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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Context


Ties to Wharton's Life

Ethan Frome is an anomaly in Edith Wharton's publishing career because it is one of her only pieces of fiction not about New York aristocracy. Ethan Frome is a poor farmer living in Massachusetts, a world away from the upper-class New York society to which Wharton belonged. Instead, the work mirrors Wharton's personal life at the time of the novella's publication. Wharton had been unhappily married to an incompatible man for many years when she met and fell in love with London Times reporter William Morton Fullerton. In 1908, three years before she published Ethan Frome, the two began a passionate but doomed extramarital affair. They separated in 1910; Ethan Frome was published a year later in 1911. The slim novel's central character, Ethan Frome, struggles with the moral repercussions of an illicit potential romance and the sacrifices he must make to chase personal happiness.

Ethan Frome, like many of Wharton's novels, highlights the moral struggles between social convention and personal happiness. Many of her characters, including those in Ethan Frome, learn no moral system—whether religious or social—creates a clear path to happiness. Individuals must think for themselves, weighing the pros and cons of their options before making an emotional decision. Failure to do so leads to indecision and unhappiness.

Literary Naturalism

While the untapped passion between Ethan and Mattie may have been inspired by her own life, Wharton was deeply moved when a friend was injured in a sledding accident in 1904. The tragic accident claimed the life of one young woman and left four others gravely injured. The incident may have seemed a perfect symbol for the dangers of an illicit romance run amok.

Rather than set the story in upper-class New York, as she had done so many times before, Wharton used Ethan Frome to explore an aspect of literary naturalism: the philosophy that explores how characters are affected by their environments. Many of Wharton's characters, including Ethan Frome and Mattie, are victims of their surroundings, living lives in which others direct their paths and make their decisions. Literary naturalists believed in Darwin's theory of "the survival of the fittest," which suggested characters unable to thrive in their circumstances would ultimately be defeated, even if they were moral, religious, or "good" characters. In the case of Ethan Frome, his miserable fate is predetermined by the strong forces that keep him at the farm: poverty, a sickly wife, and insurmountable New England winters. The paradox of naturalism, however, is the emphasis that characters must exercise free will to escape their fates, which Ethan never manages to do. At the time Wharton wrote, many popular novels instead romanticized rural life as the antidote to vigorous city living; Wharton wanted to show the negative sides of living in untouched nature, proving emotional struggles can join men of different classes in a common fate.
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