s cousin, who lives with Ethan and his wife Zeena 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 equally clear that Zeena suspects these feelings and does not approve.
When Zeena leaves for a two-day visit to seek treatment for her illness in a neighboring town, Ethan is excited to have an evening alone with Mattie. However, the two never verbalize or show their passion for each other throughout their evening together. The Fromes’ cat breaks Zeena’s favorite pickle dish that Mattie had set out to celebrate their dinner together, but Ethan fixes it as well as he can. Ethan represses the impulse to demonstrate his passion and affection for Mattie.
In the morning, Ethan’s plans to reveal his love for Mattie are foiled by the presence of his hired man; he runs into town to pick up some 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 even more rapidly.
Ethan’s passions are inflamed by the thought of losing Mattie and he kisses her passionately when 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 get rid of Mattie.
Ethan considers eloping with Mattie, but doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to do so. The next morning, Zeena announces the 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, so as to give him the money to elope with Mattie. His plan is unhinged by guilt, however, when his customer’s wife compliments him on his patience and dedication in caring for Zeena through her sickness.
Ethan returns to the farm, and picks Mattie up to go to the train station. They stop at a hill upon which they had once proposed to go sledding, and decide to go through with the sledding 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 resists the notion, but then finally acquiesces, and they take the ride down together.
On the way down, the sight of Zeena makes Ethan try to turn aside at the last moment; instead of both of them being killed, Ethan comes to after the accident in an embrace with Mattie. She is paralyzed and he is barely able to walk, although not paralyzed as badly as she is.
The final chapter switches back to the first-person narrator point of view of the first chapter, as Frome and the narrator walk into the Frome household two decades later. The tables are turned; Mattie is sickly and seated and Zeena is fixing their dinner.


Ethan Frome makes ample use of symbolism as a literary device: similar to the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (also set in New England), Edith Wharton uses the color red against the snowy white background of her Massachusetts setting to symbolize Mattie’s attraction and vitality as opposed to Zeena, as well as her temptation to Ethan in general. Wharton uses the cat and the pickle dish to symbolize the failing marriage of Ethan and Zeena; the cat symbolizes Zeena’s presence when Ethan and Mattie are alone, and when it breaks the pickle dish, this symbolizes the final fracturing of the marriage that is rapidly coming as Mattie and Ethan slide closer and closer to adultery.


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".[9] 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 too 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[10] ."

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, come out as cold and as grim as her Starkfield setting. She explains further by comparing the characters of Mattie Silvers and Zeena Fromes. Ammons states that Mattie will become as frigid and crippled as Zeena if woman are kept isolated and dependent. Lilburn wrote that Wharton cripples Mattie but lets her live to reflect the cruelty of culture, not the author.[11].


  1. ^ Canby, Vincent (1993-03-12). "Liam Neeson in Lead Of Wharton Classic". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  2. ^ Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975
  3. ^ a b "Ethan Frome - Context". SparkNotes. 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  4. ^ a b Bellman, Samuel Irving (1993), "Ethan Frome: A Nightmare of Need", Twayne's Masterwork Studies (New York, New York: Twayne Publishers), 
  5. ^
  6. ^ "Ethan Frome - Plot Overview". SparkNotes. 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  7. ^ SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Ethan Frome.” SparkNotes LLC. 2003. Web. 9 Feb. 2010
  8. ^ Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975
  9. ^ "Three Lives in Supreme Torture". The New York Times: p. BR603. October 8, 1911. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  10. ^ Rev. of Ethan Frome. NovelGuide: Ethan Frome., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2010. <>.
  11. ^ Lilburn, Jeffrey. "Ethan Frome (Criticism)." Retrieved 2010-02-24.

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Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

Ethan Frome
by Edith Wharton
Information about this edition
Ethan Frome is a 1911 novel by Edith Wharton. It is set in turn-of-the-century New England, in the fictitious town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. Starkfield is said to be based on the town Plainfield, Massachusetts. The book was later made into a film adaptation in 1993.Excerpted from Ethan Frome on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.


PD-icon.svg This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1937, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.


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