Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome


Ethan Frome is a novel that was released in 1911 by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Edith Wharton. It is set in turn-of-the-century New England in the fictitious town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. The novel was adapted into a film in 1993.


Wharton based her story on an accident that she had witnessed in Lenox, Massachusetts. The story of Ethan Frome had initially begun as a French-language composition that Wharton had to write while studying the language in Paris. It is among the few works by Wharton with a rural setting.

General aspects

The story is set in a fictional, wintry New England town named Starkfield, where an unnamed narrator tells the story of his encounter with Ethan Frome, a man with dreams and desires that end in an ironic turn of events. The narrator tells the story based on an account from observations at Frome's house when he had to stay there during a winter storm. Ethan’s character is one that comes full circle, moving from silent desire to action to quiet submission, ordered by life’s circumstances.

Plot introduction

In the first and last chapters, the novel is told by an unnamed narrator. However, in all the others it is told in the third person. The novel notably makes a motif of subtle uses of vibrancy (such as a red glass pickle dish) against the stark, cold background of a Massachusetts winter.

Plot summary

Ethan Frome is described as “the most striking figure in Starkfield” (Wharton 3); “he was but the ruin of a man,” (3) with a “careless powerful look…in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain” (3). Frome's wife is the “sickly, cantankerous” (3) Zeena. He is her sole caregiver until her young and beautiful cousin, Mattie Silver, arrives to help with housekeeping. Ethan is taken in by Mattie’s youthful beauty and good humor, but his interest in Mattie does not go unnoticed by Zeena. In fact, when she realizes Ethan and Mattie’s mutual attraction, she plans to hire someone less attractive and to have Mattie sent away.

The comfort Ethan seeks in Mattie's company is threatened when Zeena says that she will replace Mattie with a hired housemaid. During the time between this announcement and Mattie's leaving, Ethan considers leaving his wife numerous times to elope with Mattie, but every time he lacks the confidence to rebel against the morals of his being and community.

On the day of Mattie's departure, emotion overcomes Ethan, and he tells Mattie that he wants to live with her forever. They decide to take a final sled ride down together into a bulky tree, so it will kill them instantly, rather than live the rest of their lives separated. Ethan, desperate to escape his loveless marriage and meaningless life, complies. The accident, however, fails to kill them because Ethan "sees" Zeena out of guilt and tries to turn away from her, but paralyzes Mattie permanently and leaves Ethan barely able to walk.

After the story is told, the narrator is shown inside Ethan's home, where he finds two old women, one of whom complains in a whiny voice of the coldness. The whining woman turns out to be Mattie, and the other woman is a healthier Zeena who now looks after Ethan and Mattie much as they once looked after her.


The novel was criticized by Lionel Trilling as lacking in moral or ethical significance. The New York Times called Ethan Frome "a compelling and haunting story". The novel, however, is somewhat autobiographical, with Ethan being analogous to Wharton, Zeena to her husband, and Mattie to her lover at the time, and it was most likely not written as a moralistic piece.


The novel was adapted into a film released in 1993. Directed by John Madden, it stars Liam Neeson as Ethan, Patricia Arquette as Mattie, and Joan Allen as Zeena.


External links

Ethan Frome at Literapedia

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