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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 characters locked into a nightmarish situation. There is a timeless quality about this novella since Wharton seems to have exposed the hellish quality of the lives of all people who find themselves trapped by circumstances in situations that are not fulfilling. One avenue for group discussion is whether Wharton's story holds the universality that its admirers claim for it. Some may not find anything transcendent about this grim story, seeing Ethan, Zenobia, and Mattie as tied to a particular time and place. Discussions may focus on the root causes of this tragedy — economics, Puritanical values, and climate.

1. Which serves as more of a constraint on the lives of Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie — poverty or moral principle?

2. Is Zeena Frome's illness before the accident imaginary or real? How can we tell?

3. Is the device of the narrator useful? How does Wharton use it to shape her material?

4. In what way do place and weather dictate what happens? Could this story have occurred in a warmer climate?

5. How do the physical characteristics of the three leading characters suggest the roles they play in Ethan Frome ?

6. Is Wharton's portrayal of passion in such a sparse and uninviting atmosphere effective?

7. Comment on the uses Wharton makes of the cat and the pickle dish. Given the role they play in the story, is it significant that they belong to Zeena?

8. Consider the options open to both Zeena and Mattie in this novella. Can they be considered victims of an economic system inhospitable to women as well as of a harsh physical environment?

9. Is Ethan Frome a fully realized character, or is he the imaginative construct of the narrator who is telling the story?

10. Ethan Frome has been described as presenting a view of a nightmarish situation that is lived on a daily basis over a long period. Do you agree that nightmare is the appropriate name for the twenty-four years of communal living shared by Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie?