This claustrophobic novel centers on the triangle formed by Ethan, Zeena, his dour, hypochondriacal wife, whom he married to satisfy a sense of indebtedness to her for caring for his dying mother, and Mattie Silver, Zeena’s poor but vivacious and younger cousin. Ethan and Mattie fall in love and plan to flee the bleak, New England world only to be stopped by Ethan’s sense of obligation to his wife. In the end the couple attempt a double suicide which fails and leaves Ethan crippled and Mattie a hopeless invalid, ironically leaving Zeena to care for them both at the conclusion of the story.
Although atypical in setting for a Wharton novel, the tale recapitulates in condensed form one of her most obsessive themes, the question of freedom and entrapment within marriage. Each of the main characters exhibits strengths and weaknesses which contribute to the interlocking triangle to which they all belong. Mattie’s youth and vulnerability play on Ethan’s need to dream and to be protective; Zeena’s hypochondria and conventionality touch Ethan’s sense of duty and fear of change. Ethan in turn is bound to both women, two sides of the female nature, toward which he experiences both attraction and repulsion in equal parts enough to immobilize him.
The touching final scene of the three trapped, interdependent people in their secluded farm house is one of the grimmest in modern literature. It provides a fitting conclusion to Wharton’s sparest and starkest piece of fiction, one which contains a distillation of her other work and has proved to be one of her most popular stories.
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 characters and that the narrator’s “vision” is a manipulation of reality and must be questioned.
Howe, Irving, ed. Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1962. Two of the essays deal directly with Ethan Frome. Blake Nevius’ “On Ethan Frome” disputes previous positive interpretations and posits the idea that the work demonstrates a “despair arising from the contemplation of spiritual waste.” Lionel Trilling’s influential essay “The Morality of Inertia” takes the position that Ethan makes no moral decision, paralyzed by inaction, and that this type of “inertia” characterizes a large part of humanity. Both essays are valuable in terms of understanding the traditional critical perspectives on this work.
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Excellent presentation of Wharton’s life. Offers a relationship between the novel and Wharton’s divorce from her husband Teddy.
McDowell, Margaret B. Edith Wharton. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A succinct overview of Wharton’s work, including a section called “The Harsh Artistry of Ethan Frome.”
Nevius, Blake. Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953. Fixes the novel in the main tradition of Mrs. Wharton’s fiction.
Trilling, Lionel. “The Morality of Inertia.” Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Irving Howe. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Trilling caused a major controversy in the study of Ethan Frome. Holds that Ethan is weak, and the novel only demonstrates the suffering he endures.
Waid, Candace. Edith Wharton’s Letters from the Underworld: Fictions of Women and Writing. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. A distinctively modern approach to Wharton utilizing the terminology and premises of postmodernist literary criticism. Chapter 2 analyzes Ethan Frome in terms of the themes of barrenness and infertility inherent in Wharton’s images.
Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964. Wharton’s autobiography, an important work for understanding the author and the main events surrounding her works. Written in a comfortable, reminiscent style.
Wharton, Edith. Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome”: The Story, with Sources and Commentary. Edited by Blake Nevius. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968. Text of the story with critical commentary that presents opposing views along with clarifications of Wharton’s sources (an actual sledding accident).
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Wolff offers a psychological study of Wharton and the novel.