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Ethan Frome
Edith Wharton


THE NOVEL

THE PLOT

If you've ever been lonely, even when surrounded by others, you know just how Ethan Frome felt most of his life. An intense, painful loneliness does things to you: You lose confidence; you feel sorry for yourself; you blame others for your pain. And sometimes, if you hurt as much as Ethan, you consider doing away with yourself.

Most of Ethan's story takes place during a winter many years ago in a small farm community in New England. In those days it was easy to be lonely. Long workdays left little time for fun. Cold and snow kept you from seeing your neighbors and friends for long stretches of time.

When you first meet Ethan, he's fifty-two years old. From his looks, though, you'd think he was much older. His shoulders sag, he limps, and his face is grim. Every day he comes to town, checks the post office for mail (he rarely has any), says barely a word to anyone, and drives off again.

Ethan's odd looks and behavior arouse the curiosity of a young stranger, in town to do an engineering job for the local power company. By chance, during a terrible blizzard the man finds overnight refuge in Ethan's house. Later, he tells you what he has discovered about Ethan.

Ethan, at eighteen, is a bright, eager scholar. He goes to college to study physics and natural science, but he drops out after a year because his father is killed in an accident. At that point Ethan loses whatever chances he has to escape the quiet and solitary life of a poor farmer. The family farm and sawmill become his responsibilities.

In spite of very hard work year after year, he earns barely enough to support himself and his mother. As his mother's health worsens, he neglects the farm and mill to care for her. But finally help arrives. Zeena Pierce, a cousin from the next valley, comes to nurse the old woman during her last illness. Fearing loneliness after his mother's death, Ethan asks Zeena to marry him, which she does.

But within a year Ethan knows that he has made a mistake. Zeena becomes chronically ill. As a semi-invalid, she does little more than nag and complain. Despite his return to misery, Ethan does his duty. He struggles to keep the farm and mill going. What money he earns goes to pay for Zeena's doctors and for medicines that never seem to work.

After six depressing years something happens to change Ethan's life forever. Mattie Silver, a distant cousin of Zeena's, moves in to help Zeena with the household chores. To Ethan, Mattie is a breath of spring- cheerful, kind, and pretty. Also, she admires Ethan's knowledge of nature. He falls for her immediately.

Zeena, however, fails to appreciate Mattie's qualities. In fact, Mattie just doesn't meet Zeena's expectations as a housekeeper. When Zeena threatens to dismiss her, you can imagine how Ethan objects. However, he can't speak up for Mattie too forcefully because he can't let Zeena know how attached he has become to the girl. His greatest worry is that she already knows.

Although Ethan wants to tell Mattie his feelings, he can't because he's tongue-tied. Adding to his misery, he's jealous of every young man who smiles at Mattie or dances with her at a church social. Meanwhile, Mattie conceals her feelings toward him. Since neither knows what the other feels, Ethan, at least, agonizes in uncertainty.

About a year after Mattie's arrival, Zeena goes overnight to Bettsbridge to visit a cousin and to consult a new doctor. Ethan is thrilled to be rid of her, even for twenty-four hours. One thing bothers him, however. On her trip Zeena is sure to spend too much money on medical treatment. Now for the first time he wishes Zeena would die.

That evening at home, alone with Mattie for once, Ethan enjoys the illusion of being married to her. But the beauty of the evening is marred by a slight accident. Zeena's cat knocks her mistress' favorite and most valued glass pickle-dish off the dinner table. Mattie is horrified because she knows that Zeena never used the dish, not even for important occasions. Although Ethan assures Mattie that he will glue the dish together the next day, Zeena returns before he can do it. When she finds the dish in pieces, she berates Ethan and insults Mattie.

Zeena brings bad news from the doctor. Her condition is so grave that she must do absolutely no work in the house. Therefore, she announces, she's hired a new girl who will arrive tomorrow evening.

Ethan explodes. Angry words spew from his lips. He thinks Zeena's sickness is part of a scheme to keep him in poverty and to force Mattie out of the house. He almost hits Zeena, but holds back at the last instant.

Mattie must leave. Of that there is no doubt because once Zeena has made up her mind, that's it! Mattie, however, has no place to go. The best she can do is return alone to her hometown and hope to find some type of work.

Late that night Ethan makes a decision. He's going to run away with Mattie the next day. He'll take her to the West, find work, divorce Zeena, and start all over again. He starts to write a goodbye letter to Zeena but stops cold when he realizes that he doesn't have the money to go West.

