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Ethan Frome
Edith Wharton




_____ 1. The narrator fails to learn the whole story of Ethan Frome from the people in Starkfield because

    A. details of Ethan's past have faded from the townspeople's memory
    B. they are embarrassed by Ethan's behavior
    C. they don't know the whole story
_____ 2. The main reason Zeena decides to let Mattie go is that Mattie
    A. broke the glass pickle-dish
    B. is a sloppy housekeeper
    C. keeps Ethan from caring for the farm and mill
_____ 3. Harmon Gow calls Ethan one of the "smart ones" because Ethan
    A. seeks larger meanings under the surface of things
    B. went to college
    C. deals shrewdly with Mr. Hale
_____ 4. The major causes of Ethan's suffering are
    I. his marriage to Zeena
    II. his love for Mattie
    III. his poverty
    A. I and II only
    B. I and III only
    C. I, II, and III
_____ 5. Ethan decides that he can't run off with Mattie after all because
    A. Zeena would never grant him a divorce
    B. he can't afford it
    C. his conscience tells him it would be wrong
_____ 6. Ethan spends a period of his life in almost total silence because
    A. Zeena is too preoccupied with her ailments
    B. he lives alone
    C. his mother is too sickly to speak
_____ 7. Symbolic meanings may be seen in
    I. the glass pickle dish
    II. the missing "L" of Ethan's farmhouse
    III. Ethan's boots in the hallway
    A. I and II only
    B. I and III only
    C. I, II, and III
_____ 8. Mrs. Hale's comment, "You've had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome"
    A. convinces Ethan to abandon Zeena
    B. helps Ethan to make peace with Zeena
    C. startles Ethan because he never expected it
_____ 9. Ethan defies Zeena when he
    A. spends the night in his study
    B. drives Mattie to the train
    C. refuses to pay Zeena's doctor bills
_____ 10. Ethan asks Zeena to marry him principally because he
    A. can't face being left alone on the farm
    B. is grateful for her help
    C. feels sorry for her

11. How does money- or its absence- influence the life of Ethan Frome?

12. What role does the winter season play in the novel?

13. To what extent is Ethan responsible for his own fate?

14. Which character in the novel suffers the most?

15. Discuss the notion of reality vs. illusion in the novel.


_____ 1. Ethan leads a sad life and comes to an unhappy end largely due to

    A. his loyalty to his family
    B. his pessimism
    C. his unwillingness to take risks
_____ 2. When Mattie arrives in Starkfield she is
    A. anxious to start her new job
    B. weak, timid, and sickly
    C. planning to stay only a short time
_____ 3. When Ethan tells Mattie to "Come along," he
    A. has just realized that he loves her
    B. can't think of anything better to say
    C. is showing his jealousy of Denis Eady
_____ 4. Mattie does not realize that Ethan loves her because
    A. she thinks of him as a second father
    B. he has never told her
    C. he is married
_____ 5. Ethan feels it is necessary to lie to Zeena about
    A. who broke the glass pickle-dish
    B. collecting money from Mr. Hale
    C. where he goes each night with Mattie
_____ 6. Allusions to death and dying occur throughout the novel because
    I. winter is a lifeless season
    II. life for Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie is no better than death
    III. they add to the mood of the story
    A. I and II only
    B. II and III only
    C. I, II, and III
_____ 7. What Ethan likes best about his evening with Mattie is
    A. pretending to be married to her
    B. being rid of Zeena for a short time
    C. the dinner she prepared
_____ 8. Ethan suspects that Zeena went to Bettsbridge
    I. As part of a scheme to get rid of Mattie
    II. to prove to him that she was very sick
    III. to lay a trap for Mattie and him
    A. I and II only
    B. I and III only
    C. I, II, and III
_____ 9. Seeing Ruth and Ned kissing under the spruces
    A. heightens Ethan's ardor for Mattie
    B. makes Ethan envious of their happiness
    C. embarrasses Ethan
_____ 10. Ethan realizes that he will never leave Starkfield after
    A. he drops out of college
    B. he marries Zeena
    C. he can't find a buyer for his farm

11. How does sickness influence the life of Ethan Frome?

12. How does the setting help to develop the novel's themes?

13. What if the story had been told by Zeena instead of Ethan? Comment on how it might be different.

14. Is Ethan "smart," as Harmon Gow says?

15. Discuss death as a motif in the novel.


  1. C
  2. B
  3. A
  4. C
  5. B
  6. C
  7. A
  8. C
  9. B
  10. A

11. Considering how often money is mentioned in the novel, it must be important in the life of the main character. But usually it's a lack of money that affects Ethan.

