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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Ethan Frome what comparison can be made between the narrator and Ethan?

The narrator is the type of man Ethan perhaps wishes he could be, characterizing what Ethan's life might have been like. Both Ethan and the narrator are interested in science, but only the narrator found success in his work. He comes to Starkfield as an engineer, the job Ethan had hoped to pursue. The men are also similar in their reaction to forced residence in Starkfield during winter as the narrator says, "Before my own time was up I had learned to know what that ['he's been in Starkfield too many winters'] meant." As an "outsider" the narrator is able to see how the isolation and depression in Starkfield affects a person's mood, and it is for this reason that he becomes interested in Ethan's past.

In what ways is Zeena sick or not in Ethan Frome?

Zeena is debilitated by illness in Ethan Frome, sometimes requiring round-the-clock care, household help, frequent trips to the doctor, and by the end of the novel, an operation. She suffers from shooting pains, stomach issues, and more. What is unclear, however, is whether the symptoms are real, psychosomatic, or completely made up. What is clear is that Zeena uses her illness to manipulate Ethan. They have terrible communication, and Ethan obviously isn't in love with her, so Zeena uses his moral responsibility and sympathy to manipulate him into staying with her: "The doctor don't want I should be left without anybody to do for me." After Ethan's accident Zeena makes an unexpected recovery and is able to care for Ethan and Mattie for years to come. This supports the theory that her illnesses were likely a manipulation: as soon as Ethan is physically unable to leave her, she recovers.

In what ways does the narrator contrast Mattie and Zeena in Ethan Frome?

Ethan's two love interests, his wife, Zeena, and her cousin Mattie, are opposites. Zeena is described as wholly nasty, decrepit, and without redeeming qualities. She is cruel, selfish, dishonest, and unattractive, with a "flat breast," "false teeth," "whining" voice, and a "puckered throat." Mattie, on the other hand, is a picture of youthful beauty with rosy skin, thick hair, and a resilient spirit. She has "an eye to see and an ear to hear" Ethan's heart, making her his soul mate. She is interesting, intelligent, thoughtful, brave, and yet perfectly demure. Zeena is the stifling force that holds Ethan back from achieving happiness, while Mattie is the glimmer of hope for his happy future. This contrast becomes especially poignant at the end of the novel when their caregiver roles have reversed and Zeena becomes Mattie's and Ethan's caregiver.

How does the prologue create suspense in Ethan Frome?

The main way the prologue creates suspense in Ethan Frome is to introduce the horrific "smash up" that injured Ethan and confined him to Starkfield. Ethan is described as "the ruin of a man" with a "bleak and unapproachable" face that have grizzled his features as a result of staying in Starkfield for too many winters. The narrator—and through his curiosity, the audience—longs to know more about Ethan's backstory. The suspense grows as the narrator watches townsfolk politely avoid Ethan, and when normally gossipy neighbors, like Mrs. Ned Hale, are reluctant to answer questions about Ethan's past. Ethan's own silence when driving the narrator around town leaves the narrator deeply curious to have his questions answered.

What is the purpose of the frame structure provided in the Prologue and Epilogue of Ethan Frome?

Like many fairy tales and fables Ethan Frome is told with a frame structure to allow outsiders to verbalize their observations of a strange situation. The primary purpose of the frame structure is to give a large overview of Ethan's life (particularly the effects of his decisions) without having to narrate 25 years of his life. It allows the author to focus on the days surrounding the sledding accident and the long-term effects of those decisions. The frame also creates suspense for the reader who knows Ethan is disfigured but doesn't understand why. Finally the frame structure casts doubt on the narrator's reliability. He admits that his retelling is a "vision of [Ethan's] story" pieced together from neighborhood gossip and his own imaginings. This allows the readers to make their own decisions about Ethan's story.

What tone or attitude does Ethan Frome illustrate toward suicide?

When the time comes for Mattie to be separated from Ethan forever, they decide they would rather die than live apart. In the moment it seems romantic that they would spend eternity together in death: "Ethan! I want you to take me down again ... so 't we'd never have to leave each other any more." For Ethan suicide seems a far easier option that dealing with the emotional mess of leaving his wife and shouldering the community's judgment. Even though they'll be dead, they'll always be together. Their suicide is botched, however, horrifically injuring them. In their injuries they spend the rest of their lives together, but it is miserable. Ethan Frome highlights the dark corners of life from which there is no easy or "moral" escape.

In Ethan Frome who or what is to blame for Ethan's circumstances?

Harmon Gow, who gossips openly about Ethan Frome's tragedy, blames external circumstances for Frome's pain. First he blames Ethan's sickly parents for pulling him away from his studies, then Zeena's illness for keeping him there. He blames Frome's poor soil and a broken-down mill for his poverty. As the narrator learns more about Ethan's life he sees that Ethan is also partly responsible for his own unhappiness. While he is the product of dire situations—"Sickness and trouble: that's what Ethan's had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping"—he does nothing to change his future.

In what ways is Wharton concerned with the effects of silence in Ethan Frome?

Silence is a central motif in Ethan Frome, and it is one of the key factors driving many characters toward unhappiness: Ethan, his mother, his wife, and even the narrator. The freezing winters isolate the townsfolk of Starkfield and limit their opportunities for an outside life. This depression and isolation felt as a result of silence were likely inspired by Wharton's own struggles. In her early years Wharton was not supported as a woman writer and was forced to schedule writing time around social and marital obligations. As her fame grew, however, famous literary friends encouraged her work. She never spoke about her works-in-progress and always wrote alone. At the same time she felt trapped in a loveless marriage to an intellectually inferior man and began an illicit affair, which she kept secret from friends and family. Similarly all three main characters in Ethan Frome are enclosed in silence and unable to communicate their true desires.

How does farm life affect women differently than men in Ethan Frome?

Farm life is explored through the portrayal of two generations of the Frome family, Ethan and his wife, and Ethan's parents. Social expectation dictated gender roles. Men were traditionally the family's breadwinners while women took care of domestic duties like cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children. Because their jobs required them to work outdoors—and they handled money, banking, and trades—men naturally had more opportunities to socialize. In Ethan Frome the reader sees Ethan visiting Ned Hale, traveling into town to collect the mail, and running evening errands (like picking up Mattie). Women often spent their spare time doing solitary activities like sewing and reading. Farmhouses were spread out, which made interactions with neighbors even less frequent, especially during long Starkfield winters. As a result women felt more isolated than men and the silence, Ethan believes, drove both his mother and his wife deeply inside themselves.

In what ways is fear the driving force that keeps Ethan from eloping with Mattie in Chapter 9 of Ethan Frome?

At the beginning of the novel it appears that Ethan is moved into passivity by his crippling sense of duty. He feels a moral duty to leave school and care for the farm after his father's injury, for example, and a moral responsibility to care for Zeena through her various illnesses even though he does not love her. But Ethan has no moral qualms about openly lusting after Mattie, looking for ways to be alone with her, and even planning to join her out West when she leaves. The crippling force—both physically and emotionally—that holds Ethan back from following his plans is fear of his powerlessness. He is afraid of what people like the Hales might say about him if he abandons Zeena. He is afraid of how he will support Mattie if he no longer has the farm for income. When the sled coasts toward the tree at the bottom of the hill, Ethan's fear of death, or indecision about the outcome, causes him to flinch, botching the suicide attempt.

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