Ethan Frome Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome depicts a nightmarish world, completely empty of the warmth and joy to be found in loving human interaction. Set in the cold and harsh landscapes of Starkfield, Massachusetts, the story is told by a narrator who attempts to discover what tragedy caused the enigmatic Ethan Frome’s literal and spiritual crippling. Piecing together information, the narrator learns that years earlier Ethan married Zenobia Pierce, a distant cousin who nursed his mother during her final illness. Shortly after the wedding, Ethan realized that his was a marriage without love and that he had simply exchanged the suffocating responsibility of a sick mother for the suffocating tie of a sick wife. Ethan, once filled with aspirations, finds instead that he is lashed to a wife whom he loathes and to a near-sterile farm that he cannot sell.

With lightness and life, Mattie Silver (Zenobia’s younger cousin) comes to the Frome house to help with chores. Mattie and Ethan fall in love, yet the strictures of conventional morality and Frome’s own strong sense of duty and loyalty prevent him from doing any more than voicing a tender, painfully pathetic love avowal. When Mattie is forced to leave, she decides that she would rather die than be separated from Ethan. Her plan, to crash their sled into an elm at the bottom of a steep slope, is tacitly agreed to by Ethan. However, the two survive the death ride, and the lovers’ suicide pact takes on a cruel twist. Mattie and Ethan, crippled and dispirited, share a living death in which their caretaker is the suddenly hardy Zenobia.

Ethan personifies the grievous waste of failed greatness. His body, a metaphor for his spirit, is described as “lame” and “warped,” and his once gallant and noble head rests on once “strong shoulders” which are now “bent out of shape.” In Ethan, the narrator confronts a prodigious soul grown weary, warped, and lame, and the narrator sees in Ethan’s ghastly alteration the suffering of a misspent life. Ethan, believing his renunciation of Mattie was motivated by a sense of honor, fails to see that the moral significance of the situation was not as clear and definable as he believed. Centering his choice on duty, not love, Ethan failed to consider the effect of his decision on Zenobia, in a marriage with a man who found her abhorrent, or on Mattie, who apparently did love him. Frome also never understood his own fear of change and of intimate sexual expression.

Despite its apparent bleakness, Ethan Frome articulates Edith Wharton’s most humanistic theme: The contact that people make with others can be the most meaningful thing that emerges from the stark field of human existence. The greatest tragedy is the failure to establish meaningful involvement with another.

Ethan Frome Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ethan Frome is twenty-one years old when he marries Zenobia Pierce, a distant cousin who nursed his sick mother during her last illness. It is a wedding without love. Zenobia, called Zeena, has no home of her own, and Ethan is lonely, and so they are married. Zeena’s talkativeness, which was pleasing to Ethan during his mother’s illness, quickly subsides, and within a year of their marriage, Zeena develops the sickliness that is to plague her husband all her life. Ethan becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his life. He is an intelligent and ambitious young man who hoped to become an engineer or a chemist. He soon, however, finds himself stuck with a wife he detests and a farm he cannot sell.

The arrival of Mattie Silver brightens the gloomy house considerably. Mattie, Zeena’s cousin, comes to Starkfield partly because she has no other place to go and partly because Zeena feels in need of a companion around the house. Ethan sees in Mattie’s goodness and beauty every fine quality that Zeena lacks.

When Zeena suggests that Ethan help Mattie find a husband, he begins to realize how much he is attracted to the girl. When he goes to a church social to bring Mattie home and sees her dancing with the son of a rich Irish grocer, he realizes that he is jealous of this rival and in love with Mattie. On his way home with her, Ethan feels his love for Mattie more than ever, for on that occasion, as on others, she flatters him by asking him questions on astronomy. His dreams of happiness are short-lived, however, for when he reaches home, Zeena is her nagging, sour self. The contrast between Zeena and Mattie impresses him more and more.

One day, Ethan returns from his morning’s work to find Zeena dressed in her traveling clothes. She is going to visit a new doctor in nearby Bettsbridge. Ordinarily, Ethan would have objected to the journey because of the expensive remedies that Zeena is in the habit of buying on her trips to town. On this occasion, however, he is overjoyed at the news of Zeena’s proposed departure, for he realizes that he and Mattie will have the house to themselves overnight.

With Zeena out of the way, Ethan again becomes a changed man. Later in the evening, before supper, Ethan and Mattie sit quietly before the fire, just as Ethan imagines happily married couples would do. During supper, the cat breaks Zeena’s favorite pickle dish, which Mattie used to brighten up the table. In spite of the accident, they spend the rest of the evening happily. They talk about going sledding together, and Ethan tells Mattie shyly—and perhaps wistfully—that he saw Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale, a young engaged couple, stealing a kiss earlier in the evening.