Before Ethan's father died, the old man, in his delirium, gave away much of the family wealth. Therefore, Ethan starts out with little money. And when he marries Zeena, he remains poor because Zeena spends the little he earns on doctors and patent medicines.

Mattie enters Ethan's life because her father bilked money from his wife's relatives. When he died, his debts could not be paid. Cast out of her family, Mattie came penniless to Starkfield.

It's the absence of money, too, that prevents Ethan from escaping to the West with Mattie. On his way to ask Andrew Hale to pay for a load of lumber, Ethan meets Mrs. Hale. Her kindly manner causes Ethan to change his mind.

The final blow-up between Ethan and Zeena occurs over money. Zeena has hired a new girl to replace Mattie. Because Ethan can't afford both to pay the new girl and to feed Mattie, Mattie must go.

Clearly there's plenty of evidence in the book to prove that lack of money helps to determine Ethan's lot in life. Although Ethan needs help, he's too proud to ask for it. Hale doesn't pay his debt because he doesn't know how poverty-stricken Ethan is, and Ethan won't tell.

12. Ethan claims that he would not have married Zeena had his mother died in the spring or summer. Why?

Do you remember that Ethan feared being left alone on the farm in the dead of winter? Zeena remained his only hope of avoiding utter loneliness. Other events in the novel hinge on the fact that it is winter; for example, Ethan and Mattie's fateful sled ride and the snowstorm that trapped the narrator in Ethan's house. Review the story for other examples.

Setting the book in the wintertime also allows the author to create a certain mood. Winter is the lifeless season. In winter, people- especially country people- are often isolated inside their houses. The land is silent under a blanket of snow. Wharton could not have emphasized such themes as isolation and silence in her novel without the aid of the winter season.

Look at a winter landscape. What colors predominate? Look through the book for white, gray, and black imagery. You should find an abundance of these colors.

13. This question invites three different responses: Ethan is totally responsible; he is not at all responsible; and he is partly responsible.

To use the first approach, think of all of Ethan's decisions. As a mature person he should be held responsible for marrying Zeena, for allowing her to dominate him, for allowing himself to fall in love with Mattie, and so forth. Since Ethan had the choice to do or not to do each of these, he must take the responsibility for his actions.

On the other hand you can think of Ethan as a victim of circumstances. After all, it wasn't his fault that Zeena turned out to be sickly. Also, can a man really prevent himself from falling in love? Moreover, Ethan didn't want to be poor; it just turned out that way. As for his personal qualities, can a man be blamed for being inarticulate or insecure, or being any other way?

To take the middle road, simply hold Ethan accountable for creating some of his problems, and let him off the hook for others.

14. This is a difficult question because you can make a case for any of the three main characters as the chief sufferer.

If you choose Ethan, emphasize how he suffers from loneliness and isolation. Show how he feels trapped- by Zeena, his poverty, his farm, and his personality. Being unable to speak the words on his mind gives him intense pain. His hopes for a better life are repeatedly destroyed. He suffers the anguish of loving a woman who, as far as he knows, does not return his love. And in the end, he lives out his years tormented by two women who constantly fight with each other.

Zeena suffers, too, although you're not likely to sympathize with her. Whether her illnesses are authentic or imagined, they are real enough to make her an invalid. To spend so much of one's life consulting doctors and taking medicine- all to no avail- takes its toll in suffering. In addition, no one can enjoy being trapped inside a repulsive body like Zeena's. Finally, she has a husband who would be unfaithful if he had the opportunity, and she spends two dozen years taking care of the woman who should be her enemy.

Mattie, too, has had a grim life, although she covers her suffering with smiles and a cheerful disposition- until the smash-up, at any rate. After that she is paralyzed from the neck down, totally dependent on others. Her suffering ages her long before her time. Of the three characters she certainly endures the most physical pain.

Read through the Themes section of this study guide for a discussion of reality and illusion. It provides examples of how Ethan is beset by dreams that never come true.

Beyond that you might consider the "reality" of the story. Could such a story really take place? Are the characters real or are they stereotypes? Or perhaps composites made up of different types?

Ask yourself these questions: Why does Ethan remain with Zeena? Why does Zeena come to the rescue in the end? Would two real people in Ethan and Mattie's circumstances agree to kill themselves? Would a man change his life plans after receiving an offhand compliment from the wife of a business acquaintance? Is life really as somber as Wharton presents it in her novel?

Remember, finally, that the story is told years after it happened. Did it happen the way the narrator tells it? Or is it safe to assume that the passage of years has distorted the story beyond recognition?


