Ethan Frome has enjoyed greater popularity than any other of Edith Wharton’s twenty-two novels and novellas. It is also better known than any of her short stories, nonfiction, or poetry. Appearing first as a three-part serial in Scribner’s magazine, the 1911 book got its start around 1907 when Wharton developed aspects of the narrative as an exercise in writing French. The story appeared as a play in 1936. Moving away from depicting the manners of high society, Wharton treats, in Ethan Frome, poor, inarticulate people living in the countryside. Early critics complained that a New York sophisticate such as Wharton knew nothing about the lives of the kind of people depicted in Ethan Frome. The book’s popularity argues otherwise.
Wharton frames her story. Prior to chapter 1, an engineer observes Ethan Frome coming to town and inquires about his history. Later, caught in a snowstorm, the engineer spends a night at the Frome house, and the engineer intuits events of long ago. An omniscient narrator relates nine chapters that conclude with the accident. In the epilogue the engineer comments on Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie living in the lonely farm house for twenty-four years.
The novel employs few symbols. Beside the emblematic landscape, the cat implies the witchlike influence of Zeena on Mattie and Ethan, and the family graveyard suggests that Ethan will never escape Zeena or the farm. In her foreword to a 1922 edition, Wharton writes that Ethan Frome intends to convey a sense of the harsh and beautiful New England countryside. Thus, Wharton adopts an austere realism, a tone in keeping with the hard landscape and with the shocking outcome.
This harsh tone informs the theme of Ethan’s isolation. Wharton describes Ethan as like the landscape, mute and melancholic, as if he were one of the outcroppings of slate that push up through the snow. Ethan is “an incarnation of the land’s frozen woe with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface.” The central narrative occurs in winter, but flashbacks contrast happy summer occasions. Ethan recalls to Mattie a picnic the previous summer at Shadow Pond when he found her locket; then he points to a tree trunk recalling that there they sat together in the summer evening. At the time he speaks the winter snow has nearly buried that tree trunk.
Isolation pervades the novel. When Ethan comes to town from his farm, he speaks to no one. Four or five years prior to the main action, Ethan had had one year of study at a technological college in Worcester, and he had been to Florida. The encounter with the greater world contrasts with Ethan’s confinement to his rural farm. The isolation drives Ethan’s mother crazy. The road past the house has lost its traffic and the mother can no longer see passersby. Once a talker, the mother grows silent and seldom speaks. Ethan, desperate in the long winter evenings for the sound of a voice, asks why she does not say something; his mother, insane, answers that she is listening to the people talking out in the storm. Then Zeena—a distant relative—comes to nurse the mother. After his mother’s funeral, fearful of being left alone, Ethan too quickly proposes marriage.
Ethan is trapped on the farm. A villager notes early that most of the smart people got away from the area, but Ethan had to care first for his father, then his mother, then his wife, and then Mattie. Ethan made some attempts to get away. When his mother dies, Ethan hopes to move to a town, but...
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Zeena prefers notoriety as a sickly person in Starkfield to anonymity in a city. Ethan considers running off with Mattie; he even writes a note to Zeena explaining his desertion. He recalls that a man in the area did run off to the West and that he found happiness.
Ethan, however, cannot bring himself to abandon Zeena. She cannot support herself on the farm. Then his eye fastens on a newspaper advertisement offering train trips to the West at reduced rates. He has no money with which to buy train fare for himself and Mattie. The facts of poverty and his marital obligation act like prison guards to chain him, “a prisoner for life.” The toboggan accident leaves him lame so that his every step seems checked by the jerk of a chain. Circumstances and his own conscience prohibit Ethan from ever leaving Starkfield.
Zeena counters her husband of seven years in all his desires. She speaks in a flat whine, keeps her hair tight with crimping pins, dresses always in dark calico, and complains constantly about imagined illness. She demands that the lovely Mattie be banished from the house and that a new girl come to wait on her. Zeena, witchlike, dominates Ethan. After the crash, Zeena creates a living hell for Mattie and for Ethan.