“Ethan Frome”, published in 1911 by Edith Wharton, is the story of a man who is trapped by duty. This novella is different from the kind of books Wharton usually wrote involving the upper classes from which she came. Ethan Frome begins with an Engineer who is temporarily staying in a small town in Massachusetts. He becomes interested in the only character that stands out in the town of friendly simple people. The narrator gathers bits and pieces of the story from reticent townspeople and then when a snowstorm hits, he spends the night with Frome and his family. After that, he is able to gather more information.
The story of Ethan Frome is placed in the middle of the book in the form of an extended flashback. He was a sensitive man who dearly wanted to leave his small town life and travel the world. He falls in love with the vapid young girl who is staying with them and helping his hypochondriac wife with her housekeeping. Ethan finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage that duty keeps him chained to. In a highly romantic escapade, the two are hurt in a terrible accident and spend the rest of their lives in a kind of purgatory.
As a naturalist, Edith Wharton wrote Ethan Frome to show a connection between the land and the people of the small town. “During the early part of my stay, I had been struck by the contrast between the vitality of the climate and the deadness of the community”. She uses the stark winter weather to move her story and provide the dangers and tragedies involved in the story. Even the name, Starkfield is derived from the stark landscape affecting the narrative. While working in a library in Lennox, Massachusetts, Wharton became friends with a woman who she worked with. The woman had suffered a hip injury and facial injuries while sledding with some friends when they hit a lamp post. One girl was killed. She originally began the story as a French language composition while studying in Paris.
Ethan Frome begins with the curiosity of the narrator. Because of a carpenter’s strike the narrator, an engineer, spends his summer in a small Massachusetts town called Starkfield. The narrator sees Ethan Frome and begins to ask the local gossips about him. Frome is quiet and unfriendly. His face is scarred and his home is an isolated farm, but he rides his old wagon pulled by a hollow – backed bay to the post office every day. The narrator saw Frome for the first time years earlier at the post office and noticed that he stood out among the townspeople. The narrator noticed the only thing he ever picked up at the post office was the newspaper and letters addressed to Mrs. Zenobia and from a manufacturer of patent medicine. The stage coach driver, Harmon Gow, said that Frome had had the smashed up face since the toss up years earlier. Frome had a red gash across his forehead and shortened his right side so he drags his leg behind him when he walks.
One day the local horses are hit with an epidemic. Now the narrator must find another way to get to the train station every day for work. For a week, the narrator pays Frome to take him back and forth in his wagon. On one of these trips the narrator leaves a biochemistry book in the wagon and Frome expresses an interest in the subject. The two men begin to discuss science on that trip, so the narrator loans the book to Frome in hopes of further discussions. But, it doesn’t happen.
During this time, a snowstorm hits and covers the world. The train is delayed so Frome offers to drive him all the way to work. Along the way they pass Frome’s farm and he tells the narrator a few things about his changed fortunes. When they reach his work, the narrator is ready for the return trip early. The storm becomes more ferocious on the return trip and the horse has trouble staying on the road. When they come to Frome’s house, the narrator, who has been walking beside the horse, tells Frome that he is too exhausted to continue. Frome offers to let him stay at his house. The house is dilapidated and built in the shape of an L with one of the wings removed. The two men brush the snow off in the entry way, and the narrator can hear the drone of a woman’s voice in the inner house. He invites the narrator inside and the woman stops talking.
This part of the story begins with a young Ethan Frome walking through the snow in the quiet streets of Starkfield, the small town he lives in now. He stops in near the basement window of the church so he can watch the dance in progress. The dance is almost over when Denis Eady jumps back to the dance floor and prompts the band to play another song. Ethan focuses his attention on his wife Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver. She is wearing a cherry-colored scarf and dancing with Eady. Mattie is living with the Fromes and helping as their housekeeper. Ethan is planning on walking her home. He has become close to her in the last year. They have found a mutual interest in nature. But, as he watches her twirl around the dance floor from partner to partner, he begins to wonder if the attraction he feels is really mutual or just one sided. While he is waiting, he remembers a conversation with his wife when she told him she thought her cousin would soon be married to Eady and they will have to find another housekeeper since the doctor said she needs help as she is “sickly”. He doesn’t like this thought and begins to brood unhappily.
After the dance, he watches Mattie leave. She is waiting for him to walk her home, but she can’t see him because Frome is hiding in the shadows. Eady tries to get her to allow him to give her a ride home in his father’s cutter. But, she turns him down and continues to wait for a bit longer. Then she starts to walk home, and Frome surprises her by jumping out of some trees. She squeals and laughs which thrills him. She links her arm through his as they continue on their walk.