  1. A
  2. B
  3. B
  4. B
  5. B
  6. C
  7. A
  8. A
  9. B
  10. C

11. The more broadly you interpret the word "sickness," the richer your answer will be. Obviously you can find many examples of physical sickness that touch Ethan's life. Zeena's illness traps Ethan on the farm, depletes his resources, and enables him to spend an evening alone with Mattie. Ethan would never have known Mattie at all if illnesses had not taken her parents' lives. At the same time he and Zeena became acquainted as a result of old Mrs. Frome's fatal ailments.

If you consider injury as a kind of sickness, you might also mention that Ethan abandoned his plan to become a scientist when his father lost his health from a kick in the head by a horse. Finally, the injury which Mattie suffered in the smash-up changes Ethan's life forever. Just a list of sicknesses and injuries won't answer this question fully, however. What's the point of citing these examples? They prove that Ethan has been a victim of other people's maladies all his life. (See "The Tyranny of Sickness" in the Themes section of this study guide for a fuller discussion.) But they also create a mood in the novel. The characters are not only physically sick, they are also sick at heart. Their lives lack meaning; they suffer from dead souls. Although Ethan remains intact physically, he might as well be dead.

12. Before you answer, read the Themes section of this study guide. You'll find several references to Starkfield, especially Starkfield in the dead of winter.

Who would live in an isolated village but isolated people? The setting, therefore, contributes to each character's loneliness. For example, Ethan is out of touch not only with Zeena, but with his whole community as well.

Most of the novel takes place in the wintertime, the season of death. You see reminders of lifelessness in the barren land, the dormant trees, the town buried under snow. Ethan walks past his family graveyard going to and from work every day, keeping him ever mindful of his fate.

The snowbound countryside helps to develop the theme of silence. If you've ever been in a snow-covered, windless place far from civilization, you know the eerie sound of silence. In the novel the absence of sound extends into the lives of the characters. Ethan and Zeena rarely speak, and Ethan is tongue-tied much of the time. Moreover, for a long time he took care of his sick mother, who spent her last years almost mute.

Ethan and Zeena's story would be unlikely today. Many modern couples, as unhappy as Ethan and Zeena were, would probably split up. When Ethan and Zeena married, however, most couples remained united until they died. The theme of loyalty to one's marriage vows may now seem out-of-date, but not in a novel set in the years around 1900.

13. You can have some fun with this question. Would Zeena come down on Ethan as hard as he came down on her? Or would she be gentler? What would Zeena say about Mattie? Did she know about the relationship between Ethan and Mattie? Was Zeena as sick as she claimed? Would she present herself as a sympathetic figure? An abused wife? A good-hearted soul trying to save her marriage from the home-wrecker, Mattie?

You might also comment on specific scenes in the novel. For example, what did Zeena think when Mattie and Ethan came knocking on the kitchen door? What were her thoughts when she discovered the broken pickle-dish? Most fascinating of all, how did she come to terms with Mattie and Ethan's suicidal sled-ride? Why hadn't they gone directly to the train station?

On the night of the smash-up Zeena summons enough strength to abandon her sickbed forever. How she does so is never explained. How do you think she might explain it?

Changing the point of view in the novel opens up innumerable variations and possibilities. Let your imagination soar.

14. Because "smart" to Harmon may differ from "smart" to you, define the term. Since Harmon is an unlettered fellow, he looks up to Ethan for having gone to college and for being "aware of the huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things." That is, to Harmon, Ethan is practically an intellectual, a label that you may accept or reject.

If you take the term "smart" to mean knowledgeable, Ethan is smart in science, in farming, and in sawmill operations. He also knows how to care for horses. You can probably assume that he's well informed about other matters, too, but you won't find evidence in the book.

Factual information aside, is there anything that Ethan should know, but doesn't? Most likely, yes, because he would not have such a difficult time in life if he knew, for example, how to manage Zeena. Nor can he deal with other people very handily. You can probably think of many other instances when Ethan gets into trouble, bungles a job, or makes an error that a "smarter" person might have avoided.

By no means is Ethan dull; however, living where and as he does, he has few opportunities to show his intelligence. On the other hand you might think that living where and as he does testifies to a weakness of character.

15. This topic is rich with possibilities. You might think first of how death shapes events in the story. The parents of both Ethan and Mattie die. Review the plot to see how these deaths eventually bring Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie together.

The story is crowded with reminders of death, including the Frome family gravestones with their morbid messages. The winter drains the life out of plants, buries the houses in snow, and so on. (See the Themes section of this guide for more examples.)

