This novella is set in the village of Starkfield, in western Massachusetts, and the barren, isolated winter landscape that the town’s name connotes is influential to the events and themes of this tragic narrative. The text is constructed as a frame story wherein the narrator, an engineer who is temporarily in Starkfield for a project, becomes intrigued with Ethan Frome, a solitary farmer. The majority of the story is the narrator’s imagined reconstruction of Ethan’s youth, based on his incomplete knowledge of the man gained from other townspeople.
This “flashback” traces the younger Ethan’s thwarted desires to leave Starkfield and pursue higher education, and his marriage out of a sense of duty and out of sheer loneliness to a cousin, Zeena, after she came to nurse his dying mother. However, Zeena quickly became a querulous invalid herself, leaving Ethan feeling more unhappy and isolated than ever. The coming of Zeena’s pretty and sweet-natured young cousin, Mattie, to the Frome household is a magical change in Ethan’s life, and he and Mattie soon fall in love with each other. Zeena, sensing what has occurred, soon resolves to send Mattie away again, and on the last night before her departure, Ethan and Mattie take a sled-ride together. As they go down the sledding hill one last time, Ethan steers them toward a large tree with the intent of killing them both, but in the crash he and Mattie are instead badly injured.
The epilogue of the story returns to the present, as the narrator, arriving at Ethan’s home, discovers that the once-lovely Mattie has been transformed into a whining, paralyzed invalid, and that Zeena, seeming to thrive off the grief and tragedy surrounding her, is now taking care of Mattie. It is then that the narrator realizes in full the misery of Ethan’s existence.
1. The Prologue introduces the frame narrator. Why do you think Wharton chose to employ this technique? What do we learn about him? What might be ironic about the fact that he is an engineer? What similarities does he share with Ethan?
2. The setting/wintertime: how does it play a role in this story?
3. Ch. I: What do we learn about Ethan’s own personality here? How is Ethan’s affection for Mattie explained? What do we learn about the dynamics of Ethan and Zeena’s marriage?
4. How does Wharton employ foreshadowing effectively in this novella?
5. Ch. III: How are Mattie and Zeena contrasted physically and psychologically?
6. Ethan and Mattie’s evening together alone in Ch. V: what are the key events in it?
7. In Chs. VIII-IX, Ethan weighs his options. How is his decision to stay rather than run away with Mattie in keeping with his personality?
8. The Epilogue: How does it surprise us? What are its ironies?
–Contributed by Charlotte Rich, Eastern Kentucky University