Book Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome is a story about how society can destroy people. The characters in the story live in a hostile and depressing world where their ambitions are thwarted, their romances stifled, and their hopes for the future destroyed.

Despite being honest and decent, Ethan and Mattie’s love is doomed from the start due to the bitter and cruel Zeena, who takes pleasure in tormenting them. The story’s female characters are all victims of a society that denies them legal and economic rights, leaving them financially and mentally impoverished.

Wharton’s message is that until women are treated equally in society, they will remain cold-hearted and burdensome. She suggests that love and romance are not the only means to happiness and fulfillment.

If you’re considering reading this book, this review will provide you with all the information you need to decide whether it’s worth your time.

Plot Summary

Ethan Frome, trapped in a loveless marriage, tries to commit suicide with his wife’s cousin, whom he loves; but the suicide fails, and the two of them spend the rest of their lives disabled and cared for by his nagging wife.


During the early 1900s, the narrator, an unnamed, city-born engineer, is sent by his employers to work on a powerhouse at Corbury Junction, near the town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. When a carpenters’ strike holds up the work, he finds it necessary to stay through the winter. 

Though impressed by the “vitality of the climate,” he is struck by the “deadness of the community.” He does, however, become intrigued by one of the local figures, Ethan Frome, a tall, lame man with a red gash across his forehead, and a “careless, powerful look,” who appears to be much older than his real age of 52. 

Frome drives his horse and buggy into town every day to pick up the Bettsbridge Eagle and boxes of medicine addressed to his wife, Zenobia Frome, known as Zeena. The narrator learns from Harmon Gow, a former stagecoach driver, that Ethan had been seriously injured in a “smash-up” 24 years earlier. 

According to Gow, the smash-up would have killed most people, but “the Fromes are tough,” and Gow wagers that Ethan will live to be 100. This triggers the narrator’s comment that Ethan already “looks as if he was dead and in hell now!” 

The narrator asks his middle-aged landlady, Mrs. Ned Hale, about Frome, but she makes no comment, except that Frome has had a difficult life. The narrator realizes that he may never discover why Ethan has a look on his face that “neither physical suffering nor poverty could have put there.”

By midwinter, an epidemic strikes down the horses owned by Denis Eady, the rich Irish grocer who also owns the local livery, and the narrator has trouble finding someone to take him to the Flats to catch the train to Corbury Junction. 

Harmon Gow tells him that Ethan Frome’s bay horse is still healthy and that Ethan might appreciate earning a dollar to transport him; after all, Ethan barely ekes out a living from his farm and sawmill, and has endured great expense looking after his dying mother and his ever-ailing wife. 

To the narrator’s surprise, Frome arrives to pick him up the following morning, and each day for a week drives him to catch the train, speaking only on rare occasions. Once, when the narrator mentions an engineering job in Florida, Frome reveals that he, too, went to Florida once and that the memory of it used to warm him in the winter. Another time, the narrator leaves a science book in the buggy and Frome, after reading it, expresses frustration at not knowing more about new scientific discoveries.

A week later, the narrator awakes to a large snowstorm. He assumes that the train will be delayed, but decides that if Frome comes by, he will accept a ride from him. Frome arrives at the appointed hour, but instead of taking the narrator to meet the train, he drives him all the way to work (about 10 miles), explaining that the railroad has been blocked by a freight train that is stuck in a snowdrift.

Frome waits for the narrator to finish his work, then sets out with him for Starkfield. But the storm worsens and the bay horse is exhausted, so when they approach the Frome farm, Ethan invites the narrator to stay the night. 

While entering the house, the narrator hears a woman’s whining voice. After shaking the snow from themselves, Frome and the narrator enter the kitchen, and as they go in, the woman’s voice stops. The narrator says, “It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story.”

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Chapters 1–5 (Note: Chapters 1–9 take place 24 years before the Prologue.)

The young Ethan Frome, intelligent and ambitious for a career as an engineer, attends a technical college for a year in Worcester, Massachusetts. But he is forced to quit school to run the family farm and sawmill when his father dies after being kicked in the head by a horse. His mother has been a talker all her life, but grows lonely in the silence of the house and suddenly stops communicating. 

One of Ethan’s distant cousins, the talkative Zenobia Pierce, comes to care for her, but the mother nonetheless “gets queer” and “drags on for years,” listening for voices that no one else hears. When his mother dies, Ethan, age 21, marries Zeena, who is seven years older than he. 

Though Ethan does not love Zeena, he would rather have her company than live alone in a silent house. Early in their marriage, Ethan and Zeena agree to sell the farm and move to a large town, where there will be more excitement. 

But they are unable to find a buyer, and Zeena decides that she does not want to leave the farm, since it might mean living in a place where no one knows her. Within a year of their marriage, Zeena—like Ethan’s mother before her—grows silent and becomes “sickly.” 

Her real and imagined illnesses drive her to spend huge sums of money on medicines and to whine constantly at her husband.

Six years later, Zeena’s doctor suggests she hire someone to clean house for her. The Pierce family arrange to send Mattie Silver, an orphaned cousin of Zeena’s from Stamford, to live with the Fromes. 

