Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


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

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 “shrunken body.” The barren land reflects Ethan and his wife Zeena’s childless marriage, and his unsuccessful sawmill serves as a reminder of Ethan’s inability to get ahead.

The farmhouse is homelike only on the night that Zeena is absent. When Mattie decorates the table with Zeena’s treasured red glass pickle dish, a wedding gift that Zeena herself refuses to use even for guests, Mattie transforms the drab house with that single little bit of color. When she and Ethan share their evening meal free of the misery caused by the whining Zeena, they briefly experience warmth and conversation that contrasts tragically with their normally cold, silent meals.

Ethan’s property also includes a graveyard, which serves as a focal point for all the novel’s images of death. A dead cucumber-vine dangles from the porch like a crepe streamer tied to a door for mourning. Other farmhouses dot the landscape like gravestones; the graves of Ethan’s ancestors mock any momentary desire for happiness. Indeed, there is even one headstone with the name Ethan Frome—the ancestor for whom the protagonist was named—that serves as a silent reminder of the death in life that pervades the novel.

School House Hill

School House Hill. Hill overlooking Starkfield that is the location of the climactic scene of the novel. The hill is also the site of sledding parties and moonlight kisses, but its hint of happiness and romance is always tempered by a dangerous curve at its base, where one mistake can mean serious injury or death. Here in the black and silent shadow of tall spruce trees that give Ethan and Mattie the feeling of being in “coffins underground,” the two make the suicide pact that leads to the bleak and bitter ending in which there is little difference between the Fromes on the farm and the Fromes in the graveyard.


Bettsbridge. Sounding like a combination of the names “Berkshire,” “Pittsfield,” and “Stockbridge”—all actual names from the western Massachusetts region, Bettsbridge is the fictional city that Zeena goes to when she feels the need to see another medical specialist. She also refers to visiting Springfield, a real city in central Massachusetts, where she consults doctors whose recommendations invariably require expenditures that further stretch the Fromes’ insufficient income.


*Worcester (WEW-ster). City in the east-central portion of Massachusetts where Ethan attends college (perhaps Worcester Polytechnic Institute) and studies engineering. This site represents Ethan’s lost opportunity. Now only a reminder of what Ethan wants out of life—intellectual stimulation and freedom to see the world—the memory of his life in the city provides a bitter contrast to his impoverished existence on the hardscrabble farm.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 divorce was not yet quite acceptable and by becoming an expatriate woman writer. McDowell terms Wharton “probably the most distinguished woman writer of fiction America produced before World War II.” Wharton was not only a prolific writer but also the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University and the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She won a Pulitzer Price in 1920 for The Age of Innocence. Therefore, through her active role as model and her depiction of women in either stratified and depersonalized or stifling and limited roles, Wharton expanded the awareness of the diversity and possibilities in the modern woman’s lifestyle. Wharton is one of the preeminent models for women writers who wish to examine the defining restrictions and ironies of being one half of a male-female dichotomy. She has left a body of work that ruthlessly examines the limiting effect of convention on the development and fulfillment of the individual.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Expansion and Reform in the 1910s
The decade of the 1910s in which Edith Wharton wrote Ethan Frome was characterized by...

(The entire section is 942 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
Critics hail Ethan Frome as the most carefully constructed of Wharton's novels. The story relates events...

(The entire section is 1357 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Wharton employs a first-person narrator in this work, an outsider who has taken up residence at Starkfield and who pieces together the story...

(The entire section is 83 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In Ethan Frome, Wharton has stripped away from her story all extraneous details. What remains is a dramatic exposition of three...

(The entire section is 345 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1880s: People in New England farming communities led a difficult, culturally void existence.

1911: Innovations in...

(The entire section is 266 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Explore the various options young people have today for getting an education and making their own way in the world, and explain how the lives...

(The entire section is 122 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In her introduction to Ethan Frome, Wharton acknowledges her indebtedness to Balzac's "La Grande Breteche" and Robert Browning's The...

(The entire section is 102 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In 1917, Wharton published Summer. In this companion piece to Ethan Frome, Wharton uses a similar Berkshire setting, only the...

(The entire section is 32 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In 1993 Ethan Frome was made into a film written by Richard Nelson, directed by James Madden, and starring Liam Neeson as Ethan,...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

A dramatization of Ethan Frome by Owen and Donald Davis was produced in New York in 1936.

A 1993 screen version directed...

(The entire section is 95 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

A spinster romance writer exiled to a stately hotel in Switzerland ponders love, work, and the lives of her fellow residents in Anita...

(The entire section is 130 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Kenneth Bernard, "Imagery and Symbolism in 'Ethan Frome,'" in College English, Vol. 23, No 3, December, 1961, pp...

(The entire section is 785 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.