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Ethan Frome (1911)

Ethan Frome (1911)

Have you ever spoken to someone who survived an accident? Have you been in an accident yourself? These are often life-changing events and can lead an individual to reexamine their own morals, guiding principles, and values. Edith Wharton (1862-1937) used her encounter as an accident survivor as inspiration for her novella, Ethan Frome (1911). She saw the tragic crash as emblematic of the damages a love affair can cause in the lives of those involved.

Ethan Frome, a photograph of novelist Edith Wharton, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Photo of novelist Edith Wharton.

Summary of Ethan Frome

Though Ethan Frome is a novella, or a short novel, the summary is action packed. Ethan Frome is a frame story that begins about twenty years after the events. The story's unnamed narrator is an engineer who has newly arrived in Starkfield, Massachusetts. The narrator, enthralled with the life of Ethan Frome, asks his landlady, Ned Hale's widow Ruth Varnum, about Ethan Frome. Both Ruth and the stagecoach driver Harmon Gow provide a few details about Ethan's life and pique the narrator's curiosity even more.

A frame story is a literary technique where a narrator positions the details of one story within another story. Also known as a story within a story, the frame story begins before the central story, ends after it, and works to provide crucial details or to contextualize the larger story.

Stuck in town, the narrator decides to act upon the suggestion of Harmon Gow and ask Ethan Frome for rides in and around town. After about a week of riding together, Ethan and the narrator are stuck together in a snowstorm, and Ethan invites the narrator to stay with him at the farmhouse for the night.

Through flashback, we learn that Frome had hoped to become an engineer in his younger years and left for Worcester, Massachusetts for college. He then moved to Florida and worked in the engineering field. He had wished to live in a flourishing city, but when his father suddenly died and his mother became ill, Ethan moved back home to help his ailing mother and to care for the family farm. Overwhelmed, Ethan Frome asked his cousin, Zenobia (Zeena), to stay at the farm and help him. Zeena cared dutifully for both his mother and the household, alleviating some of the burden Ethan felt.

A flashback is a piece of a story that interrupts the typical chronological sequence of events to detail important events that happened prior to the story's start.

After his mother's death, he requested Zeena become his wife, mostly because he understands how valuable she is as she can care for the household. They are married for about a year, and then Zeena begins to show severe signs of aging, with her poor health begins to overcome her body. Her disposition changes, and she becomes hostile, angry, and controlling. Ethan is unhappy and unfulfilled because he is living a loveless marriage and is unable to achieve his dreams of relocating to a metropolitan area and working as an engineer.

As the major portion of the story begins, the reader is taken back to the year when Ethan's fate was sealed. Zeena's cousin, Mattie, has been living with the Fromes for about a year to help Zeena after her parents died. Distracted by her daydreams, Mattie does a poor job of completing her responsibilities. Ethan has developed an infatuation with Mattie and commonly finishes her chores.

One particularly cold winter night, he goes to meet Mattie and walk her home from a church dance. He stands outside, admiring her as she dances in a red scarf. He quietly watches as another man, Denis Eady, offers to give Mattie a ride. She declines the offer and walks home with Ethan. Their attraction is clear, although neither one mentions it. The red garment she dons is a symbol of the passion they feel and contrasts with Ethan's otherwise cold life. When they arrive home, Zeena is sullen and suspicious.

Ethan Frome, a red scarf in the snow, StudySmarterFig. 2- A red scarf in the snow is similar to the one Mattie wears in Ethan Frome.

Edith Wharton captured the landscape of New England while writing from her location in Paris. Her uncanny ability to describe the details of Ethan's surroundings helps establish his character and adds a depth of conflict to his already bleak life.

The next morning Zeena informs them that she is traveling to a nearby town, Bettsbridge, to stay with relatives and get treatment for her condition. She asks Ethan to take her to the train station but he lies, saying he must meet with Andrew Hale about a business arrangement. He suggests Jotham Powell, a hired hand on the farm, take her instead. Later and out of guilt, Ethan goes to town to meet with Hale. Ethan asks for an advance on the lumber payment owed to him, but Hale does not fulfill his request.