In the morning Ethan is happy, but not because of anything out of the ordinary the night before. In fact, when he went to bed, he remembered sadly that he did not so much as touch Mattie’s fingertips or look into her eyes. He is happy because he can imagine what a wonderful life he could have if he were married to Mattie. He gets glue to mend the pickle dish, but Zeena’s unexpected return prevents him from repairing it. His spirits are further dampened when Zeena tells him that the Bettsbridge doctor considers her quite sick. He advised her to get a girl to relieve her of all household duties, a stronger girl than Mattie. She already engaged the new girl. Ethan is dumbfounded by this development. In her insistence that Mattie be sent away, Zeena gives the first real hint that she may be aware of gossip about her husband and Mattie.

When Ethan tells Mattie of Zeena’s decision, the girl is as crestfallen as Ethan. Zeena interrupts their lamentations, however, by coming downstairs for something to eat. After supper, she requires stomach powders to relieve a case of heartburn. In getting the powders, which she hides in a spot supposedly unknown to Mattie, Zeena discovers the broken pickle dish, which was carefully reassembled. Detecting the deception and learning that Mattie is responsible for the broken dish, Zeena calls Mattie insulting names and shows plainly that the girl will be sent away at the earliest possible moment.

Faced with the certainty of Mattie’s departure, Ethan thinks of running away with her. His poverty and his sense of responsibility to Zeena permit no solution to his problem, only greater despair. On the morning Mattie is to leave Starkfield, Ethan, against the wishes of his wife, insists on driving Mattie to the station. The thought of parting is unbearable to both. They decide to take the sleigh ride that Ethan promised Mattie the night before. Down the hill they go, narrowly missing a large elm tree at the bottom. Mattie, who told Ethan that she would rather die than leave him, begs until Ethan agrees to take her down the hill a second time and to run the sled into the elm at the bottom of the slope; but they fail to hit the tree with force sufficient to kill them. The death they seek becomes a living death, for in the accident Mattie suffers a permanent spine injury and Ethan an incurable lameness. The person who receives Mattie into her home, who waits on her, and who cooks for Ethan is Zeena.

Ethan Frome Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ethan Frome, neither a commercial nor a critical success when first published, actually offended many of Wharton’s contemporaries by its harsh portrayal of New England life and its characters’ failure to triumph over adversity. Nevertheless, its popularity gradually increased until, by 1920, it had become the best-known and most widely read of Wharton’s works. Wharton herself believed that too much attention was paid to Ethan Frome at the expense of her other novels. Indeed, to judge her career solely by this single novella would prove misleading, because it is very unlike her other major works in setting, tone, and characterization. Like much of her other work, however, it deals with the relationship between an individual and that individual’s society.

Structured as a frame tale, the story unfolds from the point of view of Lockwood, a young engineer on assignment in the isolated New England village of Starkfield. His curiosity about one of the town’s characters, the physically deformed but striking Ethan Frome, drives him to construct a “vision” of Ethan’s history, assembled from information gathered in conversation with various townspeople and from his own observations of the fifty-two-year-old farmer.

The significance of this structure cannot be overestimated; Wharton even adds an uncharacteristic introduction to explain her decision to employ this literary device, which achieves perspective by creating an educated, observant narrator to intercede between the simple characters and the more sophisticated reader. Wharton also adds poignancy by setting the novella twenty-four years after the main action occurs.

Lockwood relates the simple but compelling story of twenty-eight-year-old Ethan Frome, a farmer and mill owner left nearly destitute after the death of his parents, both of whom suffered mental disorders. After enduring lonely years of silence with his mother, who was too busy listening for imagined “voices” to converse with him, Frome marries Zenobia Pierce, seven years his senior, who had nursed Mrs. Frome in her dying days. The sound of Zeena’s voice in his house is music to Ethan’s starved ears, and by marrying her he hopes to escape further loneliness.

Soon after their marriage, however, Zeena becomes obsessed with her various aches and pains, and she concerns herself solely with doctors, illnesses, and cures, falling as silent as his mother.

At her doctor’s advice, Zeena takes in her homeless young cousin, Mattie Silver, to help with the housework. Although a hapless housekeeper, Mattie brings a vitality to the Frome house that has been absent for years, and she and Ethan fall in love. Trapped by circumstances, as well as by Ethan’s strong sense of responsibility toward Zeena, the two foresee no future together.

