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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...

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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

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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.


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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

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Expansion and Reform in the 1910s The decade of the 1910s in which Edith Wharton wrote Ethan Frome was characterized by economic prosperity in the United States and increasing political influence in the world, especially as it endured and triumphed in the First World War. It was a time in which the country's freedom became a principal feature of America's identity, but also a time in which these values were questioned by the unfinished business of women's suffrage. Competing values of labor and capitalism also continued to work themselves out, sometimes violently through riots and strikes, like the "long-drawn carpenters' strike" that is the reason for the narrator's stay in Starkfield.

Tensions between conservative and liberal ideals became more apparent from the 1890s, and they came to a head during the decade of the 1910s. The progressive movement was not confined to a single party. It was advanced by the Republican former president Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat president elected in 1912; and the Socialist party presidential candidate in that election, Eugene V. Debs. Wilson's term of office advanced the progressive movement through a series of landmark legislative accomplishments. These included setting up the Federal Reserve System, regulating trusts, providing credit to farmers, restricting child labor, and establishing a graduated income tax. In addition, constitutional amendments were adopted governing direct election of senators, the federal income tax, woman suffrage, and Prohibition. These laid the foundation for the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s

Innovation in Industry and the Arts Industrial growth and the use of new technologies were two of the reasons for the explosive economic expansion of the 1910s The first direct telephone link between New York and Denver was opened in 1911, the year Ethan Frome was published. Examples of these developments are evident in the narrator's remarks about having come to Starkfield in the "degenerate day of trolley, bicycle and rural delivery" and easy communication between the mountain villages," which he contrasts with conditions twenty-four years earlier. Although Ethan Frome is still driving a horse-drawn buggy, Ford Motor Company's moving assembly line was typical of the kinds of innovations in the automobile industry that made the United States the decade's world leader in producing cars. Productivity in this and other industries was further enhanced by application of scientific management theory and new manufacturing techniques. The "personnel management" of the 1910s was incorporated into the welfare capitalism of the 1920s, which used measures such as profit-sharing plans and grievance procedures to improve relations between workers and employers. This period of prosperity mostly benefited a new middle class of professionals and managers. The poor remained poor, particularly rural Southerners, urban immigrants, and African Americans.

A prosperous middle class was a boon to the arts, which enjoyed a period of great vitality during the 1910s. Inspired by European modernists such as Vaslav Nijinsky, Igor Stravinsky, Marc Chagall, Gabriele D'Annunzio, and Walter Adolf Gropius, American painters, photographers, poets, dramatists, writers, and dancers broke free of tradition and experimented with both form and subject. Magazines such as The Masses and The New Republic reflected the radical vision of this generation of artists. In Ethan Frome, the narrator's ironic recitation of Mattie's cultural accomplishments illustrates the disdain of the rebels of the 1910s for the tastes of their parents.

The First World War (1914-1918) America's attempts at neutrality became irrelevant as the efforts of American manufacturers to capture world markets drew the United States into the affairs of other nations. U.S. economic interests were particularly strong in Latin America and the Caribbean, exemplified by Bethlehem Steel's purchase of Chile's Tofo Iron Mines in 1911, and the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. The policies of interventionist presidents like Roosevelt and Taft contrasted with those of Woodrow Wilson. But Wilson was not blind to international realities and the need of U.S. industries for open markets. American economic ties were behind U.S. intervention in the Mexican Revolution of 191 1 and the landing of U.S. Marines in Honduras, Cuba, and Nicaragua the same year. They were also what ultimately drew the United States into the First World War.

The war created tensions among a nation of immigrants, who in 1911 constituted a quarter of the U.S. population in every area of the country except the south. But the war also spelled opportunities for American bankers and businessmen. In addition, the commitment of millions of men called into service opened the doors to jobs for women and African Americans. Four hundred thousand blacks left the south for jobs in the north, beginning the "Great Migration" that was to affect not only African American life but American culture as a whole. In a move that would also have profound economic repercussions, close to a million American women joined the labor force for the first time. The government became an increasing presence in the lives of Americans, most notably in matters related to economic policy, production decisions, and labor disputes. Government-fostered xenophobia, backed by the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918, resulted in the abusive treatment of German Americans and of anarchists, communists, and socialists, particularly following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in November 1917.