One last hope to raise money occurs to him. Mr. Hale, a builder in town, owes him for a lumber delivery. The bill is due in three months, but Ethan will lie to Hale. He'll say that Zeena's illness necessitates immediate payment. Then, with the money in his pocket, he and Mattie will escape to the West.

On his way to collect, Ethan meets Mrs. Hale, the builder's wife. She knows about Zeena's latest illness and praises Ethan for standing by Zeena through all her years of sickness. "You've had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome," she says.

No one has ever spoken to Ethan like this. No one has ever understood his plight like Mrs. Hale. He's suddenly overcome with guilt to think that he was about to deceive Hale. Ethan turns toward home, resigned to remain on his farm.

Now comes the most dreaded time of his life- bidding Mattie good-bye. Driving to the station, Ethan and Mattie recall the good times they've shared during the past year. Unable to contain themselves any longer, each confesses love for the other. They despair to think of never being together again. To delay their moment of parting, they decide- just for fun- to coast down the town's most perilous hill on a sled. Down, down they go, with Ethan steering skillfully past the big elm tree at a bend in the course.

At the top again, Mattie turns and cries, "Ethan, take me down again... so 't we'll never come up any more." At first Ethan thinks Mattie is crazy, but the thought of going home to his hateful wife persuades him he'd rather die with Mattie than live with Zeena. They mount the sled and kiss for the last time. The sled dives down the hill and crashes head-on into the massive trunk of the elm tree. But somehow they both survive.

That concludes the narrator's account of Ethan's past. Abruptly the story returns to that snowy night in Ethan's house. A tall gray-haired woman serves an unappetizing dinner. It's Zeena, as grim as ever. Sitting hunched over by the stove is a small, helpless woman, crippled for life with a spinal injury. She, of course, is Mattie. More precisely, she is what Mattie has become during the twenty-four years since the smash-up.

The night of the smash-up Zeena rose from her sickbed and never went back. All this time she has dutifully cared for Mattie. It's said that Zeena and Mattie bark at each other constantly. During their fights the one who suffers most is Ethan. Is it any wonder he looks old and worn-out?

Back in town the narrator's landlady has the last word on Ethan and his life's burdens. Maybe it would have been better if Mattie had died in the crash, she says. At least then Ethan could have lived. Now there's little difference between being a Frome on the farm and a Frome in the grave.

[Ethan Frome Contents]


THE CHARACTERS

  • ETHAN FROME

    If Ethan Frome could relive his life, what do you think he would be? He was miserable as a farmer, so he certainly wouldn't pick that life again. But he might not be suited for anything else.

    Doctor? He had plenty of medical experience caring for family members. He wasn't much good at it, though, because he needed to summon help during his mother's last illness. He didn't like the work, either, because it confined him. When Zeena was sick he felt trapped. Once Mattie became an invalid, Ethan left the house as much as he could. Why else did he check an empty mailbox at the Starkfield post office every day? He never talked to anyone there. Of course, his daily trips to town might have been his way of keeping in touch with the outside world.

    Businessman? Not on your life. Think how easily Mr. Hale weasels out of paying his debt to Ethan. Besides, a man of commerce needs self-confidence. Ethan wavers over the slightest decisions and constantly changes his mind. Recall how Ethan hides in the shadows outside the church, too ill-at-ease to step forward and take Mattie's arm. Moreover, to succeed in business, you need vision, but you can't be a visionary like Ethan. Sometimes he mistakes illusion for reality and vice-versa. For example, in his fantasy world he travels to the West with Mattie. In reality, he doesn't have the money to go.

    If Ethan tried to be a salesman, he'd be no better off. People would scatter. He's too stiff and grizzled and looks as though he were "dead and in hell." Even as a young man he had a hard time with people. In college they called him "Old Stiff," and he kept largely to himself.

    That's why he might fail as a lawyer, too. In fact, he'd probably be unsuited to any job which required him to speak articulately more than a sentence at a time. Words defeated him. He could never think of the right thing to say. Even when he did- because he had a good mind- the words got stuck. He couldn't even tell Mattie that he loved her. That was a shame, too, because if she had known sooner, they might have run off and lived happily ever after.

    At times words cause Ethan another kind of problem. He blurts things out that he'd like to retract the instant the words pass his lips. For example, he lies to Zeena about why she must go to the train without him. Because of his lie, he realizes too late that he will need to ask Hale for money. He knows, too, that Hale won't pay. Meanwhile Zeena, believing Ethan has money, will spend far more in Bettsbridge than he can afford. Such impulsiveness would keep Ethan from succeeding at any job that required quick thinking and careful use of words.

