Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome
Ethan Frome  
Cover of first edition of Ethan Frome
Author(s) Edith Wharton
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Scribner's
Publication date 1911
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 195 pp
ISBN 0-486-26690-7

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



Ethan Frome is set in a fictional 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.[2]

The novel is framed with the literary concept of an extended flashback. The first chapter opens with an unnamed narrator who, while spending a winter in Starkfield, 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. Frome is 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”.

The narrator fails to get many details from the townspeople. However, the narrator hires him as his driver for a week. A severe snowstorm forces Frome to take the narrator to his home one night for shelter. Just as the two are entering Frome's house, the first chapter ends. 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 is waiting outside a church dance for Mattie, his wife’s cousin, who lives with Ethan and his wife Zeena (Zenobia) 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 it is 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 which Mattie had set on the table. Ethan sets the dish's pieces neatly in the cupboard with plans to fix it soon. He 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 running away with Mattie, but he does not possess 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 run away 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, picking up Mattie to go to the train station. They stop at a hill upon which they had once proposed to go sledding, and they 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 agrees, and they take the ride down together. On the way down, a vision of Zeena's face makes Ethan try to turn aside at the last moment, but he recovers and hits the elm tree. Instead of both of them being killed, Ethan regains consciousness after the accident and, dazed and confused, finds Mattie lying beside him fully paralyzed and moaning in pain. Additionally, Ethan is partially paralyzed, finding movement to be difficult. This was the so-called "smash-up" introduced at the beginning of the novel.

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's personality has "soured" and Zeena now must care for her and Ethan.


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. Ethan's name means "strong, long lived" while Zenobia's name is rooted from Zeus, the Greek God- almighty, alwilling, yet merciless. Mattie's name means "gift from God". Being Zeena's gift to Ethan, she was easily able to "change" the outcome of Ethan's attempted suicide with Mattie.


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 the 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.

Connection to the author's life

Wharton likely based the story on an accident that she had heard about 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. A girl named Hazel Crosby was killed in the accident. Another girl involved in the accident, Kate Spencer, became friends with Wharton while both worked at the Lenox Library and it was from Spencer that Wharton 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] Another element that contributes to the story has to do with it 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]

Lenox is also where Wharton 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.[6] 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.[7]


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".[8] 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. 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."[9]

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 Silver and Zeena Frome. 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.[10]

In pop culture

Russian-American singer-songwriter Regina Spektor makes a reference to Ethan Frome in her song 2.99 Cent Blues on the album 11:11.

John Cusack's character in Grosse Point Blank asks his old school teacher, "Hey Mrs. Kinetta, are you still inflicting all that horrible Ethan Frome damage on your students?"


  1. ^ Canby, Vincent (1993-03-12). "Liam Neeson in Lead Of Wharton Classic". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  2. ^ "Ethan Frome - Plot Overview". SparkNotes. 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  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. ^ SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Ethan Frome.” SparkNotes LLC. 2003. 9 February 2010.
  7. ^ Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975.
  8. ^ "Three Lives in Supreme Torture" (PDF). The New York Times: p. BR603. October 8, 1911. Retrieved 2008-02-11. 
  9. ^ "Review of Ethan Frome". NovelGuide: Ethan Frome., n.d. 24 February 2010.
  10. ^ Lilburn, Jeffrey. "Ethan Frome (Criticism)." Retrieved 2010-02-24.

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