The conclusion of the war brought not the long hoped for serenity but widespread disorder. President Wilson's design for the League of Nations foundered. Workers and employers were at loggerheads. The Red Scare resulted in the deportation of alien radicals and the expulsion of radical labor organizers from the New York State legislature. Conflicts between returning African American soldiers and other migrant southern workers, and their white counterparts in the North, led to race riots in several major northern cities.

Literary Style

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Point of View Critics hail Ethan Frome as the most carefully constructed of Wharton's novels. The story relates events that occurred twenty-four years previously within a narrative frame of the present, similar to Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Of the story-within-a-story structure, the Nation wrote in 1911, "Such an approach could not be improved " A single, unnamed narrator tells the entire tale. Wharton frankly acknowledged that she borrowed the technique of the narrator as omniscient author from Honore de Balzac's La Grande Bretche. The pieces of the story the narrator is able to glean from the inhabitants of Starkfield are presented within this narrative frame. Critics emphasize that the story the reader reads is at best the narrator's vision of events. As biographer Cynthia Wolff writes, "Everything that the reader can accept as reliably true can be found in the narrative frame; everything else bears the imprint of the narrator's own interpretation." The difficulty inherent in a complex structure of this sort is that it makes the story ambiguous. As Allen F. Stein maintains: "One cannot be sure that the real Ethan Frome ever felt anything akin to what the narrator attributes to him or did the things he did for the reasons the narrator either consciously or inadvertently offers."

Imagery A universally acclaimed strength of the novel is Wharton's use of imagery and symbolism. According to critic Kenneth Bernard, these elements, particularly the compatibility of setting and character, reveal the novel's "true dimensions." Like the frozen landscape around him, Ethan is cold and unapproachable. The narrator observes that Ethan "seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface." There are many references to darkness, and darkness is Ethan's element. For example, when he goes to fetch Mattie from a dance, he hangs back in the shadows, watching her through a window. Later, he wishes he could "stand there with her all night in the blackness." When they return to the farmhouse, the windows are dark, and they strain to see each other "through the icy darkness." On the night of the accident, Mattie confesses to Ethan that she first dreamed of going away with him at a picnic they both attended at Shadow Pond. Images of warmth and brightness in the novel are associated with Mattie, and are contrasted with Ethan's frozen self and Zeena's soullessness. Even her name, Mattie Silver, connotes something bright. Her "fresh lips and cheeks" and "slim young throat" are contrasted with Zeena's "gaunt countenance," "puckered throat," and "flat breast."

Mattie is also associated with images of birds. Wharton makes repeated references to voices. At first, in comparison to his mother's silence, Zeena's gregarious nature was music in Ethan's ears. But her voice has become a "flat whine," unlike Mattie's "sweet treble," though at the end of the novel Mattie's voice, too, becomes a querulous drone. Even the kitchen reflects the contrasts between the two women. It is a "poor place, not 'spruce' and shining as his mother had kept it in his boyhood; but it was surprising what a homelike look the mere fact of Zeena's absence gave it." Images of death are evident in the "black wraith of a deciduous creeper flagged on the porch," the missing "L" in Ethan's farmhouse, and a "dead cucumber-vine" dangling from the porch.

Symbolism Critic R. Baird Shuman writes that "there is probably no more pervasive single element in Ethan Frome than the symbolism." The landscape and farmhouse are closely related to elements of the story's action. For example, the missing "L" in Ethan's farmhouse gives the house a "forlorn and stunted" aspect and symbolizes the lack of life within. An obvious symbol is the name of the town, Starkfield, which Shuman calls "a cemetery for those who are still physically living."

Many critics point to the sexual symbols in the novel. "Barrenness, infertility, is at the heart of Frome's frozen woe," asserts dramatist and critic Kenneth Bernard. The red pickle dish, for instance, unbroken and unused, symbolizes the Fromes's marriage. Once it is broken, it represents Mattie and Ethan's disloyalty. Shuman notes the "Freudian overtones of the shutterless windows and of the dead cucumber-vine." And biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff refers to Frome and the narrator entering the kitchen through a small, dark back hallway at the end of the novel as "a perverse and grotesque inversion of the terms of birth." The elm tree is seen as both plant and symbol. Shuman frankly sees it as a phallic symbol, "a representation of sexual temptation." The sled Mattie and Ethan are riding when they collide into the elm is borrowed, one that, like their passion, "technically they have no right to."