    What, then, could Ethan qualify for? He could do any manual work very well. He has a strong back, broad shoulders, and the drive to work long hours. For years he's proved himself as a persevering farmer and sawmill operator. Unfortunately, however, Starkfield is an economically depressed place. No matter how hard Ethan works, he's never more than a few steps from the poorhouse.

    While Ethan may lack the personality to succeed at many jobs, he is intelligent, and he's well informed about the ways of nature. He studied science in college for a year and probably would have succeeded as an engineer or physicist had he not been summoned home to run the family farm and mill. After that he allowed himself to be trapped. His mother's illness, his marriage to Zeena, his poverty- even the isolated town of Starkfield- eroded his will to break away. Soon he stopped trying.

    Nevertheless, Ethan continued to search for "huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things." Despite his troubled life, he's still one of the "smart ones," according to his fellow townsman, Harmon Gow. In other words, Ethan is a thinker, a philosopher.

    To which school of philosophy does he belong? Surely it must be that which silently accepts the world as it is. That is, Ethan is a stoic. He knows he can't change his lot in life, although he once thought to escape from it. When he failed he became silently resigned to it. Ultimately, that may be the real tragedy of Ethan Frome.

  • MATTIE SILVER

    Scan almost any passage that alludes to Mattie and you will find images galore that reveal her sweet, pure, and lively youthfulness. She may be too good to be true. Since you see Mattie through Ethan's eyes, she can do no wrong. But is she really as flawless as Ethan believes? Strip off the rose-colored glasses and look.

    Mattie can't make the grade as a housekeeper.

    Ethan, who is busy enough all day, needs to help her complete her chores. In fact, she has failed at every job she's held. Back in Stamford, her hometown, she tried stenography, bookkeeping, and store-clerking, all without success. When Zeena sends her away, Ethan fears that she'll end up walking the streets.

    Passing Shadow Pond during their ride to the train, Mattie is surprised to learn that Ethan has loved her for months. But more shocking is that she didn't know before. Is she that insensitive? For a year Ethan has run to her side at every chance. He has helped her, looked starry-eyed at her, and hung on her every word and gesture. And she hasn't noticed?

    Mattie confesses her love for Ethan. Is she saying the truth? If so, why has she regularly gone to church dances without him and flirted with Denis Eady, too?

    The pickle-dish broke because Mattie, despite knowing its value to Zeena, removed it from the closet. Why? To please a man married to someone else. How much merit is there in Zeena's charge, then, that Mattie is sneaky? It's a question for you to ponder.

    None of these shortcomings matters to Ethan, of course, because he's blinded by love. When Mattie compares a sunset to a painting- as though nature mimicked art- Ethan is charmed. Someone of another mind would call Mattie just a foolish girl.

    Compared to Zeena, of course, Mattie is a saint. She's pretty, sweet-tempered, and affectionate. Although Zeena's abuse hurts her, she always bounces back as perky as ever. When Zeena scolds, Mattie listens without fighting back. When pain keeps Zeena from sleep, Mattie says, "I'm so sorry, Zeena! Isn't there anything I can do?" Mattie gives Ethan new life. For the first time in his twenty-eight years he has a soul mate. They walk together, sharing the beauties of nature. She's fascinated by his lectures on the stars and on rock formations. Like a schoolgirl, she admires his knowledge with wide-eyed wonder. At the same time, she has the ability, with a word or a look, to send Ethan into a dark mood or somber state of mind.

    Almost every place Mattie appears in the book, images of light and warmth accompany her. Words such as fire, star, glow, shining- a thesaurus of synonyms- indicate why Mattie's last name is Silver. She brightens Ethan's life and stands out luminously against the dark, cold setting of the story. You'll also find the color red in Mattie's lips, cheeks, and clothes. Why red? For one, it's the color of love. It also sets Mattie apart from the blacks, whites, and grays used to depict almost everything else in the book.

    Although she has a right to be downhearted, Mattie shows no aftereffects of the trials she's endured. Just prior to settling in Starkfield she lost her mother and father. Her family turned their backs on her because her late father- not she- owed them money. At twenty-one she was an outcast with no home, no job, and no prospects. Her only bit of luck was that Zeena, her distant cousin, needed someone to help around the house. Thus Mattie moved in with the Fromes.

    When Mattie arrives, Ethan is ready for love. After seven years of marriage to Zeena, he can hardly help falling for Mattie. And Mattie, after tasting loneliness, needs someone, too. Each fills a void in the other's life. But just a year later, Mattie's dismissal threatens to cast them into isolation again.