On the evening that Zeena sends Mattie away for good, Ethan and Mattie decide to aim their sled straight for a giant elm tree so that they might find mutual solace in death. Both, however, survive the plunge, which paralyzes Mattie and disfigures Ethan. Zeena takes responsibility for caring for Mattie and Ethan, and the three live on in the Frome house, as Mattie becomes as querulous and unpleasant as Zeena and Ethan attempts to scratch out a living from his failing farm and mill.

In Ethan, “the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man,” Wharton fashions a character of heroic proportions. He is a country man who would have preferred the intellectual stimulation of the city, a sociable man doomed to silent suffering, a man whose misshapen body mirrors his thwarted intellectual and emotional life. Like Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, he is “more sensitive than the people about him to the appeal of natural beauty” but finds little of it in his own life. Like Lily, he feels trapped by society’s demands on him: “The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-wardens handcuffing a convict. There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life.”

As always in Wharton’s work, setting figures prominently, but in Ethan Frome the stark landscape of New England, rather than the elegant brownstones of New York City, provides the background. Wharton draws a close parallel between the action and the emotions of the characters and the bleak landscape; the two are inextricably intertwined. Ethan “seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface.” Even Frome’s house, lacking the “L” wing common to New England farm structures, reflects the emotionally stunted life existing inside, and the withering orchard of starving apple trees and crazily slanting gravestones in the family plot also mirror Frome’s blighted life.

Wharton uses irony, as well as landscape and imagery, to great effect in this work, often juxtaposing scenes for ironic effect. When Zeena greets Ethan at the kitchen door in the evening, “The light . . . drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wrist of the hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face under its ring of crimping-pins.” Later, however, when Mattie stands “just as Zeena had stood, a lifted lamp in her hand, against the black background of the kitchen. . . . [I]t drew out with the same distinctness her slim young throat and the brown wrist no bigger than a child’s.” Ethan Frome’s ultimate irony lies in the suicide pact which ends not in the mutual release of death but in endless years of pain and suffering and in the transformation of the vibrant young Mattie into a mirror image of the whining Zenobia.

Ethan Frome Summary

Ethan Frome is the story of a man who, following the death of his father, gives up his education and other opportunities to return to...

(The entire section is 1263 words.)

Ethan Frome Chapter Summaries

Introduction Summary

Everyone in Starkfield, Massachusetts, knows Ethan Frome and his tragic story—everyone but the narrator, who has arrived to work on an engineering project in nearby Corbury Junction. He gleans what he can in bits and pieces from the people in town with whom he comes in contact.

When he sees Ethan for the first time, he is stunned at this “ruin of a man.” Ethan is taller than most people in town, and he has a “lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain.” He has the look of someone who has lived a lot but would rather not have done so; though he is only fifty-two, Ethan seems much older since the “smash-up” twenty-four years ago. The narrator sees Ethan come to the post office every day to pick up...

(The entire section is 927 words.)

Chapter 1 Summary

It is evening, and a young Ethan walks through the darkness toward the church. He reflects on his time as a student of science. Although his father’s death several years earlier caused him to leave those studies, he is still intensely interested in the world around him. Light and the sound of dance music radiate from the church, and Ethan moves into the shadows to peer in the basement window. He sees young men and women on the dance floor surrounded by the older women and people playing instruments. The young people are preparing to leave. His eye is taken by a lively girl with a cherry-colored scarf tossed over her head, and his heart races. The young people have burst into one last dance, and the girl is in the arms of Dennis...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

The dancers leave the church and prepare to walk or get into their sleighs for the journey home. When someone asks Mattie if she is riding home, Ethan anxiously awaits her reply. She laughs and says of course she will be walking; Ethan steps further back into the shadows, suddenly reticent in Mattie’s presence. She looks around expectantly, but still Ethan does not make his presence known to her. Dennis Eady begins some flirtatious banter with Mattie and then offers her a ride home in his father’s sleigh. She appears to hesitate a bit, though she is no longer looking around her expectantly. Eady brings the sleigh near and throws back the rug for her, but Mattie darts off and tells him to have a nice ride home. He follows her,...

