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Ethan Frome
Edith Wharton




Because Edith Wharton came from a level of society so far removed from the poor country people who populate Ethan Frome, critics have regarded her so-called "New England folk tale" with considerable skepticism. A highly regarded scholar, Alfred Kazin, wrote:

[Ethan Frome] was not a New England story and certainly not the granite "folk tale" of New England its admirers have claimed it to be. [Mrs. Wharton] knew little of the New England common world and perhaps cared even less. The world of the Frome tragedy is abstract. She never knew how the poor lived in Paris or London; she knew even less of how they lived in the New England villages where she spent an occasional summer.

On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, 1942

Not all critics are as harsh as Kazin. Grace Kellogg, for example, agrees that Ethan Frome is not a New England story. In her opinion, the story was probably based on a French folktale, which Edith Wharton tried to transplant to Massachusetts. If the setting were the Alps,

Ethan's character, which has been called too much of "granite" for the New England scene, orients itself at once on a bleak, isolated mountainside. Zeena's extraordinarily narrow, impervious nature finds a natural habitat there. As for Mattie, with her light gaiety, her innocence and purity and evanescent sweetness- she is the star-shaped blossom of edelweiss.

The feeling of isolation which obtains, basic to the story despite all statements of country dance, village slide, friendly neighbors, a city not too far away, is now accounted for....

...That Starkfield "bobsled" has struck in many a critical craw.... [It's] a clumsy almost ludicrous vehicle, this New England bobsled, devoid of tragic dignity. The toboggan of the folk tale offers no such embarrassment.

The Two Lives of Edith Wharton, 1965


Critic Blake Nevius writes with admiration of Edith Wharton's use of vivid details:

...they arise directly and easily, and always with the sharpest pertinence, from the significant grounds of character and situation.... Every reader will recall some of them: Mattie's tribute to the winter sunset- "It looks just as if it was painted"; Ethan's reluctance to have Mattie see him follow Zeena into their bedroom; the removal of Mattie's trunk; the watchful, sinister presence of Zeena's cat disturbing the intimacy of the lovers' evening together by appropriating her mistress' place at the table, breaking the pickle-dish, and later setting Zeena's rocking chair in motion. Zeena may not be a sympathetic character, but there is a moment when she makes us forget everything but her wronged humanity. As she confronts the guilty lovers, holding fragments of her beloved pickle-dish, her face streaming with tears, we have a sudden and terrible glimpse of the starved emotional life that has made her what she is. The novelist's compassion can reach no further.

Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction, 1953

The broken pickle-dish has attracted considerable critical comment. It has been viewed symbolically in many different ways. This idea from Richard H. Lawson:

The warmth of the evening is brought to an apprehensive end by the accidental breaking of one of Zeena's sacred, never-used pickle-dishes. That the pickle-dish, a wedding gift, has never been used makes it a strong symbol of Zeena herself, who prefers not to take part in life. The depth of Zeena's reaction to its being broken is revealed by her angrily twitching lips and by "two small tears... on her lashless lids."

Edith Wharton, 1977

Critic Margaret B. McDowell considers the pickle-dish an ironic symbol, closely related to other ironies in the book:

Zeena is not seen simply as part of Ethan's curse... but as a deprived woman who grieves over lost beauty when the cherished red pickle-dish she has saved since her wedding is used by Mattie and broken.

The book is fraught with such ironies: the dish that is treasured is the one that is broken; the pleasure of the one solitary meal that Ethan and Mattie share ends in distress; the ecstacy of the coasting ends in suffering; the moment of dramatic renunciation when Ethan and Mattie choose suicide rather than elopement ends not in glorious death but in years of pain. The lovely Mattie Silver becomes an ugly, querulous woman cared for by Zeena, who, again ironically, finds strength and companionship by caring for her former rival.

Edith Wharton, 1976

[Ethan Frome Contents]


We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.

Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York

Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York

Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series
Fort Morgan, Colorado

Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Tamalpais Union High School District
Mill Valley, California

Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
State University of New York College at Buffalo

Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
State University of New York College at Geneseo

Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo

Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
National Council of Teachers of English
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Guilderland Central School District, New York

Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts
Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois

[Ethan Frome Contents]




Auchincloss, Louis. Edith Wharton. University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers, No. 12. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961. A brief and informative literary biography.

Auchincloss, Louis. Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time. New York: Viking Press, 1971. A biography, abundantly illustrated with family photographs.

Coolidge, Olivia. Edith Wharton: 1862-1937. New York: Scribners, 1964. This biography focuses on Wharton's personal life and loves.

Kellogg, Grace. The Two Lives of Edith Wharton. New York: Appleton-Century, 1965. A popular presentation of Wharton's life and works.

Lewis, R. W. B.. Edith Wharton, A Biography. New York: Harper and Row, 1975. The definitive biography of Wharton.


Howe, Irving. ed. Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Twentieth Century Views Series. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962. A collection of essays devoted exclusively to Wharton's works, it contains something to interest everybody.

Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1942, pp. 79-90. Kazin is kind to some writers, but not to Wharton.

Lawson, Richard H. Edith Wharton. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977. Stresses the social values depicted in Wharton's works.

Nevius, Blake. Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953. A highly regarded study of Wharton's work.


Lawson, Richard H. "Ethan Frome," in Edith Wharton. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977, pp. 67-75.

McDowell, Margaret B. "Three Novellas about the Poor," in Edith Wharton. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976, pp. 64-72.

Nevius, Blake. "The Trapped Sensibility" and "The Remoter Imaginative Issues" in Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953.


    Italian Villas and Their Gardens, 1904
    The House of Mirth, 1905
    Madame de Treymes, 1907
    The Fruit of the Tree, 1907
    The Reef, 1912
    The Custom of the Country, 1913
    Summer, 1917
    The Age of Innocence, 1920
    The Glimpses of the Moon, 1922
    A Son at the Front, 1923
    The Writing of Fiction, 1925
    Here and Beyond, 1926
    Twilight Sleep, 1927
    The Children, 1928
    Certain People, 1930
    The Gods Arrive, 1932
    A Backward Glance, 1934
    Ghosts, 1937
    The Buccaneers, 1938


ECC [Ethan Frome Contents] []

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