LITR221Ethan Frome: Epitomizing the American spirit of the middle classThroughout the last few centuries, many writers have tried to capture the American spiritthrough literary characters and novels. Ethan Frome, the title character in one of Edith Wharton’s lesser-known novels, does just that as he personifies the hopes, dreams, and strugglesof the working middle class in early 20thcentury Massachusetts. The story takes place in the fictional town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. The story is narrated by a man, an engineer, who is stuck in Starkfield for the winter. He begins a business relationship with Ethan Frome, who is stated to be approximately 52 years old at the current time. The narrator points out that Ethan Frome appeared to be a man much older than his 52 years, partially due to an accident that had occurred 24 years prior, but also due to long, harsh winters in a small town. The narrator hires Frome to drive him to and from business engagements during his time in Starkfield. The narrator paints a picture of Frome as a hardened recluse who pretty much keeps to himself other than engaging in routine business dealings with the townspeople. One night, a terrible blizzard forces the narrator and Frome to take shelter in Frome’s home. It is there that the narrator learns the tragic story that led to Frome’s current condition- a story of cultural barriers, shattered hopes and dreams, betrayal, greed, and the human spirit. Throughout the story, bleak imagery is used to describe the hopelessness that permeates Starkfield. The skies are often described as gray and cloudy and the nights are described as black. Ethan’s home is often portrayed as dark and musty with little more than candlelight to lend just enough light to see by. As most of the story takes place in the winter, the trees are often1
described as being dead and barren. This all sets the tone for the somewhat depressing story of Ethan Frome of Starkfield, Massachusetts. The story begins when Ethan Frome is about 28 years old. This can be deducted from thenarrator’s description of Ethan’s current age less the time that had passed since the horrific accident. In the early 20thcentury, 28 was considered significantly older than it is today. Ethan was a farmer who sold lumber throughout the area. While he was not described as being extremely poor, he was also not wealthy by any means. He would probably best be described as lower-middle class. The dialogue in which characters speak in slang and thick New England accents of the poor reinforces this observation. For example, Ethan says, “You ain’t crying are you, Matt?” (Wharton 509). This is the kind of dialect used by people of a lower income bracket.