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Introduction

Critics have called Ethan Frome the most carefully constructed of Edith Wharton’s novels, and have praised the economy of its language and its intensity. The novel is a naturalistic-that is, unsentimental-portrait of emotional frigidity set in the New England winter. Young Mattie Silver arrives in the mountain village of Starkfield to help with housekeeping for her cousin Zeena, the sickly, cantankerous wife of Ethan Frome. Ethan, who has long been resigned to the care of his ailing wife and farm, is drawn to Mattie’s youthful beauty and good humor. When Zeena realizes their mutual attraction, she arranges to engage a less attractive companion and to have Mattie sent away. Unable to bear the idea of parting, the lovers attempt to kill themselves by sledding into a tree. The attempt is a failure, and it leaves Mattie and Ethan crippled for life and condemned to Zeena’s care. Early reviewers praised Wharton’s style but were dismayed by the novel’s bleakness and the inability of her characters to find a way out of their situation. Later critics were even harsher in their evaluations, citing numerous inconsistencies and debating whether Ethan Frome himself is truly tragic or simply morally inert. All the same, this study in frustration, loneliness, and moral responsibility became a popular favorite, somewhat to the surprise of its author, and is frequently taught at the high school and college level.

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Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was born January 24, 1862, to a wealthy New York family. She showed an interest in writing and literature from an early age. Despite the attempts of her family to discourage her, Edith regularly wrote poems and short stories, some of which were published in magazines such as Scribner’s and Harper’s. Walter Berry, a family friend, encouraged her ambitions and would remain her lifelong confidante. Although she recognized that the culture of New York’s established gentry was anemic and repressive, Edith was just as repulsed by the philistinism of the newly rich who replaced it. She preferred traveling with her parents to Europe, where she met Henry James, who became her mentor and critic. In 1885 Edith married a Boston banker named Edward Wharton. Although her parents approved the choice, Edward was ten years older than Edith was, and physically and emotionally fragile. Edith’s aversion to society life and her disappointment over her marriage drove her to devote more time to her writing.

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Plot Summary

Ethan Frome is the story of a man who, following the death of his father, gives up his education and other opportunities to return to the family farm in Starkfield, Massachusetts to support his ailing mother. When his mother dies, Ethan, overcome by loneliness, impulsively marries Zeena Pierce, an older cousin who helped nurse his dying mother. Within a year of their marriage, Zeena becomes ill and Ethan must again assume the role of caregiver and give up his dreams of moving to a large town and becoming an engineer. Ethan’s outlook changes, however, when Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver, comes to live with them as Zeena’s aid. She shares Ethan’s sense of wonder and sensitivity to the appeal of natural beauty, Mattie is everything that Zeena is not. She restores Ethan’s ability to imagine happiness and, before long, a mutual but unexpressed passion develops.

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Characters

A Dennis Eady

The son of Michael Eady, an ambitious Irish grocer. Dennis has a reputation for applying to the young woman of Starkfield the techniques his father used so successfully in business.

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Themes

A Frustration

The theme of frustration is central to Ethan Frome. Sometimes the frustration is a product of the oppressive environment, and sometimes it stems from their personalities. Ethan’s early plans to become an engineer are frustrated by the need to care for his father and mother as well as for the farm. He had always wanted to “live in towns, where there were lectures and big libraries and ‘fellows doing things.’” His marriage to Zeena is a study in frustration, not only because of her hypochondria and the fact that they are childless, but because their interests are so different. “Other possibilities had been in him, possibilities sacrificed, one by one, to Zeena’s narrow-mindedness and ignorance. And what good had come of it?”

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Construction

A 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.”

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Historical Perspective

A 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.

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Questions

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 of the characters in Ethan Frome might have been different if these options had been open to them.

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Compare and Contrast

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.

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