As important as the deaths of people and plants are the symbolic deaths suffered by the characters. Zeena, at least, cannot be said to live a life fit for humans. Every day Ethan seems to die a thousand times as he battles with insecurity, embarrassment, and a tongue that fails him.

Finally, Mattie and Ethan try to kill themselves. Because they fail, they are doomed to a living death.

[Ethan Frome Contents]


    1. Is Ethan Frome a tragic hero?
    2. Is any character in the story heroic?
    3. Who is the novel's villain?
    4. Who or what is responsible for the sad fate of Ethan Frome?
    5. How would the book be different if Zeena told the story? If Mattie told the story?
    6. Do the characters control their own destinies?
    7. How important are the novel's minor characters?
    8. Would today's feminist movement object to Ethan Frome?
    9. To what degree is the setting of the novel also a character?
    1. How does the concept of reality vs. illusion help to shape Ethan and Mattie's love?
    2. Why is Ethan Frome set in the wintertime?
    3. Why does death play such a large role in shaping the novel?
    4. How does Wharton's choice of symbols affect the mood of the novel?
    5. What relationships exist between symbols and themes in the novel? Between symbols and characters?
    6. How does money, or lack of it, help to shape the story?
    1. How does the language reflect the mood or theme in the novel?
    2. Why did Wharton choose to tell the tale as a remembrance of things past?
    3. What is gained or lost by using the prologue and epilogue as a "frame" for the main story?
    4. How does the narrator function? Does he have a role in the novel, or is he merely a transmitter of information?
    5. What is the significance of the names of places and people in the novel?
    6. When and how does Wharton use foreshadowing in the novel?
    1. Is Edith Wharton correct in calling the novel a tragedy?
    2. Does irony play a part in the novel?
    3. Does the novel present a totally pessimistic view of life?
    4. What does the novel say about the institution of marriage?
    5. Is Ethan Frome a moral book?
    6. Does the novel accurately depict life in New England in the early 1900s?

[Ethan Frome Contents]


Starkfield's builder. Ethan delivers a load of lumber to him the day Zeena goes to Bettsbridge. Andrew is Ned Hale's father.

Zeena's aunt in Bettsbridge. Zeena spends the night at her house.

Zeena's aunt from Philadelphia. The red glass pickle-dish was her wedding gift to Zeena and Ethan.

A town some thirty miles from Starkfield, where Zeena goes to consult a new doctor.

The closest railroad stop to Starkfield.

The site of the powerhouse where the book's narrator, a young engineer, works.

The road to the Flats. In Starkfield the road has a very steep hill, down which Ethan and Mattie take their final sleigh ride.

The sleigh driver who takes Mattie's trunk to the station.

A young man in Starkfield whom Ethan considers a rival for Mattie's affection. Eventually he becomes a rich grocer and the owner of the local livery stable. -

Zeena's physician in Bettsbridge. Because of his diagnosis of her ailments, Zeena hires a new girl to replace Mattie.

The main character. The novel tells of Ethan's life from his days as a young man until his early fifties.

Starkfield's stage driver in pre-trolley days, he is one of the narrator's informants about Ethan Frome.

The Fromes' hired man.

The town lawyer, he owns the Varnum house and is the father of Ruth Varnum, who marries Ned Hale.

Zeena Frome's cousin who comes to stay with Ethan and Zeena. She and Ethan fall in love, which leads to the story's tragic ending.

Starkfield's Irish grocer, he's a clever businessman and also the father of Denis Eady.

Mother of Ned Hale, she speaks sympathetically to Ethan, kindling such guilt in him that he cannot carry out his plan to go West with Mattie.

During part of the story she is Ruth Varnum, fiancee of Ned Hale. Later she is Ned's widow and owns the house where the narrator stays during his time in Starkfield. She was the first to see Ethan and Mattie after the smash-up.

Son of Andrew and Mrs. Hale, he married Ruth Varnum.

Mattie's father, whose death left Mattie destitute.

Daughter of Lawyer Varnum, she marries Ned Hale. See Mrs. Ned Hale.

Closest large town to Starkfield.

Mattie's hometown in Connecticut.

Site of the story; its name suggests the kind of place it is- cold, desolate, and dreary.

A well-known family in Starkfield. In front of the Varnum's house stand two large spruce trees that figure in the story.

Site of the technical college that Ethan attended for one year.

Ethan's sickly wife, she is the odd person in the love triangle that blooms in the story.

THE STORY, continued

ECC [Ethan Frome Contents] []

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
Further distribution without the written consent of, Inc. is prohibited.

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