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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Course Hero. (2016, October 27). Ethan Frome Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved June 8, 2023, from

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Course Hero. "Ethan Frome Study Guide." October 27, 2016. Accessed June 8, 2023.


Course Hero, "Ethan Frome Study Guide," October 27, 2016, accessed June 8, 2023,

Ethan Frome | Plot Summary

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The narrator arrives in Starkfield, Massachusetts, in winter during the late 1800s. He becomes fascinated by a local handicapped man, Ethan Frome, who lives on a struggling sawmill and farm across town. The narrator gathers some information from gossipy neighbors, but it isn't until the narrator hires Ethan to drive him around town during a terrible snowstorm that he meets the man face-to-face. When a particularly bad freeze makes it impossible for the narrator to return home, he must seek refuge in the Frome home, where his "vision" of Ethan's personal history takes shape.

The story jumps 24 years into the past, to the time when Ethan sustained the injury that crippled him. When readers see Ethan he is a young man hurrying across the snow-covered town to pick up Mattie Silver, his sickly wife's cousin, from a town hall dance. Rather than announce his presence to Mattie, Ethan waits outdoors, watching her through the windows. Mattie is young, lively, and beautiful, everything Zeena Frome, Ethan's wife, is not. Ethan fluctuates between shame of his lust for Mattie and violent envy of the young men who can openly flirt and dance with her. As Ethan and Mattie walk home together, Ethan feels more alive than he thinks he ever has, and he believes Mattie is his soul mate. They discuss their friends, Ned and Ruth, who were nearly injured in a sledding accident nearby, and whether Mattie is doing a sufficient enough job in the home to please Zeena. Ethan worries Mattie will leave to get married but doesn't voice these fears. As they reach the graveyard near the house, Ethan silently asks the spirits of his dead relatives to "conspire with him to keep her."

The next morning Ethan is surprised to find Zeena at the breakfast table wearing her traveling clothes. She announces she is visiting a doctor in another town, seeking treatment for the shooting pains that have debilitated her. Although he has no money to fund the journey or the various medications Zeena is sure to purchase, Ethan is overwhelmed with joy at the thought of being alone in the house with Mattie. He sends for his hired hand, Jotham Powell, to drive Zeena to the train station. He hurries through the day's work so he can rush back to dinner with Mattie. He visits with a client, Mr. Hale, and halfheartedly asks for an advance in payment, which is refused. Ethan doesn't really mind. All he can think about is being alone with Mattie. Back at home for dinner, however, things progress awkwardly. Zeena's name comes up in conversation numerous times, which sucks all the romance out of the room for Ethan. Then Zeena's cat leaps onto the dinner table, knocking Zeena's red pickle dish to the ground, shattering it. The dish had been kept in Zeena's special cupboard, and Mattie knows there is no excuse for her having taken it. Quickly Ethan hides the shards back in Zeena's closet and promises to glue it back together before his wife notices. After supper the two sit by the fire, and to Ethan, it feels as if they are an old married couple. They retire for the evening without so much as touching.

The next day Zeena arrives home earlier than expected, leaving Ethan scrambling around town to find the right glue to mend the pickle dish. When he returns Zeena announces she is sicker than anyone expected and she must hire a live-in nurse to care for her. Zeena expects Mattie to be gone by the morning to make room for the new girl, whom Zeena has already hired. Ethan is outraged, telling Zeena he'd rather she suffer than put Mattie out. Everything Ethan says incriminates him in Zeena's eyes. Although Ethan and Mattie haven't technically had an affair, Zeena knows something has happened between them although no one says it out loud. Ethan abhors Zeena but is morally obliged to care for her. Alone with Mattie, he grabs her, kisses her fiercely, and vows he'll never let her go. A few minutes later Zeena announces she has found the broken pickle dish and demands to know what happened. Ethan meekly says the cat knocked it over, but Mattie admits the truth: she took it down to make the dinner table pretty for Ethan. Now Zeena feels more entitled than ever to dismiss Mattie, which she takes glee in doing. After ordering Mattie to pack her bags, Zeena heads to bed.

Determined to run away with Mattie, Ethan pens a goodbye letter to Zeena, leaving her the farm. As he writes he realizes not only does he not have the money to support Mattie in another town, he doesn't even have the money to buy himself a train ticket. Devastated he accepts his fate: he will miserably remain with Zeena until his lonesome death. The next morning, newly determined to run away, Ethan returns to Mr. Hale's, intending to beg for the cash advance if he must. Along the way he runs into Mrs. Hale, who praises Ethan for his loyalty and dedication to Zeena throughout her many illnesses. Devastated by the praise Ethan once again realizes he cannot leave Zeena. He drags himself back home where he picks up Mattie and prepares to drive her to the train station. They leave earlier than planned, allowing themselves time to be alone. They drive across town reminiscing, recalling they'd always wanted to go sledding together but never found the time. They find an abandoned sled and agree to finally make the moment happen. Their first ride is exhilarating as they barely miss the giant elm tree at the bottom of the hill. Before their second ride Mattie suddenly pleads with Ethan to sled directly into the tree so they can die together. Ethan, who feels he might as well be dead without Mattie, agrees. Their suicide is botched, however, when they hit the tree at an angle. They survive but are terribly injured.

Returning to the present day the narrator reveals that for the 24 years following the accident, Zeena cared for Ethan and Mattie, the three of them living pitifully together in the rundown sawmill. Mattie, who suffered terribly in the accident, becomes unrecognizable from Zeena herself, sickly and miserable, perpetuating Ethan's lifelong sentence of suffering.

Ethan Frome Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 The narrator gossips about Ethan and is invited to his home.

Rising Action

2 Ethan sees Mattie at the dance and wonders if she loves him.

3 The pickle dish is broken during Ethan and Mattie's dinner.

4 Ethan considers eloping with Mattie after Zeena fires her.


5 Mattie and Ethan coast into an elm to commit suicide.

Falling Action

6 Ethan regains consciousness after the botched crash.


7 The narrator meets Zeena and Mattie 24 years later.

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