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Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome is one of those relatively short, pithy novels with a not very imaginative plot which somehow, because of the wonderful skills of the writer, becomes a magical book. It might be said to reflect, at least in part, Wharton’s own situation as it tells the tale of a man trapped, by the conventions of the time, in an unhappy marriage, as was Wharton herself. Frome married an older woman, Zenobia (Zeena), who is painted as an unpleasant hypochondriac by Wharton. Her young cousin, Mattie, comes to the farm to help and, soon, Frome and Mattie fall in love. They realise there is no hope for their love, particularly when Zeena says she is going to replace Mattie. They attempt to commit suicide, by smashing a fast-moving sled into a tree at the bottom of hill but only manage to injure themselves (this is based on a real incident Wharton knew about when some children had an accident and one was killed).

Ethan Frome is one of those wonderful New England names we have seen in the likes of Melville and Hawthorne, which evokes grandeur and tragedy but also gloom and misery and in this grimly realistic novel, where the ground always seems to be covered with cold snow and the desolate landscape mirrors the situation of the two lovers, all those qualities are skilfully combined by Wharton. The novel is made even more poignant when we realise that she wrote it at a time when her own marriage was falling apart. Zeena, with her real and imaginary illnesses, clearly represents Teddy with his nervous disorders. But, even if we know nothing of her situation, this novel represents a triumph of the realist novel and the cruelty and hopelessness that a relationship can often bring.

Publishing history

First published 1911 by Charles Scribner’s Sons