Frome and Mattie walk past the hill that everyone sleds down in the winter. She tells him that a young engaged couple almost hit the big elm at the base of the hill when they were sledding, and they were almost killed. She shudders at the memory. Wanting to know if Mattie has feelings toward Eady, Frome teases her about the dance. But, his method of questioning makes her worry that his wife, Zeena is planning to fire her. She asks him if he has plans to fire her, too. Even though she isn’t a very good housekeeper and leans toward a dreamy attitude, Frome has no intention of letting her go. When he asks her, “Then you don’t want to leave us, Matt?” At that, she almost cried when she replied in a quiet voice, “Where’d I go if I did?” Ethan uses the excuse of her tears to put his arm around her.
At the door, he bends down to find the key Zeena usually leaves out for him. But, it isn’t there. As the two begin to wonder what to do, he sees a faint ray of light and Zeena opens the door. She is a hypochondriac and complains about her health a lot. This night she is grumpy and says that she couldn’t sleep. When she tries to light the way up the stairs and have Ethan follow her, he tells her he plans to stay up a while later and work on their accounts. She admonishes him on staying up in a cold room and he reluctantly agrees to follow her up to bed and thinks he sees a disappointed look from Mattie.
The next morning as Frome is loading the lumber to deliver into the village, he thinks about his wife who he didn’t talk to since the few words they exchanged the night before. And, he wishes he had kissed Mattie the night before when he thought he had the opportunity.
As soon as his wife and hired hand leave, Frome leaves to deliver the wood. He’s daydreaming about a night alone with Mattie. During this time the narrator recounts the circumstances that led to him marrying Zeena.
Back to Frome’s delivery of wood to Hale, he asks for an advance on the wood he is delivering. But, Hale says he can’t because he doesn’t have the money right now. Frome didn’t actually expect the money, so he is not surprised. And leaves to conduct more business in the village.
Along the way, Frome comes across Ned and Ruth, an engaged couple kissing at the base of the sledding hill. “Ethan smiled at the discomfiture he had caused”. when they noticed him. At his house, Frome notices Mattie’s light on in her room and wonders if she will dress up for dinner like she did on her first night with them. Then he notices a gravestone that he passes quite often when he cuts through the graveyard near his home that is full of his ancestors. The name on a gravestone of one of his ancestors is Ethan Frome. The gravestone also has the man’s wife name, Endurance. “They Dwelled Together in Peace For Fifty Years” is written on the gravestone, also. He wonders to himself if words like that would be written about him and his wife.
Frome finds his door locked when he finally arrives home. When Mattie opens the door, he sees that she is wearing the usual dress, but has put a red ribbon in her hair. She has set the table with the best china and a lovely dinner. As they are eating dinner, the cat jumps on the table and breaks a pickle dish. Mattie starts to cry because she knows it was a wedding gift. But, Frome puts the pieces back together and places it on a shelf in the back where Zeena won’t be able to tell it is broken unless she moves it, which, he assures her, she won’t.
After the meal is over, the two settle down to their usual nighttime routine. Frome asks Mattie to join him in the parlor with her sewing. He’s enjoying the cozy home feel until he seems to see Zeena’s face superimposed on Mattie’s while she sits in Zeena’s rocker. Mattie returned back to the kitchen where she usually spends her evenings because she is sensing his disquiet. But, soon the two fall into their comfortable conversations that have made them grow closer. She asks him about the possibility of the two of them going sledding on the next clear night. He mentions seeing the engaged couple kissing, and she becomes uncomfortable.
Although their conversations cover a variety of subjects, they once again avoid discussing their relationship. Frome talks a bit about her marriage prospects, and she talks about how much Zeena doesn’t like her. But, he doesn’t want to talk about Zeena, and Frome places his hand on the opposite end of the cloth she is working on. Mattie freezes, waiting to see what his next move is.
During breakfast, the next morning, the hired man, Powell, sits between Frome and Mattie. The snow that fell through the night, turned into sleet and made the conditions for delivering the wood more difficult. Before they leave, Frome stops to talk to Mattie and desires to tell her that they will never have this freedom again, but instead he tells her that he will be home for dinner. After his deliveries are finished, Frome searches the town for glue to repair the broken pickle dish. He finally finds it and rushes home excited to tell Mattie he found the glue. But his elation deflates when Mattie whispers to him that Zeena has returned and went upstairs to bed without saying a word to her.
Frome and Powell feed the horses and put them away. Then Frome tries to get Powell to join them for dinner. When he says no, Frome worries about how uncomfortable the dinner will be. In the house, Frome goes upstairs to check on Zeena and finds her still in her traveling clothes. She tells him she is iller than they thought and must hire a new girl to work in the house. He argues that they can’t afford that and she counters with making Mattie leave, using that money to pay the new girl.