From the moment Ethan sees the beautiful, good-natured Mattie, he is attracted to her. Zeena suggests that they find evening amusements for Mattie, so from time to time Frome walks Mattie into the village at night. He especially enjoys the “communion” of his arm-in-arm strolls with Mattie back through the night to the farm. 

One wintry evening, a year after Mattie’s arrival, Frome walks into Starkfield to escort her home from a church “sociable.” In the darkness, he peers through the church window and watches jealously as Mattie dances with the young Denis Eady, son of the successful grocer, Michael Eady. 

Frome’s unhappiness at this sight rouses his evergrowing fear of losing Mattie: though Zeena does not seem jealous of Mattie, she has begun to grumble that the girl is a poor housekeeper and may insist on hiring someone more efficient.

When the evening ends, the shy Ethan hangs back in the shadows of the church and watches impatiently as Eady offers Mattie a ride. She refuses and starts to walk toward the Frome farm. Gladdened by her refusal, Frome eagerly catches up with her. 

They walk arm-in-arm past a spot near Corbury Road where some young people have been sledding; Mattie tells Ethan that Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum, who are to be married soon, almost ran into the big elm tree at the bottom of the hill, and that everyone thought they had been killed. 

Ethan, pointing out that Ned does not know how to steer, promises to take Mattie sledding the next evening. She believes the elm is dangerous and thinks it ought to be cut down.

Uncertain of Mattie’s feelings for him, Ethan casually mentions that neighbors believe Mattie will soon be leaving. Mattie, surprised, asks if Zeena is dissatisfied with her work, or if Ethan wants her to leave. 

She even asks him, “Where’d I go, if I did [leave]?” Frome feels “her warmth in his veins” and quickly assures her that he does not want her to leave. As they turn into his farm and walk past the family graveyard, Frome fantasizes that Mattie will always be with him, and that they will someday be buried there together. 

He puts his arm around her and Mattie does not resist; he then thinks of Zeena and wishes that she were not inside the house. He bends down to pick up the key that Zeena usually leaves under the mat, but it is not there. 

Zeena opens the door, and in the light Ethan sees her puckered throat, bony wrists, and flat breast; she announces that she felt too “mean” (i.e., sick) to sleep. As Zeena prepares for bed, Ethan decides to stay up; but a warning glance from Mattie—who suspects Zeena’s jealousy—makes him change his mind.

The next morning, while hauling wood, Ethan wonders why he didn’t kiss Mattie the night before. He then thinks about Zeena and her constant faultfinding with Mattie, whose life has not been easy. 

When Mattie was 20, her father, Orin Silver, died, leaving the family in debt. Mattie’s mother died soon afterward when she discovered their financial ruin, and Mattie’s only income was the $50 obtained from the sale of her piano. It was at this point that her relatives—who had invested money in Silver’s bankrupt business—arranged to send Mattie to Zeena’s house.

Returning to the house, Ethan finds Zeena at breakfast, in her best dress, with bags packed. She explains that she is going to spend the night with Aunt Martha Pierce in Bettsbridge so that she can visit a new doctor. 

Though the doctor’s visit will cost him more money, Ethan realizes that he will now be alone with Mattie. He thus instructs his hired helper, Jotham Powell, to take Zeena to catch her train at the Flats. Zeena’s departure causes Ethan, now 28, to feel euphoric. 

During the day, he fantasizes about the upcoming evening with Mattie, and thinks about his unhappy marriage to Zeena. He decides to ask Andrew Hale, the builder, to pay for the logs that he has hauled, since Zeena will expect him to have the money. But Hale is short of cash because he is helping his son, Ned, “fix up a little house” for his financée, Ruth Varnum. 

As Frome leaves, he sees Denis Eady’s sleigh pass by and jealously imagines that Eady is going to visit Mattie. But when he arrives home, he does not see Eady’s sleigh, and laughs when he thinks about having seen Hale and Ruth Varnum steal a kiss on the church corner that afternoon. Mattie meets him at the kitchen door, her beauty highlighted by the lantern, and Ethan realizes how different she is from his odious wife.

Mattie has set places for supper, and everything seems elegant until Puss, the cat, jumps onto the table near the milk jug. Mattie and Ethan both reach for the jug, and Ethan’s hand rests on top of Mattie’s. 

The cat then knocks the red pickle dish—one of Zeena’s treasures, which she stores on the top shelf of the china cabinet—onto the floor, where it shatters into pieces. Mattie becomes frantic, but Ethan assures her that he will glue it together the next day. 

After supper, they sit quietly by the kitchen fire instead of going sledding, and as Mattie sews, Ethan announces that he saw one of her friends being kissed that afternoon. Mattie’s blush causes Ethan to shudder at the boldness of his comment, but he nonetheless feels a current flowing from Mattie toward him. 

As he reaches over to touch the cloth she is sewing, the cat jumps out of Zeena’s chair, sending it into a “spectral” (i.e., ghostlike) rocking. Ethan kisses the fabric in Mattie’s hand, but the spell is broken; Zeena’s spirit, symbolized by Puss, has haunted their evening, Shortly afterward, they go to bed in their separate bedrooms.

