Ethan Frome Summary

Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome

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Ethan Frome Summary

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Ethan Frome is an American novella written by Edith Wharton in 1911. Wharton based some of the plot on a news story about young people dying in a sledding accident. The novel employs a few significant literary devices, including the use of an extended flashback. Most of the novel takes place in the past, from the point of view of an unnamed narrator. The narrator describes the life of the titular Ethan and all his misfortune.

The narrator begins the story as he is stuck in the small Massachusetts town of Starkfield. There, he hears stories about Ethan Frome. The narrator sees Ethan for himself; he is tall and somewhat intimidating, but has a scarred face and a limp, the result of an accident that took place some years ago. He is curious about Ethan and begins to ask the townspeople more about him. Most of the townspeople are reticent to give him Ethan’s backstory. Due to a snowstorm and sick horses, the narrator has no way to get to work. It is suggested that the narrator catch a ride with Ethan. At first, their shared rides are silent, but they soon begin to discuss ideas like science.

One day, the snow makes the roads inaccessible, and Ethan offers to put the narrator up for the night. The flashback then begins and Ethan’s story is told. Ethan is walking by the church on a snowy evening, where a dance is taking place. He focuses his attention on one pretty girl, whose name is Mattie Silver. Mattie is the cousin of Ethan’s sick wife, Zeena. It is clear Ethan is attracted to Mattie, who currently lives with him and his wife, but he does not believe these feelings are reciprocated. He feels slightly jealous watching her dance happily with other partners. He feels glum when he remembers his wife saying Mattie might get married and move out.

The dance ends and Ethan hangs back, watching Mattie interact with other men. When she refuses a ride with Denis Eady, Ethan joins Mattie on her walk home. They laugh together and speak of going sledding the next night if the moon is out. Their camaraderie is palpable. Ethan is certainly thrilled and excited by her, and Mattie seems to enjoy his presence. Once the pair return home, they are met by Zeena, who is waiting for them. Zeena is somewhat suspicious of the pair.

The next day, as Ethan returns from chopping wood, he discovers that his wife is leaving for the next town. She is going there to be treated for her ailments and will stay with relatives. Ethan is elated at the idea of spending time alone with Mattie. He helps his wife prepare for her trip, and quickly sells his daily lumber so he and Mattie can have supper alone together. Ethan and Mattie take advantage of Zeena’s absence and have an entertaining time while Zeena is gone. Unfortunately, Zeena’s favorite pickle dish is broken by the cat, and Ethan does not have glue to mend it. He attempts to hide it so Zeena does not blame Mattie. Before bed, Ethan contemplates telling Mattie how he feels, but he stops himself.

The following day, Ethan debates telling Mattie how he feels as he rushes to find glue for the dish. He arrives home, but finds that Zeena has returned. Ethan goes to check on Zeena and finds she is not doing well. Zeena informs Ethan that the doctor has instructed her not to do any work. Therefore they must send Mattie away and find more efficient help. Ethan is angry, but hides his emotions as Zeena declines coming down for dinner.

Ethan cannot hold his emotions back any longer when he sees Mattie downstairs. He kisses her with fervor and tells Mattie of Zeena’s plan. They are interrupted by Zeena—she has changed her mind about dinner. In the process, Zeena discovers her broken pickle dish. She is devastated, as it was a wedding present. Zeena blames Mattie and is determined to send her from the house.

Ethan debates eloping with Mattie, and he even begins to write a goodbye letter to Zeena but stops himself. It is not right, and he is broke. Ethan feels despondent, as he does not believe a future with Mattie is possible. The next day, Zeena tells Ethan that Mattie must leave today as the hired girl is set to arrive. Ethan decides to pursue an elopement with Mattie, and attempts to collect an advance on lumber. In the process, his business associate’s wife compliments Ethan for being so patient with his sick wife. Feeling guilty, Ethan halts his elopement plans and returns home.

Ethan decides to take Mattie to the train station, even though Zeena is displeased. He takes the long way to the train station, which passes by the hill they once spoke of sledding down. They decide to sled down the hill. For their second time down the hill, Mattie proposes a suggestion. Mattie proposes that they together sled down the hill into a tree, killing themselves so they can be together in death. At first, Ethan is hesitant, but due to his despair, he ultimately acquiesces. Ethan almost aborts as the sled plummets towards the tree—he sees a vision of Zeena. Sadly, he rights the sled and they violently hit the tree. Both remain alive, Mattie badly hurt and whimpering.

The story continues back in the present with the narrator. He enters the dilapidated Frome household to find Mattie and Zeena—Zeena now takes care of the paralyzed Mattie and crippled Ethan. Ethan and Mattie are together forever, but painfully. The narrator returns to town the next day and tells what he has learned. Everyone mourns the tragedy of the Fromes and Mattie.