    During their final moments together Mattie proposes suicide to Ethan. Is her love for him so intense that she can't live without him? Or does the thought of loneliness terrorize her so much that she'd rather die? Perhaps her desperation derives both from love and fear. Regardless, the result is shocking.

    It's hard to imagine a more tragic ending. Mattie could have died in the sled smash-up. Unfortunately, fate cannot be outwitted so easily. Mattie, who dreaded being alone, must live as a cripple, forever dependent on others. Pain transforms her into an old crone long before her time. Instead of love, she offers Ethan woe. What cruel ironies!

    Perhaps it's tempting to draw a moral from Mattie's tale- something about the perils of meddling in the life of a married man. But Edith Wharton probably had no such moral in mind. She intended not to preach proper behavior, but to explore the tragic possibilities of life.

  • ZENOBIA (ZEENA) FROME

    Don't be surprised if you cringe while reading about Zeena Frome. Edith Wharton took pains to make her one of the most unappealing people imaginable- the sort who creates a chill wherever she goes. You may know someone like her. You can count on your fingers the number of times she smiles in a month. She rarely opens her mouth except to criticize and complain. But she doesn't need words to tell you what she thinks, for she wears a face of perpetual disapproval.

    As you read the novel, be alert to some of Zeena's redeeming qualities, and try to be a little sympathetic. She's too important a character to be one-dimensional. Remember that Ethan Frome is a story envisioned by a narrator who is not altogether impartial. Although you may also side with Ethan, you shouldn't turn totally against Zeena. Think, for example, of how she has cared for Mattie during the twenty-four years before you meet Ethan on the steps of the Starkfield post office.

    By that time, of course, Ethan has endured more than thirty years of misery as Zeena's husband. He blames Zeena for ruining his life. Ever since their wedding, she has held him captive. One of the reasons he married her was because he owed her a debt of gratitude after she had cared for his mother on her deathbed. Can you expect a marriage born of one partner's obligation to the other to succeed?

    As Ethan's new wife, Zeena refused to move to the city, although earlier she had agreed to do so. As a result, Ethan was forced to stay on the farm and do his best to make a living there. Then Zeena developed a chronic illness that permanently ended Ethan's hope for escape. Almost every penny he earned went toward paying for doctors and useless patent medicines. Finally, she grew silent. She hardly left the house and talked to no one, except to nag and complain. In effect, she severed her ties with life.

    You will probably notice that almost every time you find a reference to cold, darkness, sickness, or death in the story, Zeena, or an allusion to her, will appear. She walks through the book like a plague, spreading gloom on nearly every page. When you first see her- at the kitchen door- she's the picture of ugliness. The kitchen itself "had the deadly chill of a vault." Obviously, the storyteller is stacking the cards against Zeena for a purpose.

    As a cold, isolated, and grim figure, Zeena embodies her surroundings. You can hardly separate her from the wintry Starkfield landscape. Like the town, tucked by itself in a lonesome valley, Zeena has removed herself from society. She is consumed by her illness, which she uses to control Ethan. By being a semi-invalid, she can tell Ethan what to do. She can also use her condition to justify anything she cares to do. Even so, Ethan doubts the authenticity of some of his wife's ailments. For example, he would argue that Zeena went to Bettsbridge not to see a new doctor but to spend money.

    You might wonder why Ethan doesn't simply walk out on Zeena. Many modern husbands would, but in Ethan's day most husbands and wives held to their marriage vows until death. Still, nothing in Ethan and Zeena's relationship is worth preserving. He despises her. She's repugnant to him in so many ways from her false teeth to her asthmatic breathing. Worst of all, she has the knack of making Ethan feel guilty about almost everything he does and thinks, especially after Mattie Silver arrives on the farm. A certain look on Zeena's face or an offhand comment gives Ethan the eerie feeling that she knows what he's thinking. She haunts him. Even when he and Mattie are hurtling down the hill on their fateful sled ride, Zeena appears in his mind's eye. He is stuck with her, no matter what. Ethan's bungled attempt to escape with Mattie attests to that.

    Although she's easy to scorn, Zeena may also deserve a little understanding. Most of her life she has cared for sick people, first Ethan's mother and then Mattie. When she ran out of others to care for, she tended to herself. True, she may have brought on her own illnesses, but self-imposed ailments cause just as much suffering as other diseases. Also, she bears the burdens of an unsightly face, and for a year at least, a husband who would be unfaithful if he had the courage. Think, too, of how pathetic she seems during the incident of the broken pickle-dish. She weeps over a broken glass dish, her most valued possession. How petty, yes, but can't you sympathize with someone whose life has been such a waste?

