Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Ethan Frome is unique among Edith Wharton’s works in that it tells the tale of an isolated drama, far from the urban and societal concerns of her longer novels. It is also distinctive in that it is a “framework story,” that is, a story within a story. Wharton’s “frame” takes the form of a narrator who introduces the end of the story (Ethan is seen in the present, at age fifty-two) and then provides a “vision” of prior events that becomes the story proper. Although some framework stories never return to the frame, such as Henry James’s novel The Turn of the Screw (1898), Wharton’s narrator concludes the book with a return to the present and a chilling denouement that apparently explains the enigma of Ethan Frome and the hidden story of his past.
The narrator’s story is simultaneously a flashback and a re-creation. The reader never knows the “truth”—that is, the story from a source that took part in it (Ethan, Zeena, or Mattie)—but instead receives data through the filter of the nameless narrator, who surmises the events and pieces together a tale from the comments of other minor characters and from his own imagination. Ostensibly, though, the story of Ethan Frome is a tragic and dramatic portrayal of irony, both as a literary technique and an authorial worldview.
The first version of Ethan Frome was in French, which Wharton abandoned and then rewrote in English during a period of personal turmoil. She did not consider it her best work, despite critical acclaim, but did view it as “the fruition of her long search for technical mastery and artistic maturity” according to critic Margaret B. McDowell. This particular work’s relation to women’s issues is problematical because it does not address them directly. Instead, it presents a total and enclosed universe of restrictive...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Starkfield. Fictional village in the hills of western Massachusetts’s Berkshire County, where Wharton herself lived for many years. Small and rural, Starkfield lives up to its harsh name. Though connected by trolley to the larger town of Bettsbridge—which has libraries and theaters—Starkfield is isolated and lonely during the long New England winters. The village has a post office and a Congregational church. It also has one mansion, Lawyer Varnum’s house, in which the narrator boards during his enforced residency in the community. The narrator refers to the “deadness” of the community only two pages after describing Ethan Frome as looking dead.
Ethan lives outside Starkfield on his own infertile farm, where he ekes out a meager living by the force of his labor in the fields and in the sawmill that he has inherited from his father. Ethan is the embodiment of the landscape, an “incarnation” of its frozen woes. Even as Wharton describes the loneliness and the accumulated cold of the hard, lean winters in the Berkshire Hills, she is also describing her protagonist. His life is as harsh as the climate, and his world as desolate as the village in winter.
Frome farm. Ethan’s farm outside Starkfield, with a lonely New England farmhouse that seems to make the landscape even lonelier. Its starving apple trees grow out of a hillside on which slate is more visible than cleared fields. The ugly house is made of thin wooden walls in need of paint. It is smaller than it was in Ethan’s father’s time because Ethan has removed the “L,” which the narrator describes as the center or “hearthstone” of the New England farm. This suggests to readers how Ethan’s life has narrowed, while the narrator sees in the “diminished dwelling” an image of Ethan’s...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Although Ethan Frome does not directly posit an opinion on women’s issues, it implicitly describes the terrible restrictions and limitations of the world of its female characters. Unlike some of Wharton’s other female heroines who operate in highly complex social structures—for example, Lily Bart in The House of Mirth (1905) or Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence (1920)—Mattie and Zeena attempt to function in a closed, black-and-white, bleak microcosm. Mattie would never blatantly rebel against Zeena and functions, if at all, through her inarticulateness. It is in the gaps of her silences that Ethan projects all his romantic longings and envisionings. Zeena, on the other hand, too insecure to operate in a big city, probably manufactures her illnesses out of sheer boredom. It is her way of providing diversion, and ultimately a means of controlling the household. Thus, the women in this work must sabotage both themselves and Ethan in order to gain power, feel secure, and function in such a restrictive framework. They live in an inflexible society that seems as ossified as the granite outcroppings of the landscape. It is also a society in which their deemed roles seem limited as one kind of a caretaker or another: Mattie as servant and helpmate, Zeena as nurse after the accident.
Edith Wharton, on the other hand, was personally breaking out of women’s supposed models and roles by ending her marriage in an age when...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Auchincloss, Louis. Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Novelists. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965. A general discussion of influential female American writers that includes a section on Wharton.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Edith Wharton. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of critical essays on the body of Wharton’s work. Ethan Frome is addressed in the essay “Ethan Frome: This Vision of His Story,” by Cynthia Griffin Wolff, which includes an in-depth discussion of the role of the narrator. Wolff implies that the narrator as character is on an equal footing with the other main...
(The entire section is 504 words.)