Setting The setting for Ethan Frome is the fictional town of Starkfield, located in the mountains of western Massachusetts. In the words of Edith Wharton: "Insanity, incest and slow mental and moral starvation were hidden away behind the paintless wooden housefronts of the long village street, or in the isolated farm-houses on the neighbouring hills." The cold and snow in particular had a wearying effect on the inhabitants. One of the first things the narrator hears about Ethan Frome is a remark made by Harmon Gow: "Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters." The narrator at first fails to understand the burden of winter in these parts. When the snows of December are followed by "crystal clearness," he notices the "vitality of the climate and the deadness of the community." But once he has passed a winter there, and has "seen this phase of crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the storms of February had pitched their "white tents about the devoted village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months' siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter."

The Frome farm itself is "kinder side-tracked." Traffic that used to pass by ceased once the railroad was carried through to an area beyond called Corbury Flats, a distance of three miles that took an hour by horse and carriage. The Frome farmhouse is a building of "plaintive ugliness." The building has lost its "L," a deep-roofed section that normally connects the main house with the woodshed and cow barn, enabling the inhabitants to avoid having to go outside to get to their work. So integral is the setting to the action of the novel, that a review published in the Nation in 1911 credited Wharton with having chronicled "a consciousness of depleted resources, a reticence and self-contained endurance that even the houses know how to express, retired from the public way, or turned sideways to preserve a secluded entrance."

Irony Irony is an incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and what we might normally expect that result to be. Margaret B. McDowell cites the many ironies in Ethan Frome: "The dish that is treasured is the one that is broken; the pleasure of the one solitary meal that Ethan and Mattie share ends in distress; the ecstasy of the coasting ends in suffering; the moment of dramatic renunciation when Ethan and Mattie choose suicide rather than elopement ends not in glorious death but in years of pain " At the time of publication, the Nation reported that "the profound irony of [Ethan's] case is that it required his own goodness to complete [Zeena's] parasitic power over him." When Ethan goes to the widow Homan's store to buy glue to repair the broken pickle dish, the widow tells him, "I hope Zeena ain't broken anything she sets store by." There are other such ironies. Beautiful Mattie becomes ugly and peevish. Zeena ends up having to care for her rival. Critics have noted irony in the narrator's account of Mattie's attempts to support herself. And Kenneth Bernard cites Ethan's fantasy that he and Mattie would spend their evenings together as they had the night Zeena was away from home. "Ironically, this is just about what he achieves by crippling instead of killing himself and Mattie."

Literary Techniques

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Wharton employs a first-person narrator in this work, an outsider who has taken up residence at Starkfield and who pieces together the story of Ethan Frome. The narrator hardly functions as a character at all, but as an educated outsider he possesses the skills needed to tell this story. According to Wharton, "only the narrator of the tale has scope enough to see it all, to resolve it back into simplicity, and to put it in its rightful place among his larger categories."

Compare and Contrast

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

1911: Innovations in transportation made communication easier between the villages and gave residents access to recreational activities in the bigger towns.

Today: Videocassettes, radio, cable television, and the Internet have made the world a global village.

1880s: The era of railroad building made earlier methods of transportation in the United States largely obsolete.

1911: Automobiles (and later buses and trucks) came to exceed the railroad in importance.

Today: Jet travel makes it possible to travel almost anywhere in the world in a day, and supersonic transport reduces long-distance air travel by half.

1880s: Although Thomas Edison patented an incandescent lamp in 1879, most lighting was still by candlelight, oil lamp, or gas jet.

1911: Electricity was increasingly available in homes, which used incandescent lighting. French physicist Georges Claude developed the neon lamp, which was used in commercial signs.

Today: Variations of Thomas Edison's incandescent lamp (light bulbs) are used to light homes, whereas factories, offices, stores, and public buildings generally use fluorescent lighting; street and highway lighting is still an evolving technology.

1880s: Techniques based on photography and spectroscopy (a method of measuring the wavelength and intensity of spectral lines) revolutionized astronomy.

1911: The main ideas about the evolution, that is, the life history, of stars become clear.

Today: Since its launch from the shuttle Atlantis in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has provided a flood of new images of the universe. For example, it shows star clusters 2.2 million light years away, springtime dust storms at the Martian north pole, and (for the first time) the surface of Pluto.

Literary Precedents

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In her introduction to Ethan Frome, Wharton acknowledges her indebtedness to Balzac's "La Grande Breteche" and Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book (1869) for the structure of her novella. Balzac in particular uses a similar situation (a curious stranger in a provincial setting) for the frame of his story.

