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 forces for both its female figures of Mattie and Zeena and its central male Ethan, who as a figure caught between these two extremes of vitality and sterility expresses the meaning of the story. Nevertheless, the female “role” as caretaker is a perception that is manipulated by Wharton in Ethan Frome to comment on female issues generally.
The narrator, an engineer, comes to Starkfield in the dead of winter on a work assignment that requires he lodge in Starkfield and commute daily to his work site. When a local epidemic sickens the town’s horses, he works out an agreement with the reticent and crippled Frome to drive him. On one of these occasions, they are caught in a snowstorm and must stop halfway on their return at the Fromes’ desolated farmhouse. As the narrator hears a “droning” and “querulous” voice at the threshold of the farm kitchen, he leaves the present and plunges the reader into the tale of Frome’s marriage to Zenobia, her subsequent transformation into a sort of “helpless” and immutably complaining dictator, and the natural attraction of Ethan to her younger, destitute cousin who comes to live with them as helpmate. Zeena, in her dictatorial manipulations, decides to send Mattie away. Ethan cannot justify keeping Mattie, who is Zeena’s cousin, not his; nor can he blithely throw away all the moral strictures that have heretofore regulated his life. Although Zeena is powerful through her helplessness, controlling and frustrating Ethan at every turn, he knows that abandoning her will destroy her. On the way to the train station, Mattie and Ethan take a detour to sled down a dangerous hill, both tacitly and subconsciously abandoning themselves to the moment and a possible (but not explicit) suicide. While speeding down the snow-covered hill, Ethan has a fleeting and “monstrous” vision of his wife’s face which seems to deter him from his goal. At the last moment, he tries to right the sled’s direction, but it crashes into a gigantic elm.
The tale now returns to the frame, to the present, and to the beginning of the story. The narrator steps over the threshold and finds not what he expects—a querulous Zeena and a crippled, even innocently maimed Mattie—but instead the reverse of their roles: Zeena acts as ministering angel and caretaker, while Mattie, with the eyes of a “witch” and a high whiny voice, has become the alter ego of Zeena. It is at this point that Mrs. Hale tells the narrator that it is Ethan who truly suffers the most—and then makes her chilling observation that there is little difference between the Fromes in the farmhouse and the Fromes in the graveyard.