In the evening, Ethan returns home to a delicious meal Mattie has prepared for the two of them in Zeena's absence. She has even used one of Zeena's favorite red glass dishes to serve the meal. The farm cat knocks the dish off the table and breaks it. With Mattie worried, Ethan collects the broken pieces, places them back in the china cabinet, and resolves to glue it back together. The two spend the rest of the night conversing and enjoying each other's company. Although Ethan contemplates acting upon his passion, the two retire for the night without incident.

Consider the symbolism of the red glass dish. It is a prized possession of Zeena's, and one the two use without her permission. Like the scarf, it is red, a symbol of love and passion. However, it is broken. This foreshadows the broken life the three are doomed to lead.

The morning of the third day, Ethan is ready to share his feelings with Mattie, but Jotham's presence and his own fears keep him from doing so. He leaves to town to get some glue to fix Zeena's red glass dish. When Ethan returns, Zeena is also back, angry, and hostile, and informs Ethan that she plans to replace Mattie with a more effective girl to help around the house. Ethan is upset with the news but can do nothing about it.

Ethan impulsively and passionately kisses Mattie downstairs, then shares with her Zeena's plan to send her away. They are interrupted by Zeena, who has decided to have dinner with them after previously declining. While searching for her medicine after dinner, Zeena discovered her favorite red dish broken and is even more resolved to send Mattie away to secure better help. Unhappy and facing the possibility of losing Mattie, Ethan considers eloping but reconsiders because of his financial status.

The following morning, Zeena shares her plans for Mattie's departure, which sends Ethan to town in an attempt to secure money and fund his hopeful elopement with Mattie. On his way, Ethan crosses Mr. Hale's wife, who praises his care and loyalty to Zeena. His guilt after this encounter sends him back home to the farm and Zeena.

Ethan decides to take Mattie to the train station despite Zeena's opposition. Ethan takes a different route, hoping to enjoy some last moments together. The pair sled down a hill they had once talked about. Mattie then suggests they take the same hill again, but this time purposefully crash into a tree—effectively ending their lives, but doing so together. Hesitant at first, Ethan does as she wishes, and the two embrace tightly as they smash into the tree.

Ethan Frome, a tree in the snow, StudySmarterFig. 3 - A tree sits alone in the cold snow, much like the tree Ethan and Mattie crash into.

After being knocked unconscious, Ethan awakes to Mattie's soft moans of pain and her quietly mumbling his name.

The narrative then returns to real-time, twenty years after Ethan Frome's sledding accident. The narrator enters Ethan Frome's home, now in decrepit conditions. He sees two old, sad, and frail women. They are Zeena and Mattie. Mattie, who was once lively and youthful, is now paralyzed and a near duplicate of Zeena. The narrator spends the night in the Frome residence, which lacks heat.

The next day the narrator shares his experience with his landlady and by the warmth of the fire, they discuss the cold and dreary state of Ethan Frome's life and the women tragically linked to him.

Characters in Ethan Frome

Here are the central characters in Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome.

Character Description
Ethan FromeEthan Frome is the novella's protagonist. He is a romantic who lives and works on his family's farm, which they have owned for generations. He feels trapped both by social conventions and within his marriage.
Zenobia Frome (Zeena) Zeena is Ethan's sickly wife. Her health has caused her to look aged, and she has an angry disposition. She is physically weak because of her illness, but she shows strength in her ability to control Ethan and to care for those injured in the accident.
Mattie SilverMattie is Zeena's cousin and the object of Ethan's infatuation. He idealized her and dreams of a life with her because she represents the antithesis of what Zeena is. Mattie is young, spirited, physically attractive, and idealized.
Unnamed narratorThe unnamed narrator is an engineer by trade and seems to share the tale of Ethan's tragedy in an unbiased manner.
Andrew HaleAndrew Hale is a builder that works with Ethan. He is Ned's father.
Mrs. Andrew HaleMrs. Hale is Andrew's wife and Ned's mother. She commends Ethan for his care and loyalty to Zeena.
Ned HaleNed Hale is the late husband of Ruth. He is already deceased by the time the narrator arrives.
Ruth Varnum (Mrs. Ned Hale)Ruth Varnum is Ned Hale's widow and the narrator's landlady. She is well-educated and good mannered in comparison to the other neighbors.
Harmon GowHarmon Gow is the narrator's source and provides the narrator with the details of Ethan Frome's life.
Denis EadyDenis is romantically interested in Mattie. He is the son of Michael Eady, the wealthy grocer.
Jotham PowellHe is paid labor on Ethan's family farm.

