Ethan Frome, a novella written by Edith Wharton, was first published in 1911. The title character of the story is a young farmer and lumber mill owner who lives in an isolated part of Vermont. As Frome’s story unfolds, the reader learns that the story’s protagonist is barely keeping his head above water. He is also stuck in a loveless marriage. His wife, Zeena, is cold, self - centered, and is a hypochondriac who uses her illness to manipulate others. Zeena’s cousin Mattie, orphaned and destitute, has come to live with the Fromes. Though their relationship is unconsummated, Mattie and Ethan have fallen in love. When Zeena decides to send Mattie away, the pair are plunged into deep despair.
This is a curious story. As it takes place during a northern New England winter, it is filled with descriptions of a snowy and cold environment. It is also a dark tale. Ethan is normally unhappy, and the events of the story drive him into desperation and gloom. The ending is odd and contains some surprising developments.
This book is filled with pathos. The passages during which Mattie and Ethan develop their attraction as well as those where they believe that they are going to be parted are tenderly and masterfully written.
At one point Ethan thinks about kissing Mattie,
"He knew that most young men made nothing at all of giving a pretty girl a kiss, and he remembered that the night before, when he had put his arm about Mattie, she had not resisted. But that had been out-of-doors, under the open irresponsible night. Now, in the warm lamplit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable."
Though short, this novella is full of ideas and contains a fascinating plot and characters. Much can be written about it. There is something that this tale has in common with other Wharton books that I have read, such as House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, in that it is a brilliant examination of a person who is trapped due to social and economic bounds. Ethan is in a miserable position, and he has come to despise Zeena. The story recounts how he made a terrible mistake when he proposed to her. He did so mostly to avoid loneliness. His dream of becoming an engineer has disappeared. He has fallen in love with Mattie, who is not only going to be torn from him, but who is going to be sent into a dire situation.
As he considers every option open to him, he realizes that there is apparently no way out. Zeena has him boxed in at home. He contemplates running away with Mattie, but he is stymied by multiple financial as well as ethical constraints. At one point he thinks,
"The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict. There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished."
The above quotation perfectly describes the situation that Ethan is in, it perfectly describes the plot of this book, and it perfectly illustrates what how skilled a writer Wharton is. The metaphors of the prison warden as well as the finality of Ethan’s situation are the expressions of a great writer.
There is so much to this short book that I have not touched on. Many words have been written about its characters and story. Wharton had a knack for describing people caught in bad situations as well as the negative emotions that go along with them. Anyone who likes Wharton or stories about relationships is likely to get a lot out of this book.