Some critics also find elements of Nathaniel Hawthorne's influence in this work. Elizabeth Ammons, for example, finds a kinship between Ethan Frome and Hawthorne's "Ethan Brand" and The Blithedale Romance (1852) pointing to the names of characters (Ethan and Zenobia), the bleak New England setting, and the theme of the "male fear of woman."


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In 1993 Ethan Frome was made into a film written by Richard Nelson, directed by James Madden, and starring Liam Neeson as Ethan, Patricia Arquette as Mattie, and Joan Allen as Zeena. The movie successfully conveys the icy atmosphere and the grim poverty of the Fromes, and it leaves one with the overwhelming feeling of lives that have been lost or used up by cruel circumstances. It is not a literal rendering of Wharton's novella. Many changes have been made in the adaptation. The stranger from another place is no longer a visiting engineer who is spending a winter in Starkfield but is now a young minister who has come to serve at the local Congregational Church and who is attempting to put down roots in Starkfield. The story of Ethan Frome is not presented as the vision of an outsider who has pieced the story together from what he could find out from various sources but as a kind of confession made by Ruth Hale to the minister. Ruth is about the same age as Mattie Silver and has known the Frome family all her life. The story Ruth tells differs from the engineer's version in many details. Some of these are relatively minor, e.g., Ethan asks Andrew Hale for a thirty-dollar rather than a fifty-dollar advance on his lumber transaction in the film. Others are new details that may have been deemed more cinematic or dramatic than the original. For example, in the novella, Ethan sees young Denis Eady out in his cutter on the day that Zeena has gone to Bettsbridge, and he jealously imagines that the young man has gone to visit Mattie; in the film, Ethan stops at Eady's shop to buy sweets for Mattie and Denis asks him to take a pink ribbon to Mattie as a present. There are also significant changes in the relationship between Ethan and Mattie. In the film, the two become lovers and make love on two occasions. In the novella, these two opportunities for sex are very explicitly not part of the narrator's vision. In the film, Zeena is sleeping in the room across the hall from the lovers. The next morning, she attributes the sounds she heard during the night to the dying moans of a fox that Ethan had been attempting to poison throughout the film for preying on chickens in the barn. Later that morning, Mattie attempts to kill herself in the barn with the poison for the fox. There are no fox and no suicide attempt in the novella. In short, the film makes the relationship between Ethan and Mattie much more physical and outwardly emotional. The characters as portrayed by Wharton are so severe and restrained in their display of emotion, that the deep-rooted feelings that are central to their story would have most likely been missed in a literal rendering of the novella. The film is fortunate in its cast, particularly Joan Allen as Zeena.

Ethan Frome also was successfully adapted for the stage in 1936 by Owen and Donald Davis. It starred Raymond Massey as Ethan, Pauline Lord as Zeena, and Ruth Gordon as Mattie. Wharton read this version and praised it for its faithfulness to the original novella. As in the movie, a number of changes were made to realize dramatically what is essentially an internal drama. In particular, the relationship between Zeena and Ethan is developed more fully and dramatically in the play. A detailed analysis of the differences between the play and the novella may be found in Marlene Springer's Ethan Frome: A Nightmare of Need (1993).

Media Adaptations

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

A 1993 screen version directed by John Madden starred Liam Neeson as Ethan, Joan Allen as Zeena, and Patricia Arquette as Mattie. It was coproduced by American Playhouse, Companion Productions, and BBC Films and released by Miramax.

Richard Krausnick adapted and directed the novel as a full-length stage play for Shakespeare and Company, who first performed it in 1995 in Lenox, Massachusetts, where Wharton had a home.

An unabridged audio recording read by C. M. Herbert is available from Blackstone Audio-books.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Kenneth Bernard, "Imagery and Symbolism in 'Ethan Frome,'" in College English, Vol. 23, No 3, December, 1961, pp 182-84.

Manus Bewley, "Mrs Wharton's Mask," in the New York Review of Books, Vol 3, No 3, September 24,1964, pp 7-9.

David Eggenschwiler, "The Ordered Disorder of 'Ethan Frome,'" in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 9, No 3, Fall, 1977, pp 237-45.

K. R. Srinivisa Iyengar, "A Note on 'Ethan Frome,'" in Literary Criterion, Vol. 5, No 3, Winter, 1962, pp 168-78.

Margaret B. McDowell, in Edith Wharton, Twayne Publishers, 1976, pp 67-9.

The Nation, Vol. 93, No. 2147, October 26,1911, pp 67-9.