    In the end, of course, Zeena comes through. She rises from her sickbed, never to return. For twenty-four years she cares for Mattie, the woman who tried to steal her husband. Does she redeem herself by responding so unselfishly to Mattie's tragedy? Can she be forgiven, after all, for all the misery she has spread? While you may not like Zeena any more than you did earlier, can you at least admire her charity?

  • NARRATOR

    The nameless narrator appears in the prologue and in the epilogue of the novel. He's a young engineer with time to kill in Starkfield. Ethan Frome's odd appearance arouses his curiosity. With the instinct of a detective, he asks the town residents about Ethan, and with the skill of an accomplished writer he constructs Ethan's story from the bits and pieces of information he has collected.

  • DENIS EADY

    Denis is a cheerful young man in Starkfield whom Ethan despises mainly because he is an eligible bachelor. Ethan perceives Denis as an archrival for Mattie's affection. Years later Denis becomes the town's "rich Irish grocer."

  • JOTHAM POWELL

    Jotham, Ethan's hired hand, helps take care of the farm and mill. He doesn't say much, but he knows trouble when he sees it. He slips quietly out of sight when Zeena and Ethan are about to have the argument of their lives over Mattie's future.

  • MR. ANDREW HALE

    Mr. Hale buys lumber from Ethan for building houses. Unfortunately, he doesn't pay on delivery but waits three months. Ethan, therefore, lacks the money to escape with Mattie from Zeena. Mr. Hale is also the father of Ned, who marries Ruth Varnum.

  • MRS. ANDREW HALE

    Mrs. Hale is probably the friendliest person in Starkfield. Her kindness so startles Ethan that he abandons his plan to collect money from Mr. Hale. Ethan's conscience won't permit him to deceive the husband of someone as understanding as Mrs. Hale.

  • MRS. RUTH VARNUM HALE

    Ruth is the landlady of the Varnum house, where the novel's narrator stays during his time in Starkfield. She was the first to see Ethan and Mattie after the sled smash-up. Somewhat more refined than other Starkfielders, she recognizes the miserable life Ethan has led since his encounter with the elm tree.

  • HARMON GOW

    Starkfield's stage driver, Harmon tells the narrator a little bit about Ethan. He knows what too many winters in Starkfield can do to a man.

[Ethan Frome Contents]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

In the summertime the hills of New England now swarm with tourists. In winter they're alive with skiers. But it hasn't always been that way. In Ethan Frome's time, around the turn of the century, the countryside is a cold and lifeless place. In fact, Edith Wharton takes pains to show you how desolate it is.

She calls Ethan's small farming community Starkfield, and the town lives up to its name. It's desolate and its people are poor. Some, like Ethan, can barely scrape a living off the rocky, barren land.

Life is dreary, and cheerless in Starkfield. Only an occasional church social breaks the monotony. For months every year snow lies heavily on the hills, fields, and villages. People stay indoors and keep to themselves. Weeks pass between visits with friends or neighbors. Surely no place in Massachusetts can really be as grim as Starkfield.

Why did Edith Wharton invent such a site for her novel? You might find an answer in the character of Ethan Frome himself. Doesn't the countryside often mirror his own emotional landscape? That is, when Ethan feels despair the land and sky grow dark and oppressive. When Ethan's mood lightens, there's considerable beauty all around. Ethan spends his happiest hours with Mattie roaming the lovely woodlands and walking under the stars.

Because Ethan is melancholy more often than he's merry, Starkfield seems like a sad and dismal place. To be sure, there's life in the village proper, but leave the main street and you find only battered little houses strewn here and there among the hills.

Starkfield afflicts Ethan and helps to shape his destiny. Like the town, he is sullen and run-down. Starkfield sits alone in its valley, isolated from the world around it. Ethan is isolated too. He left the lonely valley to go to college, but since returning he has gone scarcely more than a few miles from his remote farm. Physically, and therefore, emotionally, he is trapped by his wife, his farm, and his poverty.

Not everyone in Starkfield feels oppressed. For example, Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum relish their life and their love. What's the trouble with Ethan, then? Why can't he rise above the oppressive atmosphere? Possibly he's too sensitive. He absorbs his surroundings like a sponge. He is like a piece of the scenery, or as the narrator says, "a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of frozen woe." And he lacks the strength to shake himself loose before it's too late.