Analysis of Ethan Frome

When exploring the meaning of Ethan Frome, it is best to analyze some of the recurring symbols within the plot.

Setting

The season during which the story takes place and the location are very much emblematic of Ethan Frome's life and marriage. It is winter, where there is a coldness and a lack of life. Although everything is often covered with snow, which could make for a beautiful and serene setting, the harsh conditions make life hard. The countryside itself is gray and lonely, while the sky above is harsh. Ethan is very much a product of his surroundings, as even the narrator notes that Frome looks "bleak and unapproachable" (Chapter 1). In conversing with the narrator, Frome himself has a frozen and cold way of communicating and reminisces of a time when he was in Florida, in the opposite climate and in the opposite emotional state. Trapped in an emotional winter, Ethan Frome's landscape reflects his inner turmoil and the nature of his life.

When analyzing the literature or seeking to understand character development, the setting is often a crucial element that helps readers understand the protagonist and can even provide valuable background information about the character's past.

Ethan Frome, snow covered sledding hill, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The setting of Ethan Frome, a cold winter, is emblematic of the cold life he leads.

The Color Red

In literature, red is often the color of powerful emotions, passion, or anger. In Ethan Frome, red represents the passion Ethan feels for Mattie. We first see her wearing a red scarf as Ethan admires her from afar during the church dance. They walk home together, surrounded by white, cold, and dreary conditions. The red of her scarf contrasts their surroundings, the setting, and his passionless marriage. Mattie herself becomes a symbol of lust, associated with the color red. When she uses Zeena's red baking dish and inadvertently causes it to break, it foreshadows the bleak future and the loss of passion in Ethan's life.

The Sled

Particularly in the snow, a sled is an object that helps people get from point A to point B. It can also be a source of enjoyment and recreation. For Ethan Frome, the sled is representative of freedom, as he can use it to escape his life on the farm, even if for a moment. It also represents joy, as he uses it to experience his last moments of pleasure with Mattie. However, the symbol of the sled takes an ominous turn as it becomes a source of imprisonment for both Ethan and Mattie. The sled, which was to release them from their dilemma, becomes the one thing that cements their fate. They receive their wish and stay together forever, but not in the way they imagined. The sled, which is supposed to provide mobility, has the opposite effect on Mattie, and ultimately paralyzes her and leaves Ethan with a limp. He becomes imprisoned in an unhappy life with no hope for escape.

Themes in Ethan Frome

Like many of her other pieces, Edith Wharton explores the themes of individual responsibility, social order, and societal expectations and desire in Ethan Frome.

Individual Responsibility and Social Order

From the onset of the story, Ethan Frome is plagued with his individual responsibility and must forego what he wants. Although he desires a college education and to live in a metropolitan area and reap the benefits of city life, he must return home once his father dies to help his ailing mother and run the family farm. His life was not one he chose, but one that chose him. He is a prisoner of circumstance. He calls for his cousin, Zeena, only after he realized the farm is too much for him to run alone. Then, out of obligation, he decides to marry her because of her help and support, but not out of passion or affection. Ethan Frome's marriage is one of convenience and duty.

Societal Expectations and Desire

While Ethan Frome adheres to social expectations, he does so at detrimental costs. Until the end of the tragic tale, when he rejects his life in order to die happily, he is still following social expectations at the cost of his individual desires. He would rather die than live under the pressures life has dealt him or go against social norms. When he is going to town to secure money to elope with Mattie, he happens upon Mrs. Hale, who praises his dedication to Zeena. Rather than taint that image, he upholds it, depriving himself, Mattie, and maybe even Zeena of a happier life.

Quotes from Ethan Frome

The following key quotes from Ethan Frome are central to understanding the themes.

Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast, while the other held a lamp. The light, on a level with her chin, drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wrist of the hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face under its ring of crimping pins."

(Chapter 2)

This description of Zeena is one of the most telling ways to characterize her. She is described as weak, thin, ghastly, and gaunt. Zeena is angular, with sharp lines to her frame that reflect her cruelty. Her lack of shape and "flat breasts" reveal her disconnect from femininity. Like Ethan's life, Zeena is cruel and harsh. Rather than marry for love, he married out of convenience and responsibility and has doomed himself to a loveless, lifeless marriage lacking kids. He has maintained the social order expected of him but lost any chance of love.