When Mattie tells them that dinner is ready, Zeena declines dinner and goes to bed. Frome has dinner with Mattie telling her that everything is fine. But he is so angry at Zeena that he doesn’t have much of an appetite. Mattie gets more and more anxious, and Frome tries to comfort her, then kisses her. After a few minutes, she pulls back to make sense of her situation. He passionately tells her she can’t leave, which lets her know Zeena is ready to fire her. He assures her he will find a way to keep her employed and Zeena interrupts their conversation when she quietly enters to have dinner after all. Frome is frozen while Mattie tries to make small talk.
After dinner, Mattie clears the table while Frome starts to go outside. But, as he walks past Zeena he sees that she is in tears hold the remains of her pickle dish in her hands. Frome tries to blame the cat, but Mattie tells her she used it for dinner. Zeena reprimands her and tells her they should have let her go a long time ago. Then Zeena goes to bed, and Frome prepares the house for the night, locking doors and windows. When he returns to the kitchen he sees it empty and a note from Mattie telling him not to worry and laying out tobacco pouch and pipe.
Frome settles into his study and tosses a pillow embroidered by his wife into the floor. Then he thinks about a local man that left his wife for another woman. He thinks it sounds like a good idea. He mentally composes a letter to Zeena, leaving her the farm and the mill. But. Then he would be penniless, and wants to take some of it with him to run away with Mattie. He also thinks about the conditions he would leave Zeena in. Slowly he comes to the conclusion that his situation is hopeless and begins to cry. He cries himself to sleep on the sofa.
The next morning Mattie finds him on the sofa and expresses her concern for him which warms him. After they share a small breakfast of leftovers, he goes outside where he sees Powell who wants to discuss Mattie’s departure and the new girl’s arrival. Frome tells him that Mattie’s departure hasn’t been completely decided yet. When the men go inside Frome sees Zeena eating a hardy breakfast and discussing departure and arrival times with Powell. She settles some small jobs to be completed at the house with Mattie, while Frome looks on silently.
After finishing his morning chores, Frome begins to gather his passion once again for leaving his wife and running away with Mattie. In a rush to find Hale, who owes him money for his lumber delivery, Frome hopes to use the money in their escape, but his conscience begins to get the best of him when he encounters Hale’s wife who commends him on his care of Zeena. And he sullenly returns home.
At dinner, Zeena is happily devouring her food and doesn’t notice Frome is barely eating. When Powell asks when he should drive Mattie, Frome speaks up that he will drive her, which surprises everyone and anger Zeena. Frome takes Mattie the long way to town so she can say goodbye to her memories of the place. They find a locket Mattie had lost at some point and he desires to take her in his arms but resists. Frome asks her what her plans for the future are and he finally confesses his love to her. She returns his affections. When he explains how impossible their love is, she makes him agree to write to her and he worries about her marrying some day. He says he would rather see her dead and she agrees. Suddenly he sees some children sledding and asks her for their sledding adventure they had spoken of.
Their first run on the sled goes well, but with the second, Mattie asks Frome if this is the place he saw the engaged couple kiss and kisses him. They are still avoiding saying goodbye and she tells him she wants to aim for the tree with him so they can die together. He thinks this is a good idea because he doesn’t want to live without her. So they get on the sled together and head for the tree. He almost changes his mind at the last moment but then aims at the tree, and they hit.
Frome wakes to the sound of a small animal in pain and then checks on Mattie. She is conscious, and he hears his horse neigh, which brings him back to his duties.
The last part of the story begins where it left off before it took a trip into the past at the church with Frome watching the dance. The narrator and Frome are entering the kitchen where two women are arguing. One of the querulous women is tall and bony with gray hair pulled severely back from her face. She was dressed in a slatternly dress and moved about the kitchen without a word of welcome. The other woman was sitting in a chair by the fire. She was huddled and bent and had a shriveled face with gray hair. Her lower body was obviously immobile due to a disease of the spine. Frome introduces the women. The tall woman is his wife and the immobile woman is Mattie. She was the voice the narrator had heard complaining because Zeena had fallen asleep and let the fire go out so the room was cold.
When the narrator arrives back at the Hale’s house, where he was staying. She is interested to hear what he thought of the Fromes. Then she tells him about the time after the accident that left Mattie paralyzed and Frome crippled. Zeena took over their care, and for the last twenty years, they have all lived together miserably at the farm. She finished with, “I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues”.