THEMES

You'd never doubt that Ethan Frome is a somber book after glancing at the themes listed here. There's not a reassuring one among them. Yes, a tragic story evokes tragic themes. But among the tragic circumstances of some stories a faint ray of hope- a statement about man's nobility, perhaps- sometimes shines through. There seems to be no such beacon in Ethan Frome.

  1. LONELINESS / ISOLATION

    In college Ethan acquired the nickname "Old Stiff" because he rarely went out with the boys. Once he returned to the farm he couldn't go out with them even if he had wanted to. Whatever he's done has kept him apart from others: tending the farm and mill, nursing his sick mother, caring for Zeena.

    Ventures outside the bounds of his farm have usually brought Ethan no luck. He's inept doing business with Mr. Hale. Denis Eady and his cronies make fun of him. The one time he plans to run away with Mattie, the effort fails. A few kind words spoken by Mrs. Hale shock him into realizing that he will never escape.

    Ethan's isolation is intensified because he is often tongue-tied. He'd like to make contact with others but can't. For example, when he wants to dazzle Mattie with beautiful words of love, he mutters, "Come along."

    In their own ways, Zeena and Mattie are solitary figures, too. For years, Zeena rarely leaves the house. She's consumed by her illness. Mattie, on the other hand, seeks refuge from loneliness at the Fromes' farm. A year later she chooses to die rather then return to a world of solitude.

  2. SILENT "GRANITE OUTCROPPINGS"

    Edith Wharton once wrote that with Ethan Frome she intended to present a story that told elemental truths about the sturdy, silent character of life in the New England hills. She wanted to reveal New England's "granite outcroppings."

    You need to be tough- like granite- to endure winters like those described in the novel. Month after month of dreary skies, snow-covered lands, and bitter cold can erode your spirit. You must fight depression and loneliness. Above all, you must love silence. If you must turn on the radio at every quiet moment, you'd probably go mad in Ethan's world.

    You hear the silence of Starkfield even when people talk. Sound issues from their mouths, but the words mean nothing. On their night of nights Ethan and Mattie engage in small talk- words to fill a vacuum, nothing more. Deep inside, Ethan speaks eloquently, but no one hears him. To the people of Starkfield, he's a silent ghost-like figure who prefers to mind his own business.

  3. HOPELESSNESS

    The proverb about trying again when at first you don't succeed sounds good, but it's hard to live by. What discourages people more than repeated failure?

    Ethan is an expert on failure. In his youth he had hoped to study science, but family sickness and death dashed his hopes. After he married Zeena, he intended to sell the farm and move to the city, but his bride put an end to that dream.

    For years all his time and energy have been put into the farm and mill. Yet the monotonous work gives him little satisfaction. What money he earns Zeena uses to buy medicines. He can't escape with Mattie because he can't afford the fare. His one big effort to break out of his prison- that is, to destroy his life ends in disaster. After the smash-up he's locked forever in a living hell. As Mrs. Hale observes, there's little difference between the grave and the farm for Ethan Frome.

  4. "TILL DEATH DO US PART"

    Ethan and Zeena's marriage is built on a flimsy foundation. After his mother dies, Ethan asks Zeena to stay with him on the farm because the thought of living there alone terrifies him. What hope is there for such a marriage?

    Ethan realizes his mistake after only a few months. But there's no remedy; he remains bound by his marriage vows. In fact, he is virtually enslaved by them.

    Even when Mattie enters his life, Ethan remains true to his pledge to Zeena. He's not above wishing that Zeena would die, however. And he's more than willing to pretend, at least for an evening, that he's married to Mattie instead of Zeena.

    Zeena's decision to dismiss Mattie convinces Ethan to desert his wife. But as he writes his goodbye letter his conscience shatters his dream of starting over in the West with Mattie.

    How firmly Ethan is tied to Zeena! Even his attempt to take his leave by killing himself fails. After the smash-up, he is fated to be with her forever, even in the grave.

  5. THE TYRANNY OF SICKNESS

    When a chronic illness strikes, the patient is not the only one who suffers. Friends and family bear the pain, too. Ethan Frome's story confirms how despotic an illness can be. Because of others' infirmity, Ethan's ambitions are thwarted. He drops out of college, lets his farm and mill fall into ruin, and remains in poverty.

    Ethan lives in a world dominated by sick people. His father is kicked by a horse and dies after a long illness. His mother survives as a semi-invalid for years. And Zeena is an established sick person, notable in Starkfield for her "condition."

