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A Summary and Analysis of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Updated on January 10, 2015

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, adultery was an issue not taken lightly. Society scorned upon adulterers, and anyone who committed such a crime was often banished or jailed. In the novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, the morals of a small New England town go against the title character Ethan's desire - his desire for Mattie, a woman other than his wife. Additionally, the bleak winters he is forced to spend tending to his sickly wife fuel his desires. The physical aspects of Ethan's community and the morals present during the time period of the novel's setting serve as major obstacles in fulfilling his desire for Mattie.

Ethan's marriage to Zeena is not one of love and affection, but one borne out of convenience and necessity. When Ethan's mother falls ill, Zeena is hired to be her nurse. Living in the bleak town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, Ethan is forced to realize he does not want to spend the harsh winters alone. He marries Zeena, and even though he has hopes of eventually leaving the town and becoming an engineer, the couple's financial situation struggles and Ethan's dreams are suppressed. Aslo, Zeena falls ill and Ethan is obliged to care for her.

"And within a year she developed the 'sickliness' which had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances. When she came to take care of his mother she had seemed to Ethan like the very genius of health, but he soon saw that her skill as a nurse had been acquired by the absorbed observation of her own symptoms."

However, while Zeena suffered physical weakness, she held dominion over the Frome household.

Ethan comes to realize how much he has missed out on through his marriage to Zeena and quickly falls in love with Mattie upon her arrival. Mattie is Zeena's cousin, and they have hired her to help out around their farm and to take care of Zeena during her illness. Compared to Zeena, Mattie is much younger, more attractive, and enthusiastic. She has a positive outlook which Ethan finds very alluring.

"The fact that admiration for his learning mingled with Mattie's wonder at what he taught was not the least part of his pleasure. And there were other sensations, less definable but more exquisite, which drew them together with a shock of silent joy: the cold red of sunset behind winter hiss, the flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow, when she said to him once: 'It looks just as if it was painted!' it seemed to Ethan that the art of definition could go no farther, and that words had at last been found to utter his secret soul..."

These descriptions and characteristics of Mattie allow the reader to sympathize with Ethan, and they also present a stark contrast between Mattie and Zeena. The differences between the two characters help justify Ethan's feelings for both.

Ethan and Mattie
Ethan and Mattie

As Zeena becomes more aware of the situation with her husband and her cousin, she becomes increasingly agitated and wants Mattie to leave. One of Zeena's prized possessions, a red pickle dish, is broken one night when Mattie asks Ethan to take it down from the top of a shelf where Zeena keeps it safely. When Zeena realizes it is broken, she uses this as a reason why Mattie should leave. Also, Zeena believes she needs a new nurse to help care for her, and they would not be able to afford keeping Mattie any longer.

"Mattie was in her relation, not his, there were no means by which he could compel her to keep the girl under her roof. All the long misery of his baffled past, of his youth of failure, hardship and vain effort, rose up in his soul in bitterness and seemed to take shape before him in the woman who at every turn had barred his way. She had taken everything else from him; and now she meant to take the one thing that made up for all the others."

As Zeena becomes increasingly physically weakened, her control over the household becomes stronger. Ethan becomes so enraged by his wife's words and action regarding Mattie, yet he still cannot admit his true feelings for her.

Ethan and Mattie
Ethan and Mattie

Ethan's marital commitment toward his wife places him in a difficult position because of his feelings for Mattie. During Ethan's era, adultery was unheard of and scorned upon. A different dovel written during the same time period, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, clearly illustrates how an intensely Puritanical community in New England took adulterous acts very seriously. Hester Prynne, who gives birth after an extramarital affair, is forced by the town residents to live in a small hut on the outskirts of the village, because the townspeople wanted nothing to do with her. Ethan's community would have felt similarly, mainly because adultery goes against all Christian values.

Aside from the intense views against adultery in his community, Ethan has to deal with the barren six-month winters of Starkfield, the fictional Massachusetts town in which he lives. In the introduction of Ethan Frome, the narrator describes his experience of a Starkfield winter:

"When I had been there a little longer, and had seen the phase of crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold' when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the devoted village and the wild cavalry of march winds had charged down to their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six-months' siege like a starved garrison capitulation without quarter."

This setting acts as a stifling force on many of Ethan's aspirations, and virtually drains him of any emotional clarity. Constantly complaining of the cold, many characters in the book are clearly depressed by the winters and suffer through them. Even though Ethan desires Mattie more than his wife, his feelings are constantly suppressed by the dreariness of his surroundings.

The theme of adultery in Ethan Frome is not found just in literature. The author of this novel, Edith Wharton, experienced similar problems in her own marriage to her husband, Edward Robbins Wharton. He "...fell sick, took to travel and, later, to writing; and even as the marriage was crumbling (because of various calamities ending in Mr. Wharton's incurable mental illness), she formed a relationship of an as yet undefined intimacy with one Walter Van Rennsalaer Berry."1 The author can relate to her character in various ways, and it helps to illustrate how Ethan's feelings for Zeena, although socially scorned upon, are justified. However, Ethan's feelings for Mattie are suppressed through his marriage to Zeena, the morals of his small community, and the stifling, dreary winters of his Massachusetts hometown.


1. RWB Lewis, introduction. The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1963).


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