Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Edith Wharton published Ethan Frome, the story of a doomed love affair in rural Massachusetts, in 1911. Against the backdrop of a bleak landscape, the novella tells the story of a poor farmer; his sick, manipulative wife; and her attractive, vivacious caregiver. It looks closely at the conflict between what is morally right and what will lead to happiness and makes clear the challenges of escaping rural poverty and its effects.

Wharton's examination of personal choice, circumstance, and the role of responsibility has made Ethan Frome a consistent favorite among readers. Though its characters and setting are far different from the upper-class social environment that defines most of Wharton's other novels, the idea that people are often inhibited by society's rules is nearly universal in her work.

1. Wharton enjoyed writing Ethan Frome more than any other book.

Wharton was nearly 50 years old when Ethan Frome was published, and she had written other novels, nonfiction works, and stories by then. However, she wrote in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, that Ethan Frome was "the book to the making of which I brought the greatest joy and the fullest ease." She had long wanted to write about the struggle of life in rural New England rather than the upper-class problems of wealthy New Yorkers, and the novel allowed her to do that.

2. The sledding accident in Ethan Frome was based on a real disaster.

The climax of Ethan Frome features a terrible sledding accident that dooms the main characters. This sledding accident was probably based on a real accident that took place in Lenox, Massachusetts, where Wharton worked at the library. In 1904 five children were killed when their sled crashed into a lamppost. One of Wharton's coworkers at the library was a survivor of the accident.

3. Some critics believe Ethan Frome reflects Wharton's own unhappy marriage.

Wharton married Edward ("Teddy") Robbins Wharton in 1885. Teddy was 12 years older than she and mentally unstable. As her career took off, he became financially dependent on her. They had separate bedrooms, and until she was in her mid-40s, when she met and began an affair with Morton Fullerton, her life lacked a passionate relationship. This cold marriage is mirrored in Ethan and Zeena's passionless life together, and Wharton's awakening to love is reflected in Ethan's relationship with Mattie.

4. Ethan Frome was originally written in French.

Wharton went to Paris for the winter in 1907. Wanting to update her French, which she was told was very "17th century," she hired a tutor. The tutor, however, was too nice to correct her spoken French, so she decided to write a story for him to correct. It introduced the book's three main characters and was eight pages long. That story later became the novella Ethan Frome.

5. Wharton had no formal education.

Wharton grew up in an upper-class family where, according to tradition, males were sent to school and females were educated at home, if at all. She was forbidden to read novels and she wrote, "My childhood and youth were an intellectual desert." However, she spoke French, German, and Italian and traveled extensively. Her beloved governess taught her German, and she read through her father's library voraciously, devouring German mythology, poetry, travelogues, and the Old Testament.

6. The New York Times called Ethan Frome "cruel."

The 1911 review of Ethan Frome in the New York Times bore the headline, "Three Lives in Supreme Torture." The review stated, "It is a cruel story. It is a compelling and haunting story," and went on to claim that it was a greater work than Wharton's House of Mirth (1905). The reviewer believed that she looked at her characters and their lives with "the eye of the tragic poet" rather than the "deep sympathy, smiling tenderness, and affectionate tolerance of the greatest novelists."

7. Teddy Roosevelt told Wharton Ethan Frome was "powerful."

Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. president from 1901 to 1909, was a fan of Edith Wharton's work. He wrote her a letter in 1912 in which he mentioned Ethan Frome, saying, "Did I tell you how much I liked 'Ethan Frome'? It is a really great story." He stated that the novella was "one of the most powerful things you have done." Wharton was a cousin of Roosevelt's second wife; she and the president were close enough that they exchanged letters often, and she wrote a eulogy for him when he died.

8. Wharton wrote her first novel at age 11.

Wharton began writing as a child, basing her work on the upper-class life she knew. She was not encouraged by her family and wrote on brown parcel paper. Her first novel was completed at age 11 and began, "'Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?' said Mrs. Tompkins. 'If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing room.'" When Wharton showed it to her mother, she responded, "Drawing rooms are always tidy."

9. Wharton's family was the origin of the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses."

Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones to one of the wealthiest families in New York. It's likely that the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses," which means comparing oneself to one's neighbors in terms of social class or ownership of goods, originated with two of Wharton's great-aunts. The aunts built a mansion north of 57th Street in New York City, which at the time was shocking, but others followed their lead, trying to keep up with them.

10. Liam Neeson starred in a poorly reviewed film of the novel.

Liam Neeson and Patricia Arquette starred in a 1993 film adaptation of Ethan Frome. The New York Times hated it, saying that Mattie looked like "a New Bedford hooker in the last stages of consumption" and that the film was "only a distant reflection of the Wharton work." Other reviews were less harsh; one said it "packs a wallop," and another called it "honestly played and deeply felt."

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