    Ethan suspects that some of Zeena's symptoms are feigned, but he has no proof. If you consider how she uses her illness to control him, you might suspect she exaggerates her pain sometimes. Whether feigned or not, Zeena's ailments keep Ethan down on the farm. The one time he almost escapes, Mrs. Hale pays him tribute for being so devoted to his sick wife. Ashamed of himself for contemplating escape, Ethan returns home, resigned to his fate.

    The cruelest irony of all, Ethan's attempt to flee, concludes with a crippling smash-up. Mattie's spinal injury seals Ethan's destiny permanently.

  6. DEATH'S DOMINION

    Starkfield is dead, no matter how you define the word. It's dead in the sense of having no action on Saturday night- or on any other night for that matter.

    Most of the story takes place in the depths of winter, when life drains from trees and plants, animals hibernate, and water stops flowing. Even the people, to escape from winter's deathlike grip, entomb themselves inside small, wooden, snow-buried houses.

    Outside Ethan's door lie all his ancestors. He reads their gravestones, and the words remind him of his ties to the farm, the house, and the mill. He can't escape and he expects to lie there, too, some day.

    Could you call Zeena alive? Although she moves and breathes, she has cut herself off from life. In a word, she is figuratively dead. After the smash-up, Mattie and Ethan join her in the land of the living dead.

  7. ILLUSION VS. REALITY

    What is illusion? What is reality? Edith Wharton's book challenges you to come to grips with these age-old questions. Can you find the equivalent of Starkfield in the real New England? Or are the town and its people merely products of Wharton's fantasy? As you get to know them better, you'll be able to make up your own mind.

    No one can accuse Ethan of being a realist, for he leads a rich fantasy life. He has spells of illusion that vanish like bubbles in the air. The illusion of being married to Mattie shatters when the glass pickle-dish crashes to the floor. Repeatedly, Ethan thinks he's noticed signs of Mattie's affection for him, but more often than not her smiles and gestures mean nothing.

    Does Zeena know what Ethan feels for Mattie? Sometimes she seems to, but then again, she seems not to. Ethan sifts her every word and deed, searching for clues. When Zeena discharges Mattie, Ethan can't believe it. He deludes himself into thinking that Zeena will change her mind in the morning.

    At the height of his distress Ethan fancies himself running away with Mattie, divorcing Zeena, and enjoying a prosperous life in the West. Reality intrudes, however. He can't pay for one ticket West, much less two.

    How appropriate it is that Mattie and Ethan first found love at a place called Shadow Pond. Like a shadow, their love is fleeting. Now you see it, now you don't.

STYLE

You won't find many novels shorter than Ethan Frome in a library of American classics. (It's often called a novelette, rather than a novel.) At the same time you won't find many so carefully crafted. Edith Wharton leaves nothing to chance. She has a reason for every bit of action and each descriptive passage. She chooses details with the greatest care- from names of places and people to the furniture in a room. If you like digging for meanings beneath the surface of a story, you've come to the right place.

To tell her story of plain country people, Wharton uses simple, direct language. At times it's almost "stark"- clipped, clear, and efficient. Her characters speak in their native dialect, and this makes sense. Who would want to read a story about country folk who talk like English teachers?

At first glance Ethan Frome passes as a plain, maybe even dull, New England farmer. Up close, however, you discover great complexity in the man. Sometimes you can hardly keep up with him. For example, one moment he's gleeful, the next he's glum. The contrasts you find in Ethan's moods appear again and again in imagery throughout the story.

Brightness is often set off against gloominess. You discover contrasts of light and dark on almost every page. Of course, you associate light with Ethan's high spirits, with Mattie (note that her last name is Silver), and with love. Darkness, as you might expect, suggests the opposite. When you first meet Zeena, she stands in the dark background of the kitchen.

The same contrast holds true for cold and warmth. Everything about Zeena is cold and harsh. (Note that Pierce was Zeena's maiden name.) Mattie, on the other hand, radiates warmth. She always has a fire going for Ethan. Several times you are shown the same scene twice- once when Ethan is dejected, another time when his spirits soar. For example, look at the description of the land while Ethan walks home, expecting to find Zeena. Then compare it to the same view as Ethan passes by on his way home to Mattie. You'll probably be struck by the contrast in word choice between the two passages.

The novel is also crowded with descriptions containing black (shadows, spruce trees, gravestones) and white (snow, clouds). A director filming Ethan Frome would be well advised to use black and white- as well as red. Red, suggesting passion, appears on Mattie's lips and cheeks, and in her hair ribbons. Also, the forbidden pickle-dish, which Mattie uses to charm Ethan, is made of "gay red glass."

