Study Guide

Ethan Frome

by Edith Wharton

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What is a literary classic and why are these classic works important to the world?

A literary classic is a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry. A classic, through its enduring presence, has withstood the test of time and is not bound by time, place, or customs. It speaks to us today as forcefully as it spoke to people one hundred or more years ago, and as forcefully as it will speak to people of future generations. For this reason, a classic is said to have universality.

Edith Wharton was born on January 24, 1862, into a wealthy family in New York City at a time when the social elite held the political and economic power in the city. The young Wharton had the good fortune to know some of the greatest American writers, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Wharton began writing poetry in her teens, and her intelligence, her understanding of the workings of wealthy society, and her sense of humor all contributed to her success as a writer.

In 1897, Wharton's first non-fiction book, The Decoration of Houses, was published. Shortly afterwards, however, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Fortunately, her doctor suggested that as part of her recovery, she should begin writing fiction. In the 1890s, Wharton began contributing short stories to Scribner's, one of the most prestigious magazines of this time. Later, after an affair and a divorce, she moved to Paris where she lived for the rest of her life. She loved being among the writers and artists there, who challenged her intellectually, and she appreciated the higher status afforded women in France.

Wharton wrote her first novel, The House of Mirth, in 1905. During World War I, Wharton became a journalist for American newspapers. Although writing was the most important part of Wharton's life, the prolific author was active in many philanthropic endeavors as well, which earned her the French Legion of Honor. She raised funds and established the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, which helped move more than 600 children away from the advancing German army.

Ethan Frome, published in 1911, was a departure from Wharton's previous tales of opulence and wealth, but it, too, attracted a large audience. In 1920, she won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence. Three years later, she received an honorary doctorate from Yale University, making her the first woman to be so honored.

Edith Wharton died in 1937.