Ethan Frome – for generations Ethan Frome’s family has lived in the small Massachusetts town of Starkfield. He begins as a sensitive young man with a desire to leave the small town and see more of the world. Maybe live in a city. But, duty controls his life. While he is away at college, his father is hurt in an accident and he must return to care for the farm. When his mother becomes ill, Zeena moves in to care for her, and as the day’s pass, Ethan realizes he must stay on the farm he is inheriting and marries her so he won’t be alone. But, she becomes a complaining hypochondriac adding to his feelings of being trapped. So when Mattie arrives to care for his ailing wife, he falls in love with her simplicity and desires to leave his wife. But, once again duty takes hold and he sees death as the only release. Instead of finding death, he and Mattie are crippled and spend the rest of their life miserable and being cared for by Zeena.
Zenobia Frome – called Zeena throughout the book, she is the wife of Ethan Frome. Originally she was brought to Frome’s house to care for his ailing mother, but after she married Ethan she became a querulous hypochondriac alternating between long bouts of silence and then rage. She holds complete control over Ethan, so when she senses the feelings developing between Ethan and her pretty cousin, Mattie who is staying with them, she decides to send her away and replace her with another girl to take care of the housekeeping and cooking. He must give in to her demands and looks to suicide as an escape instead of the divorce because he fears her.
Mattie Silver – she is the cousin of Zeena who has come to stay with the Fromes. She is young and pretty. She is also a terrible housekeeper and flighty. She flirts with a variety of men and returns Ethan’s affections when he finally tells her about them. Mattie doesn’t want to return back to her home, so she tries to get Ethan to speak to Zeena about keeping her there. But, Ethan cannot stand up to Zeena, so she decides on a joint suicide with him in a romantic moment. But, since they don’t die, she is faced with the reality of spending the rest of her life as a paraplegic and becomes bitter and querulous while she is nursed by her greatest enemy, Zeena since she has nowhere else to go.
The Narrator – the person telling the story. He moves to the small town and becomes interested in the gossip surrounding the townspeople. He is especially interested in the stoic old man who goes to the post office every day and has obviously been involved in a tragic accident as he has a terrible limp. The personality of the characters is defined through his eyes before it switches to the romantic lenses used by Ethan Frome. Ethan Frome reads like it is written by him as a romantic tale he heard from his landlady and others about the tragedy of Ethan Frome, his wife, and lover.
Edith Wharton Biography
Edith Wharton was born in 1862 at Edith Newbold Jones in New York. Born into a wealthy upper-class family, the term “keeping up with the Joneses” originated with her family. Educated privately she married Edward Wharton in 1885, a banker who she divorced in 1913. As a teenager, she rejected the standards of the time that expected a woman of her class to marry well and spend her life throwing parties and attending balls. Since she was minimally educated as most women of her social class, she desired more of an education and began to read books from her father’s library as well as those of his friends. Her mother had forbidden her to read novels until after her marriage, and Edith complied.
The first novel she tried to write was when she was eleven years old and continued to write poetry and fiction in her youth. When she was fifteen years old she sold a translation of a German poem for fifty dollars. Although her father supported her continuing her education, the poem was published under his name because during her time a woman of the upper class only had her name in print at her birth, death, marriage and the births of her children.
At the age of twenty-three, she married Edward Wharton who was twelve years older and shared her love of travel. But, his health and deep depression grounded them. They spent the rest of their marriage at their estate The Mount, which Edith designed. When his mental state deteriorated past the point of no return, she divorced him a began a relationship with Morton Fullerton, a journalist and as intellectual as she was. During the first World War, she lived in France and worked with charities to help refugees. Along with her tireless work, she also kept up her work as a writer. She wrote novels, short stories, poetry and reported for the New York Times. At the same time, she kept up an enormous amount of correspondence. Because of this, she was awarded the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the President of France.
She wrote poetry and books on design and travel. She also wrote criticisms for literature and culture. She also published lots of poetry, eighty-five short stories, seven novellas and fifteen novels. She even wrote a memoir, but she didn’t publish her first novel until she was forty years old.
Having spent her life in the upper class late nineteenth society she wrote about that world. In 1921 she won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Age of Innocence” became the first woman to earn an honorary degree from Yale University. Edith Wharton was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927, 1928 and 1930. She was a friend of writers such as Henry James and Joseph Conrad, as well as political leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt.
Edith Wharton spoke fluent French, Italian, and German. Many of her books were published in both English and French. She translated the book of poetry, essays, art and musical scores by many well-known artists that she put together as a money raising effort for the war effort, from French into English. Theodore Roosevelt included a two-page introduction praising her. “The Book of the Homeless” was published in 1915.
In 1937, while working on a revised edition of her book “The Decoration of Houses” with Odgen Codman, she suffered a heart attack. Eleven weeks later she suffered a fatal stroke. She is buried in the American Protestant section of the Cimetiere des Gonards in Versailles next to her long time friend, Walter Berry.