Of all the novel's symbols, the one that's most enduring for many readers is the pickle-dish. It may stick in your mind because it's such an unusual object. But more to the point, do you see the symbolic importance of the dish? Why, for instance, does the pickle-dish have to be broken? Could it suggest the end of Ethan and Mattie's love? If not, what influence does the shattering of the dish have on Ethan's illusion that he's married to Mattie? Might it also foretell Ethan and Mattie's smash-up near the end of the book? However you choose to interpret the incident of the pickle-dish, you can be fairly sure that you'll remember it long after many other details have faded from your memory.

Another striking symbol is Zeena's cat. The cat intrudes all through Ethan and Mattie's wonderful evening together. What purpose is served by having the cat sit in her mistress' place? Why should the cat's assault on the milk-jug lead to the smashing of the pickle-dish? Notice, too, how the cat ends Ethan's effort to have a tender moment with Mattie. Zeena herself could hardly have been a greater nuisance than the cat. When she returns from Bettsbridge, Zeena feeds and strokes the cat. Why do you think Edith Wharton inserted that scene?

POINT OF VIEW

The words of the novel come to you through the narrator, a young engineer. He tells you about the winter he spent in Starkfield, Massachusetts, several years ago while working for the local power company. As a stranger he knows no more than you about the town and people. He merely relates his observations. At the post office every day he notices a tall, grizzled customer- Ethan Frome. Ethan is so curious-looking that the narrator asks some townspeople about him. But Starkfielders are tight-lipped with strangers and reveal only a few odd bits and pieces. From these scraps the narrator constructs the story.

In a snowstorm one night the narrator finds refuge in Ethan's house. There he finds "the clue to Ethan Frome," and begins to sort out the odd bits and pieces he has heard from others.

The narrator uses his own words to tell his "vision," as he calls it, of Ethan Frome's story. Most likely he has altered details, added a description or two he never heard from a townsperson, rearranged events. He says that the story was different each time someone talked to him about it, and doesn't pretend that his "vision" is what actually happened, only what might have happened.

Edith Wharton puts her own words into the pen of the young engineer. Through him she tells her "tragedy," because he is the only person capable of understanding the whole story. To the townspeople, Ethan's story is complicated and mysterious, but the narrator has the perspective to tell it simply, and to put it in its rightful place.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

Ethan Frome is a remembrance of past events. (Wharton is said to have been very impressed by the first volume of the French writer Marcel Proust's great work, Remembrance of Things Past.) The most recent event happened several years ago when the narrator lived for a winter in Starkfield, Massachusetts. During that time he came to know the story of Ethan Frome.

The narrator tells you how he found out about Ethan in the introductory chapter, which serves as a prologue to the main story. In the prologue you learn about present-day Starkfield and its people. You also become acquainted with the land around the village, and you hear a few random facts about Ethan. At this point you can't tell which facts are important and which are not. One detail that impresses the narrator is that Ethan is fifty-two years old, but looks far older.

At the end of the prologue the narrator finds himself spending the night in Ethan's house. That evening he "found the clue to Ethan Frome," and in the first chapter begins to relate an account of Ethan's life between the ages of approximately eighteen and twenty-eight.

The narrator uses Chapters I to IX to tell you the story of Ethan's tragic romance with Mattie Silver, an affair that ended twenty-four years before. But throughout the tale you find additional references to events that happened even earlier. For example, in a single chapter you might see Ethan as an eighteen-year-old college student and then eavesdrop on a conversation he had last year. Next you may witness something that happened last night.

As you read, you need to stay alert for sudden shifts in time. You may think that it's easier to read a story told chronologically. No doubt it often is, but think why in this novel it may be more fitting to leap from one part of the hero's life to another. Doesn't it resemble the way in which details of Ethan's life were revealed to the narrator? The information was unfolded in bits and pieces, not as a sequential story.

Chapter IX ends with Mattie and Ethan lying injured in the snow after their smash-up. Then comes a concluding chapter, which you might call an epilogue. In the epilogue the narrator has returned to his residence in Starkfield after a night in Ethan's farmhouse. The landlady, Mrs. Hale, tells him what happened to Ethan and Mattie after the smash-up and finishes the story with a bitter comment about life in the Frome household during the last twenty-four years. At the end you realize why Ethan appears so much older than he is.

Edith Wharton called writing Ethan Frome the "construction" of a picture. That's an apt description if you think of the prologue and epilogue as a kind of frame for Ethan's story. By framing the story, Wharton helps you to focus on the subject. From the very beginning you know what Ethan has become. You read the book to find out how.

THE STORY

THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES


ECC [Ethan Frome Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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