(The entire section is 756 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

The next morning, Ethan goes out early to work at the mill. He reflects on the night before and contrasts the sight of Mattie Silver in the glow of the lamplight with the sight of his wife—teeth in a glass near the bed, a flannel wrapped around her head, her raspy breathing, and her back turned ever toward him. He wonders why he did not kiss Mattie last night in the moonlight and thinks about the changes in Mattie since her arrival. Unlike most people in Starkfield, who grow more colorless and cold, Mattie has come alive and gained color since she has been here. Despite the austerity of her circumstances, she seems content. Perhaps, Ethan reflects, that is because of her family trials. Her father was involved in illegal financial...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

After Zeena leaves, Ethan bids Mattie a cheery farewell and heads off to cart the load of lumber to town. While the kitchen is not a particularly welcoming place, the thought of Zeena being out of it gives it a more cheerful aspect in Ethan’s mind. He envisions himself and Mattie as a comfortable married couple this evening, sitting by the fire in cozy companionship. His fears about Zeena causing trouble have evaporated, and Ethan anticipates the evening ahead.

He used to be a more sociable man, but each year back in Starkfield after his time away seemed to deepen his solitude and silence. Working the farm after his father’s death has been difficult and leaves him little time or energy for nonessential things. Once...

(The entire section is 933 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

After dinner, Ethan goes to care for the animals for the night while Mattie tidies the kitchen. When he returns, Ethan sees the picture he envisioned, Mattie sitting with her sewing by the light of a lamp. It is, to him, perfect contentment. He takes off his boots, picks up his pipe, and becomes part of the domestic scene. When he realizes he is unable to see Mattie from his position, he asks her to come sit nearer to him. Mattie does so, seating herself in Zeena’s nearby rocking chair. Looking at her there gives Ethan a start because he sees Zeena’s face superimposed over the younger woman’s face. Mattie, too, feels ill at ease and moves back to the light of the lamp. Ethan gets up to stoke the fire and uses the opportunity...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

At breakfast the next morning, Ethan acts proprietary and does not even offer to help Mattie with the dishes. He and Jotham make their plan for this rather muddy day; Jotham will be sent to retrieve Zeena while Ethan continues working on the farm. He goes back to the house one more time. He wants to say that these will be their last moments alone together; instead, he simply tells Mattie he will probably be home for dinner. One of his errands in town is to buy glue, but the miry roads cause one of his horses to get cut and he is running short of time. When he finally makes it to town, the regular clerks are not at Eady’s store and Ethan is forced to ask Dennis Eady for help. The inexperienced Dennis is unable to find glue...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

After hanging up his wet garments, Ethan calls upstairs to Zeena; when she does not answer, he makes his way to their bedroom. He finds her sitting rigidly by the window, still in her traveling clothes. This is the pattern after such a trip, and Ethan is not surprised when she says she does not think she can eat any dinner. This time, however, after making this statement she does not immediately make her way to the table. “I’m a great deal sicker than you think,” she tells her husband. With a great sigh, she announces she has “complications”—a dire pronouncement that leaves Ethan with mixed feelings. He makes a tactical error by questioning the wisdom of this new doctor, to which Zeena reacts sharply. She tells Ethan...

(The entire section is 1090 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

After Zeena walks out of the room, Mattie begins to do the dishes and Ethan performs his usual night duties outside. When he returns, the kitchen is empty and Ethan goes to his small study behind the parlor. On a trip to the kitchen for his pipe and tobacco, Ethan finds a scrap of paper on which Mattie has written, “Don’t trouble, Ethan.” Back in his study, Ethan begins to fume and form thoughts of rebellion. He reflects that Zeena has become

a hundred times bitterer and more discontented than when he had married her.

His thoughts turn to a couple he knows, a man who left his wife and started a new life with a woman he loved. How easy it would be to just walk away with...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

When he arrives home, Zeena is reading a medical book and Mattie is upstairs sitting on her trunk in her bare room and crying. She stops when she sees Ethan and explains she thought he had left without saying good-bye. They share a short-lived moment of raw emotion and then work Mattie’s trunk around the corner and down the stairs. The trunk is sent to the station on another sleigh, and they sit down to one last meal. Clearly Zeena wants Jotham to take Mattie to the station, but Ethan insists. Zeena claims he must fix the furnace in the new girl’s room; Ethan declares that if it was good enough for Mattie it will certainly be good enough for the new girl. He leaves to go get the sleigh ready for this last ride.

When...

(The entire section is 666 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

Ethan is about to open the door to his home for the engineer on this treacherous snowy night. Inside, there is a “querulous drone” that stops the moment the door opens. The narrator sees two women but cannot tell from which of them the sound originated. One of the women gets up from her chair when the men enter, not in greeting but in preparation for the evening meal. This woman is angular and sallow, and her clothes hang from her bony frame. The other woman has a slighter build and is sitting hunched near the stove. She turns her head when the men enter, though her body does not move at all. Her hair is gray and she, too, appears “bloodless and shriveled.”

The kitchen is as destitute as the rest of the farm is....

(The entire section is 719 words.)