Ethan Frome (1911)
Ethan Frome takes place against a backdrop of the cold, gray, bleakness of a New England winter. Ethan Frome is an isolated farmer trying to scrape out a meager living while also tending to his frigid, demanding and ungrateful wife, Zeena. A ray of hope enters Ethan's life of despair when his wife's cousin Mattie arrives to help. His life is transformed as he falls in love with Mattie, but their fate is doomed by the stifling conventions of the era. Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome is a classic of American Literature, with compelling characters trapped in circumstances from which they seem unable to escape. The novel was published in 1911, set in the fictitious town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, whose naming is a subtle overture to the book's mood.
Edith Wharton (born January 24, 1862, New York, New York, U.S.—died August 11, 1937, Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, near Paris, France) American author best known for her stories and novels about the upper-class society into which she was born.
Edith Jones came of a distinguished and long-established New York family. She was educated by private tutors and governesses at home and in Europe, where the family resided for six years after the American Civil War, and she read voraciously. She made her debut in society in 1879 and married Edward Wharton, a wealthy Boston banker, in 1885.
Although she had had a book of her own poems privately printed when she was 16, it was not until after several years of married life that Wharton began to write in earnest. Her major literary model was Henry James, whom she knew, and her work reveals James’s concern for artistic form and ethical issues.
Wharton’s short stories, which appeared in numerous collections, among them Xingu and Other Stories (1916), demonstrate her gifts for social satire and comedy, as do the four novelettes collected in Old New York (1924). Her 1915 reporting for Scribner’s Magazine on the Western Front in World War I was collected as Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort (1918). In her manual The Writing of Fiction (1925) she acknowledged her debt to Henry James.
She lived in France after 1907, visiting the United States only at rare intervals. She was divorced from her husband in 1913 and was a close friend of novelist James in his later years.
Ethan Frome Analysis
The imprisonment experienced by an individual living according to the rules of society is a major theme in Ethan Frome. The message that Wharton conveys through Ethan is that when people fear they are violating the rules of society, they risk becoming enslaved by those rules.
Ethan Frome Discussion Questions
1. What does the presence of the unnamed “narrator” in the story’s introduction and conclusion contribute to the effect of the novel?
2. Discuss the novel’s portrayal of Zeena. Does her harshness seem realistic?
3. Examine the significance of the gravestone of Ethan Frome and Endurance his wife. How does it relate to the novel’s themes?
4. How does Wharton’s use of Ethan’s point of view to portray Mattie influence our perception of the girl? What does Wharton seem to think of her? Consider the Introduction and Conclusion along with the rest of the novel.
5. In your opinion, do Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena deserve their fates? Does the story aim to teach its readers a lesson? Which aspects of the novel make us sympathize with the characters, and which aspects seem to ask us to pass negative judgment?
(Questions from Sparknotes.com)