Blake Nevius, " 'Ethan Frome' and the Themes of Edith Warton's Fiction," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2, June, 1951, pp. 197-207.

"Three Lives in Supreme Torture," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 16, No 40, October 8, 1911, p. 603.

The Saturday Review, Vol. 112, No 2925, November 18, 1911, p. 650.

R. Baird Shuman, "The Continued Popularity of 'Ethan Frome,'" in Revue des langues vivantes, Vol. 37, No 3, 1971, pp. 257-63.

Allen F. Stein, "Edith Wharton: The Marriage of Entrapment," in After the Vows Were Spoken: Marriage in American Literary Realism, Ohio State University Press, 1984, pp 209-30.

J D Thomas, "Marginalia or 'Ethan Frome,'" in American Literature, Vol 27, No 3, November, 1955, pp 405-09.

Lionel Trilling, "The Morality of Inertia," in A Gathering of Fugitives, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977, pp 34-44.

Geoffrey Walton, in Edith Wharton A Critical Interpretation, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971, pp. 78-83.

Edith Wharton, in A Backward Glance, D. Appleton-Century, 1934, pp 295-96.

Edith Wharton, in Ethan Frome, Penguin, 1987, p. xviu.

Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton, Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 183-84.

Further Reading Elizabeth Ammons, "Edith Wharton's 'Ethan Frome' and the Question of Meaning," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 7, 1979, pp. 127-40. Ammons discusses Ethan Frome in relation to the classic fairytale, arguing that the novel works as modern fairy story, as social criticism, and that it dramatizes male fear of woman.

Shan Benstock and Barbara Grossman, in No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton, Scribner's, 1994. An investigation into Wharton's work and personal relationships from a feminist perspective, drawing on many previously unavailable sources.

Jean Frantz Blackall, "Edith Wharton's Art of Ellipsis," in 'Ethan Frome'- Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism, edited by Knstin O. Lauer and Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Norton, 1995, pp. 170-74. Blackall discusses Wharton's use of the ellipsis, showing how they may represent (among other things) the inexpressible or that which a character is unwilling to express They might also be used to entice the reader into imaginative collaboration with the writer.

Anthony Burgess, "Austere in Whalebone," in Spectator, No 7171, December 3, 1965, p. 745. A review of three of Wharton's works, including Ethan Frome, which novelist and critic Burgess calls too pessimistic to be true.

Dorothy Yost Deegan, "What Does the Reader Find': The Synthesis-Portrait in Miniature," in The Stereotype of the Single Woman in American Novels, King's Crown Press, 1951, pp. 40-126. Examines Mattie Silver as a literary type, that is, the young single woman who ends up in an unfortunate position owing to her inability to make her own way in the world economically.

R W. B. Lewis, "Ethan Frome and Other Dramas," in Edith Wharton: A Biography, Harper and Row, 1975, pp 294-313. Argues that Ethan Frome reflects features of Wharton's own experience, exaggerated and transplanted to a hopeless rural setting.

Orlene Murad, "Edith Wharton and Ethan Frome," in Modern Language Studies, Vol 13, No 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 90-103. Murad explores the biographical ties between Edith Wharton and Ethan Frome.

Blake Nevius, "On 'Ethan Frome,'" in Edith Wharton A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Irving Howe, Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp 130-36. An excerpt from Nevius's Edith Wharton in which he discusses, among other things, Ethan's heroic possibilities and Wharton's handling of point of view.

Alan Price, in The End of the Age of Innocence: Edith Wharton and the First World War, St. Martin's Press, 1998. A book-length chronicle of Wharton's wartime relief and chanty activities and her wartime writings.

Marlene Springer, in Ethan Frome. A Nightmare of Need, Twayne, 1993. A book-length study of Ethan Frome that includes discussions on the literary and historical context of the novel, characterization, style and symbolism.

Lionel Trilling, "The Morality of Inertia," in Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Irving Howe, Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp 137-46. Trilling argues that the one idea of considerable importance to be found in Wharton's novel is that moral inertia, the not making of moral decisions, constitutes a large part of the moral life of humanity.

Cynthia Griffin Wolff, "The Narrator's Vision," in 'Ethan Frome'. Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism, edited by Knstin O. Lauer and Cynthia Gnffin Wolff, Norton, 1995, pp 130-44. Arguing that Ethan Frome is about its narrator, Cynthia Griffin Wolff discusses the novel's narrative structure and the implications of the narrator's vision.


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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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide