Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

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I was a bit disappointed by Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I’m glad I read it: it gave me a new perspective on Wharton, because it was a different setting, cast of characters, and theme from those I’ve read before. It was wonderfully written, with Wharton’s elaborate and realistic descriptions of the setting and thought processes. As in the other Wharton novels and novellas I’ve read, there was a moral dilemma.

Yet, the overall mood to Ethan Frome was so bleak that I felt depressed both while I was reading and afterward. It also felt like a study in symbolism for high school students to read: it seemed Wharton was hitting us over the head with “subtlety” to discover if we just read close enough. I felt it didn’t have the depth that The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth had, nor the matter-of-fact dilemma that The Touchstone had.

I love Wharton’s writing: she so accurately captures a setting. Ethan Frome is mostly about the setting: the cold, New England town of Starkfield. This is the perfect winter book, and I only wish I read it a few months ago (there are already some hints at spring now, despite the snow that came Saturday).  Starkfield is everything the name implies: a remote New England town with little exciting happening, few joys, and plenty of cold weather and snow, come winter. The novella is about the winter, especially the bleakness of winter that is our life.

When the unnamed narrator asks about Ethan Frome, he says, “He looks as if he was dead and in hell now!”

“Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away,” says his companion.

The subsequent story, as told by the narrator, captures a little bit about some of the winter events that made Ethan Frome this symbol of hell. He is stuck in Starkfield, and there is no hope in his life.

The story revolves around Ethan, his wife Zeena, and his wife’s cousin Mattie Silver. Because it is such a short novella (about 140 pages in my edition), I’ll leave the details of the plot for your discovery. Suffice it to say, it’s about life, and the futility of finding joy. It’s about relationships, and one’s inability to find satisfaction in life through them.

I read this for my Classics Reading Group, and we (all three of us) found it a quick read, one that leaves you feeling depressed and not overly impressed (I hope I’m not misspeaking for any of us). I believed the unnamed narrator is unreliable, possibly skewing the facts of what really happened, but I was the only one who thought that. I like the supposition “What if the story had been told from Zeena’s perspective?”because I think something was left unsaid.  I found Ethan horribly weak, but as the others in my group pointed out, what could he have done differently?

I found some guides online to help in garnering discussion and I found it amusing that Cliff’s Notes, for example, emphasized so much of the symbolism. It seems like a book a high school teacher would assign, because even things like the name “Starkfield” is full of obvious symbolism. It’s a shame, because I think this book would be a hated high school book.

Ethan Frome is an interesting work by Wharton. It reflected the lower classes and her other novels seem to be of wealthy New Yorkers. In the end, I didn’t love it, mostly because the frigid temperatures seemed to seep out of the city and into the souls of the characters. That was, I think, Wharton’s point.

Reviewed on March 23, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’ve been thinking about reading this one lately becasue Hermione Lee provides a fascinating discussion of it in the Edith Wharton biography. The story was first written in French as an exercise. Then Wharton translated it and revised it over the course of a summer in which she watched her bipolar husband’s mental illness spiral out of control. I think the bleakness in her personal life had a lot to do with the bleakness of the story.
    .-= Stefanie´s last post on blog ..What Am I Doing? =-.

    • Stefanie, That is in an interesting history — written in French first? Wow. I can see how that history, with her husband’s mental health, would add to making the story bleak….I can really see that!

  • From what I understand this tends to be a novel that is often assigned to highschool students, and is generally loathed by all of them! I have to admit that I’ve only read one Wharton novel (The House of Mirth) and I didn’t love it. I found it a drag to read, and I think Wharton’s style might just not be my thing. I’m uncertain as to whether I’d like to try anything else by her, but if I do, it will likely be The Age of Innocence and not Ethan Frome!
    .-= Steph´s last post on blog ..“Blindness” by José Saramago =-.

    • Steph, yes, I think Wharton is a specific taste for people. But I did enjoy Age of Innocence best. I think it sad this is the high school Wharton because I find it so depressing, I can understand the general loathing.

  • Of all the Wharton I’ve read, This is the one I’ve liked the best, but I still wasn’t terribly impressed. Wharton’s prose and I don’t get along. She’s much more Jason’s speed than mine. But I liked the concept of this one. We read it in high school and I dont’ even remember the writing, just the plot. I think I’ll keep remembering it retrospect like that.
    .-= Amanda´s last post on blog ..Twenty Boy Summer, by Sarah Ockler =-.

    • Amanda, given that you liked Lord of the Flies in high school and knowing you enjoyed The Stranger, I’m not surprised that this the most enjoyable Wharton for you! I think it does have more plot than the others I’ve read. Glad there is at least one Wharton you remember liking to some extent!

  • Yes, this seems like the end of the Wharton spectrum I’m least fond of – the deadly-earnest, “symbolic” end. That said, Stefanie’s totally right – Hermione Lee increased my interest in almost every Wharton work she discusses. I think I might seek out The Reef and Custom of the Country because of her.
    .-= Emily´s last post on blog ..Essay Mondays: Tanizaki =-.

  • This probably my least favorite of the four Wharton novels I’ve read. (Custom of the Country is my favorite.) I just couldn’t get interested in the characters as much as I did the characters in her other books. That said, I didn’t dislike Ethan Frome. I fully expected to, because I knew the plot in advance, and I have a bias against melodramatic “death is better than living without my lover” stories. But Wharton’s descriptions of the place and the people were so well done that I was won over, even if I wasn’t as entralled as I was in her other books.
    .-= Teresa´s last post on blog ..Speak =-.

    • Teresa, I remember you really enjoyed Custom of the Country, so I do have that on my list! But yes, I didn’t really care about the characters in this, although the others in my book group did sympathize with Ethan Frome. I didn’t know the plot in advance and I probably wasn’t going to like it if I did. So glad for that.

      I agree that the descriptions are amazingly done! That’s why I didn’t hate it. I just was disappointed in the end.

  • I’ve just finished this today! I’ll save your review to read after I’ve written my own, but I see you were disappointed. I actually loved it, but then again it was my first Wharton, so I went in with zero expectations.
    .-= Nymeth´s last post on blog ..La Perdida by Jessica Abel =-.

  • I enjoyed this book, but I can’t believe they teach it in high schools! It feels too mature for young people. I enjoyed the starkness of the story and the relationship between the setting and the mood. But I can definitely see how one would be depressed upon finishing as the story is pretty bleak.
    .-= Trisha´s last post on blog ..Beautiful Blogger =-.

    • Trisha, I actually found it rather superficial rather than mature in terms of themes and symbolism, so I can see it as a high school book. But I think the depressing side of it would add to high schoolers disliking it!!

  • I love the book and have read it several times. I couldn’t make the discussion because I had surgery and was recovering. Bummer, because I wanted to point out there are only a couple uses of color (red) throughout the book, the rest is painted in shades of grey. The dish Mattie breaks is red, and I think she also had a red scarf? But the rest was without color. I’ve always been a fan of bleak writing, so maybe that’s why I enjoy it?
    .-= Lisa Guidarini´s last post on blog ..Tragedy too deep for words. =-.

    • Lisa, sorry you couldn’t make it to the discussion — since I know you loved the book!! yeah, this book was a bit too bleak for me to love, but I enjoy that little tidbit about color, that really stands out, since it was so monotone….lots of snow. It made me cold lol!

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