First published: 1911, United States
Original Language: English
Topics: Adultery, marriage, New England life, disability
In A Nutshell: The narrator of the first and last chapters (who is never named) finds himself intrigued by gruff and lonely Ethan Frome, who lives with his wife and wife's cousin in their remote house in the backwoods of Massachusetts. Ethan suffers from a past injury and rarely talks to anyone; the two women never leave the house. He is helping the narrator, a doctor, get to his patients through heavy snow, and when they're out too late one night, he invites the narrator to his home. The story then turns to Ethan's past, describing his infatuation with Mattie, his wife's cousin, and his stifled and cold marriage to his wife, Zeena. Ethan married Zeena out of necessity and convenience, but there seems to be no real love between them; the hypochondriac Zeena is constantly convinced of her impending doom, complaining of her suffering, and spending money on expense and useless remedies. When Zeena leaves to see a doctor for a couple days, Ethan obsesses about spending more time with Mattie, but neither makes the first move. The story, told from Ethan's point of view, describes with equal parts tenderness and frigidity Ethan's lust and longing for Mattie.
Finally, Zeena decides that she will need a better help around the house than Mattie, who is fairly helpless at housework but has been taken in by the Fromes because she has nowhere else to go. Zeena hires another girl to help around the house and demands that they send Mattie away. Ethan is distraught, considers leaving his wife, then resigns himself to his misery. On the morning when Mattie is to leave, Ethan drives her out to the sledding hill, where he had, at the beginning of the book, offered to take her sledding before. Since this is their last chance, they go down the hill together and confess their feelings for each other. In the heat of the moment, they decide to go down the hill again together, but this time to not turn the sled aside to miss the oak that stands partway down; instead of being separated, they will die together.
The book ends with the narrator meeting both Zeena and Mattie upon entering Ethan's house. Both Ethan and Mattie survived the accident, Ethan with physical disabilities and Mattie apparently with brain damage, making her unable to leave the Fromes' house--sentencing Ethan to live out his days with them both, unable to love either one and unloved by both.
Thinking Makes It So: I found this book rather horrifying. It's short and poignant and chilling. As you read Wharton's words, you have to squint to see through the heavy shadows in a wooden house after dark with only a few dim lamps for light; you can hear the wind howling through the cracks and feel the chill of the cold floorboards and unwarmed beds. There's a sense of chill seeping through every word; I don't remember ever having such a visceral reaction to a book before. Whereas Zeena sits in the darkness and the cold, refusing to show any emotion or affection, though Ethan's eyes Mattie is the sole source of life and warmth, and the light only shines through when he's with her. Strangely, like Ethan, I began to look forward to Mattie's appearances, if only because the world was so cold without her.
I can't really say that I liked this book. The frosty feeling stayed with me after I finished it, even sitting in a warm house in the sun. The ending, especially, is simply horrifying. Although I by no means could endorse the idea of Ethan abandoning Zeena to run off with Mattie, I couldn't help but wish for happiness for him, and you can just sense his longing for the love and passion that Mattie embodies for him. It seems that nothing could be worse than a life chained forever to his demanding, apathetic, selfish wife--until, in a desperate attempt to escape into death, he finds the only possible solution that could make his situation worse. Now he's still stuck with his wife, who must know how he felt about Mattie and hate them both for it, hate that she has to put up with both of them, who must nag and sting ever more. But he's also stuck with Mattie, who falls into Zeena's darkness and becomes another version of her. Not only must he be with her every day but never be able to be with her, but she's lost her light, and if anything, makes the Fromes' cold house even more frigid. In trying to escape his personal hell, Ethan managed to drag himself further down.
So it was with a cold pit in my stomach that I put Ethan Frome down and tried to shake off the clinging shadows and winter breezes. I wouldn't want to read it again. Although it's fascinating and beautifully written, the darkness is too palpable.
That You Must Teach Me: Since it's so short and packs so much into those few pages, has few characters and a simple plotline, it would be relatively easy for intermediate students to read. Possible topics include:
- Use of symbolism and metaphor (light and dark, warmth and cold)
- Adultery and the meaning of love
- Life in New England at the turn of the century (marriage, courtship)
- Significance of disabilities
WebEnglishTeacher's page on Edith Wharton: vocab lists, summaries, themes
EDSITEment: lesson plan and discussion questions
LitPlans: many, many links!