Edith Wharton Ethan Frome (1911)

Topics/Themes: Love; Poverty, conditions on the countryside; Moral values/rules; Conflict between the individual and the community(personal inclinations and sense of duty to community); Fate (heredity and natural environment), determinism, choices, no free will (an individual might have a will and take choices but he’s unable to change fate); Conflict between illusion and failure; Failure of communication; Isolation, winter; Gender issues; Marriage.

-Ethan is unable to go away from that isolated community. He went to college but then came back because of his family duties, his father was dying. So we have this 1st failure to take his choices.

-Why does Ethan not go away from Starkfield after his mother dies? Because of his sense of duty towards Zeena. The reason about this that Zeena feels at home in that community, the neighbours know her and she is scared to abandon that traditional sense of community.

-This is classical traditional society, rural society based on patriarchal rules. She is Ethan Frome’s wife, a member of this community. What are the alternatives for a woman in this community? There are not: housewife, mother and maid. There is confinement to classical traditional women roles. The options are very limited. Women were dependent on the husband or father. Being dependent on a man, maybe the best alternative is to pretend to be sick to control that man. Moreover, she avoids working in the land, she avoids hard work.

-So we have Ethan Frome trapped first by his family and then his community. He has a feeling of duty to his community and his wife. He has no money, but he could ask for some cash in advance and go West, but then he feels remorse. At the end, the only scape he sees is suicide, but then it is a failure as well. This imprisonment is too strong.

-Ethan is submissive. From the physical point of view he is strong, but in fact, he is not a strong character. He does not fight; he accepts passively everything. He fantasizes for a while with the West, the land of opportunities, but then he is unable to follow this illusion. With the idea of suicide, it is Mattie’s decision. This character, Ethan, accepts he is a prisoner.

There are some instances about illusion and fantasize about being a couple, when Zeena is gone. Zeena also has this illusion of being ill: she is hypochondriac. This is the way she escapes reality.

The issue of communication is fundamental. The characters do not talk about their feelings. Mattie and Ethan do talk about their feelings, they have no passion, no physical no oral communication, no real communication. When they plan about going West or killing themselves. They are sort of silent, isolated individuals unable to express their feelings. We don’t have open feelings. This is a handicap for the characters.

Many scholars have defined this story as tragedy. In classical tragedies there is always an individual who has a flaw/handicap/defect that will provoke disaster: indecision, jealousy, ambition… In Ethan is weak, unable to face community, the rules, morality. He is not a fighter and faces disaster.

Some scholars had said that he is not guilty; the community there will provoke disaster. ‘you cannot really fight against these strongly rooted conventions. oppression and unwritten rules condemn you to a particular role in that society from which you cannot escape. If Zeena had died and Mattie had married Ethan, after a few years in the farm Mattie would have become like Zeena. The idea that you cannot escape from conventions in a particular setting. A neighbour says at the end of the story that it would have been better for Ethan that Mattie had died in the ‘accident’.

Is Ethan’s story a personal tragedy, born of his indecision and personal failures or a social tragedy, forecast by the oppressive New England setting? It is both a personal and social tragedy.

The main character in the story is Ethan. But without the two female characters the story would be nothing. It is a multivocal story. The focalizer however is Ethan, we see the story mainly from his point of view. We don’t have a lot of references about Zeena’s or Mattie’s feelings or points of view. The story focuses on Ethan, though he is not the narrator.


What do we know about Ethan? It is not a conventional Anglo-Saxon name, it comes from the Old Testament. We have this kind of connotations to strength. In Hebrew Ethan suggest power. In a physical point of view we have references to this, there is an emphasis on the survival after the accident. But this is ironical, since he is not a strong character, he is submissive. Is he a flat or a round character? He is sort of flat, there is no remarkable change in the story?