79 pages 2 hours read

Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome

Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 1911

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Summary and Study Guide


Ethan Frome, first published in 1911, is a novella by American writer Edith Wharton. Wharton’s work, which most often concerned the lives of America’s Gilded Age elite, is usually classified as social realism or even naturalism, a realist subgenre that depicted human life and society through a determinist lens. Although Ethan Frome’s focus on rural, working-class life was unusual for Wharton, its themes and tone reflect this naturalist influence. The novel has become a staple of American literature courses and was adapted for the screen in 1993. All page numbers in this study guide refer to the 2004 Barnes Noble Classics edition, Ethan Frome and Selected Stories.

Plot Summary

While completing a job at a nearby power plant, an unnamed engineer—the work’s narrator—finds himself spending the winter in the small Massachusetts town of Starkfield. Here, he becomes curious about a man named Ethan Frome, who sustained debilitating injuries in a sledding accident years earlier. Ethan is impoverished and agrees to drive the narrator to and from work for a fee. When a blizzard catches the two men unawares, Ethan invites the narrator to spend the night at his farmhouse, which is closer than the narrator’s lodgings. The narrator accepts and reconstructs the following narrative based partly on his experiences that night.

Twenty-four years earlier, Ethan waits outside Starkfield’s church to escort his cousin-in-law, Mattie Silver, home from a dance. Mattie has lived with the Fromes for roughly a year, serving as a housekeeper for Ethan’s sickly wife, Zeena. During that time, Ethan has grown very attached to Mattie, with whom he feels he can share his innermost thoughts and feelings. Mattie emerges from the building, brushing off the attentions of a young man named Denis Eady to walk home with Ethan. When they reach the farmhouse, they’re startled to find Zeena has stayed up waiting for them. Ethan reluctantly follows his wife to bed, realizing that he wanted to kiss Mattie.

At lunch the next day, Zeena announces that she’s traveling to Bettsbridge to consult a new doctor. Ethan claims he’s receiving an advance payment from the builder Andrew Hale and therefore can’t drive Zeena to the station himself. However, when he delivers a load of lumber to Hale later that day, Hale says he can’t afford to advance Ethan the money.

Ethan returns home and has dinner with Mattie, but their meal is interrupted when the cat knocks over a pickle dish—a wedding gift to Zeena—that Mattie set out especially for the occasion. Ethan assures Mattie that he’ll fix the dish, and the two share a contented evening in front of the fire. Towards the end of the evening, Ethan absentmindedly kisses the edge of some fabric Mattie is stitching; flustered, the two then part ways for bed.

Ethan buys glue the following day, but by the time he gets back to the farm, Zeena has returned; she tells him that the new doctor recommends that she hire a professional serving girl and that Mattie must leave immediately. Ethan initially protests, but he drops the subject when Zeena makes her suspicions regarding his relationship with Mattie clear. Overcome with emotion, Ethan goes downstairs and kisses Mattie before Zeena joins them at the dinner table. Zeena discovers the broken pickle dish shortly afterwards, and Mattie is forced to admit what happened.

Alone in his study that night, Ethan considers leaving Zeena the farm and running away with Mattie. He begins composing a letter to his wife but abandons the idea when he realizes that his farm and sawmill are effectively worthless, making the plan unfeasible. The next morning, Ethan nearly renews his request to Hale, but his feelings of shame stop him.

Ethan insists on personally driving Mattie to the train station that afternoon. However, his first stop is at a pond where they attended a church picnic the prior summer; they reminisce bittersweetly about the day before heading towards the station. On the way there, Ethan once again pauses, this time at the hill where Starkfield’s residents go sledding. Ethan and Mattie go down the hill once, at which point Mattie realizes she’s late for her train. Fearful for her future and desperate not to leave Ethan, she asks Ethan to take her down the hill again; this time, however, she wants him to kill them by steering the sled into a large elm tree. He agrees, but neither of them dies in the crash, and Ethan wakes up some time later to the sound of Mattie whimpering in pain.

Back in the present, the narrator relates his experience meeting Zeena and Mattie, who is now a quadriplegic. He later discusses the night he spent at the Frome farmhouse with his landlady. She tells him that Mattie’s injuries have made her bitter and that she often argues with Zeena, who acts as Mattie’s nurse; she believes it would have been better if Mattie had died.