Readers' Favorite

January 2, 2019

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton ~ a Discussion

by Donna Huber

I enjoyed doing the Great Read PBS posts last year, so I think I'm going to continue to do that type post with books that I'm not truly reviewing. I hope you enjoy the fun facts and a different look at books.

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About the Author

Edith Wharton by Edward Harrison May
December 30, 1880 (public domain)
Edith Wharton (nee Edith Newbold Jones) was born in New York City on January 24, 1862. She was born into an upper-class family and her insider knowledge of New York "aristocracy" influenced her writing. Writing was not an encouraged profession for women at this time, especially for one in her social position. She is the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, which she did in 1921 for The Age of Innocence. She was also inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1996. She died in France on August 11, 1937 ,at the age of 75.

According to Wikipedia, Wharton's mother forbade her from reading novels until she was married. She married Edward Robbins Wharton in 1885 though she divorced him in 1913. He suffered from depression and perhaps a more serious mental illness.

At age of 15, she had her first work published which was a translation of a German poem. Her family spent much time in Europe and she became fluent in a number of languages.

I pulled out my notecards from when I read Ethan Frome in high school and there are some interesting notes about Wharton. In my notes, I have written, "She is not a literary figure of the first rank. Nor is she one of those writes who blaze trails for others to follow. She is a genuinely original creator with a personality and a view of life all her own."

Fun Facts about Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome was published in 1911. Wharton wrote in while in residence at her country home in Lennox, Massachusetts, The Mount. The estate still exists today. Ethan Frome was a departure from her earlier works. Many people doubt she ever stepped foot in a poverty stricken area as that which is depicted in the novel. A friend of Wharton's is reported as saying that they were driving around when they passed a rundown farm and that Edith said she would one day write a story about it.

To lend authenticity to the speech and manners of the people in the story, she spent a bit of time (she's reported to have claimed to have spent "an hour") at a Lennox meeting house.

Interestingly, Wharton originally wrote the story in French as a means to practice her French. While translating it into English, she revised and lengthened the story.

The Setting

Ethan Frome is set in a poor, small town of Starkfield, Massachusetts in the early 1900s. It is a dreary winter and life is grim.

Themes & Literary Devices

Ethan Frome includes a number of themes that I wonder if Wharton herself were struggling with in her own life given she divorced her husband two years later. Loneliness, isolation, and hopelessness are prominent in the story as well as the cruel nature of sickness and death.

There is a good deal of symbolism in the story. Zeena's maiden name of Pierce is symbolic of how she pierces Ethan. The broken pickle dish symbolizes the shattering of teh Frome family as well as Mattie's intrusion on Zeena. Wharton also employs suspense, irony, and foreshadowing.

About the Book

Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious, and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena's vivacious cousin enters their household as a "hired girl", Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent.


"It was not a New England story and certainly not the granite "folktale" of New England its admirers have claimed it to be. Mrs. Wharton knew little of the New England common world and perhaps cared even less. The world of the Frome tragedy is abstract. She never knew even less of how they lived in the New England villages where she spent an occasional summer." ~ Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, 1942.

"Ethan's character which has been called too much of "granite" for the New England scene, orients itself at once on a bleak, isolated mountainside. Zeena's extraordinary narrow, impervious nature finds a natural habitat there. As for Mattie, with her light gaiety, her innocence and purity and evanescent sweetness - she is the star-shaped blossoms of edelweiss.

The feeling of isolation, which obtains basic to the story despite all statement of country dance, village slide, friendly neighbors, a city not too far away, is now accounted for...

That Starkfield "bobsled" has stuck in many a critical craw... [It's] a clumsy almost ludicrous vehicle, this New England bobsled, devoid of tragic dignity. The toboggan of the folktale offers no such embarrassment." ~ Grace Kellog, The Two Lives of Edith Wharton, 1965.

My Thoughts

Have you read Ethan Frome? Did you have to read Ethan Frome in school? I actually did read it in high school but I don't remember much about it. My memory is of a dreary story. I think I did like it at the time. I think I would like to read it now as an adult and knowing a bit more about Edith Wharton's life at the time to see if I see a deeper meaning in the story. The ebook is free and it's only about 70 pages long though I think I would prefer an audiobook.

Buy Ethan Frome at Amazon

If you are a Amazon Prime member, you can read the ebook for FREE or listen to the story on Audible for FREE. Not a prime member? Start your FREE trial today!

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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  1. I like this format of creating bookish discussions. A way to grab a bit more detail of the behind the scenes of a book in a way. I've never read Ethan Frome, but will take time to read more on it and possibly add to my TBR pile.

    1. Thanks! I started doing this with the Great America Reads books as a way to highlight my favorites, and I discovered I liked researching the books.

  2. I have vivid memories of HATING this book in high school--and I was a kid who happily read The Scarlet Letter, Great Expectations, and Tess of the Du'rbervilles. It was so incredibly grim, and then things got worse. Yikes. I might like it better now, but I'm too set in my hatred of it to give it another chance.

    That being said, good review! It's interesting that Wharton was actually pretty distant from the lives she describes here.

    1. That's how I feel about Heart of Darkness. I won't even watch the movies that are based on it.

  3. I never read this one. I'm surprised that it's only 70 pages long, though. I guess the classics were all either gargantuan tomes or quick reads!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    1. I think it depends somewhat on whether the story was published as a serial first and then compiled into a single book or was published solely as book.