I want to put my hand out and touch you. I want to do for you and care for you. I want to be there when you’re sick and when you’re lonesome."

(Chapter 9)

This quote expresses the yearning that Ethan feels for Mattie and his worry that he will no longer be around her. He fears that she will marry, and wants to provide for her. Yet his marriage, the legal bond he has to Zeena, dictates that he cannot. Locked in by societal rules and expectations, he can't meet his own needs nor the needs of the women in his life. Rather than becoming the source of her happiness, he ironically becomes the source of Mattie's sickness and loneliness, as his actions lead to her paralysis. His desire is granted, but not in the way he had hoped.

He’s looked that way ever since he had his smash-up; and that’s twenty-four years ago come next February."

(Chapter 1 )

When the narrator notes Ethan Frome's demeanor and appearance, it is as though the other townspeople describe him as having lost his youth when he had his "smash-up" or sledding accident. The narrator notes the man is "bleak" (Chapter 1) and now has a red gash upon his forehead—a constant and visible reminder of the passion and love he once sought and the irrevocable mistake he made.

Ethan Frome - Key takeaways

  • Ethan Frome was written by Edith Wharton and published in 1911.
  • This novella is an example of a frame story.
  • Symbols in the story include the setting, the color red, and the sled.
  • The central irony in Ethan Frome is that the titular character is unable to become the source of Mattie's happiness, and instead he is the source of her unhappiness. She becomes a replica of the unhappy wife he is unhappy with.
  • Ethan Frome is a tragic novella that effortlessly yet purposefully uses the frame story form to relate the tale of a man locked in a bitter life that reflects his surroundings.

References

  1. Fig. 1 - Photo of novelist Edith Wharton "edith wharton" by cdrummbks is licensed under CC BY 2.0
  2. Fig. 2 - "Red scarf" by tillwe is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
  3. Fig. 3 - "Tree in snow" by Stanley Zimny (Thank You for 50 Million views) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
  4. Fig. 4 - "Sledding hill" by RamseyCountyMN is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Frequently Asked Questions about Ethan Frome (1911)

Ethan Frome is about the central character Ethan, his unrealized dreams, and the life he longs for as an escape from his passionless existence.

Ethan Frome takes place during the late nineteenth century towards the early twentieth century. 

As the story begins, Ethan Frome is 52 years old. Because the flashback takes place twenty years before the opening of the frame story, he is in his twenties when he marries Zeena. 

The main theme in Ethan Frome deals with societal expectations, desire, and how roles can affect behavior and happiness in life.

The central irony in Ethan Frome is that the titular character is unable to become the source of Mattie's happiness, and instead he is the source of her unhappiness. She becomes a replica of the unhappy wife he is unhappy with.

Final Ethan Frome (1911) Quiz

Question

When was Ethan Frome published? 

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Answer

Ethan Frome was published in 1911.

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Question

Ethan Frome is an example of what kind of structure? 

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Answer

frame story

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Question

All of the following are themes in Ethan Frome EXCEPT:

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Answer

Kindness to others

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Question

What is not a characteristic of Zeena? 

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Answer

Loving

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Question

What color is associated with passion, and initially with Mattie, in Ethan Frome

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Answer

Red

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Question

What did Ethan dream of becoming? 

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Answer

Ethan wanted to become an engineer. 

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Question

What caused Ethan Frome to return home from Florida? 

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Answer

Ethan's father died and his sickly mother needed help with the farm. 

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Question

What is a frame story? 

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Answer

A frame story is when a longer story is framed within a shorter one which serves as an introduction and as a way to contextualize the events or characters within the central story. 

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Question

What leads Ethan to marry Zeena? 

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Answer

He realizes he can't maintain the farm alone and feels obligated to her because she cared for his dying mother. 

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Who is Mattie? 

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Answer

Mattie is Zeena's cousin who has lost her parents. She has been staying with the Fromes because she is alone and can help with the housework to ease some of the pressure off of Zeena, who is sick. 

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Question

Why does Zeena want to send Mattie away? 

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Answer

Zeena needs someone to help more on the farm with chores and is hiring someone else. 

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How does Ethan Frome feel about Mattie? 

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Answer

He is in love with her, as she represents everything that his wife is not. 

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Question

All of the following words characterize Ethan and Zeena's marriage EXCEPT:

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Answer

Loving

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