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Chapters 6–9 

The next day, Ethan goes into town to buy some glue, and when he returns to the farm, finds Zeena upstairs in the bedroom, having come home early. She tells him that she is sicker than he realizes and that the doctor says she needs a hired girl. 

When Ethan protests that it will cost too much, Zeena accuses him of not caring for her health. She argues that if they send Mattie home, there will be one less person to support. Furthermore, Zeena has already hired a new girl, and she is to arrive in the morning from Bettsbridge. 

Grief-stricken, Ethan goes down to supper and kisses Mattie passionately for the first time. He then explains that Zeena wants to send her away, but that he will not permit it. Before they can continue their conversation, Zeena enters the kitchen and announces that her appetite has suddenly returned. 

After supper, she is horrified to discover the broken pickle dish, and when Mattie confesses to having used it, Zeena sobs angrily that she should have sent Mattie away long ago.

That night Ethan devises a scheme whereby he and Mattie will go out West and begin a new life together. But he realizes that he has no money and that he cannot throw Zeena out into the world in the same way she is throwing out Mattie. 

Feeling trapped and imprisoned, Ethan cries himself to sleep. When he awakes, he realizes this is Mattie’s last day, and again feels defiant. He goes to the Hale farm to demand his cash, and though he intends to keep the money for himself and Mattie, he decides to tell Hale that he needs the money to hire a servant girl for his ailing wife. 

But Hale is not home, and Mrs. Hale is so sympathetic toward him that he realizes he cannot He to her. Feeling trapped once again, he leaves before Hale returns. Back home, he goes up to Mattie’s room and, finding her in tears, decides that he, not Jotham Powell, will take her to the train. Zeena protests, arguing that he needs to fix the furnace. 

But Ethan is determined, and sets out with Mattie. He takes the long route, past Shadow Pond where he and Mattie had enjoyed a church picnic the previous summer. They begin to talk of their love for each other, and as they pass the sledding spot, Ethan decides to take Mattie down the hill on the sled.

After coasting down the hill, they walk back up and Mattie kisses Ethan, then sobs to be leaving him. When the town clock strikes five, they realize it is time for her to go. In despair, Mattie suggests that they kill themselves by sledding down the hill and purposely crashing into the elm tree. 

The prospect of being separated from Mattie and of spending a cold, sterile life with Zeena persuades Ethan to act rashly. They kiss each other and get on the sled, Mattie behind Ethan, so that he can feel her holding him as they travel to their death. 

Soaring down the hill, Ethan wonders what death will be like, and just before they crash into the elm, Ethan has a vision of Zeena’s “twisted monstrous” face. They then crash into the tree. 

Ethan awakes gradually and thinks he hears an animal twittering. He soon realizes that Mattie’s head is beneath his arm and that it is she who is making the animal-like noises. Mattie opens her eyes and calls Ethan’s name. Up the hill, the horse whinnies and Ethan thinks, “I ought to be getting him his feed….”

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(The narration returns to the early 1900s.) As Ethan and the narrator enter the kitchen, the complaining voice stops. There are two women present—one dressed in a frayed calico dress, with pale eyes, wispy hair, and a gray face (Zeena); the other, smaller, huddled in a chair, and paralyzed (Mattie).

The shabby kitchen is cold, and Mattie—whom the sledding accident had suddenly transformed into a nagging shrew like Zeena—complains that Zeena has fallen asleep and let the fire go out.

The next day, Mrs. Ned Hale is surprised to hear that the narrator has stayed at the Frome house. She explains that strangers never go there, and that when she goes—about twice a year—she chooses a time when Ethan is not there, since it is too painful to see the look in his face. 

She tells the narrator that after the “smash-up,” Zeena miraculously recovered from her own illnesses and has spent the past 24 years caring for Ethan and Mattie. She adds, however, that there is no longer a difference between “the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard.” Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie—though alive—seem dead.

Key Characters

Ethan Frome

New England farmer and sawmill operator; age 52 in Prologue, but 28 during the “frame” story. He is simple, straightforward, quiet, conscientious, reserved, and lonely. He is tall and physically striking. As a young man, he shows promise in the sciences and has a great interest in engineering and nature.

However, as an adult, he feels trapped in a loveless, silent, and oppressive relationship with Zeena (“He was a prisoner for life”). He falls in love with Mattie Silver and dreams of moving West with her, but circumstances beyond his control (marriage, lack of money, social pressures) prevent him from doing so. After the failed suicide attempt, he becomes imprisoned in a “hell on earth” for the rest of his life.

Zenobia “Zeena” Frome (née Pierce)

Ethan Frome’s wife and Mattie’s cousin. She is seven years older than Ethan and is sickly, whining, and a nagging hypochondriac. She has a pale, gaunt, sallow face with protruding cheekbones, flat chest, and shriveled skin. After marrying Ethan, she grows silent with him, perhaps due to the boredom of living on the farm, and falls prey to imaginary illnesses.

She makes life miserable for both Ethan and herself. Suspicious of Ethan’s attraction to Mattie Silver, she uses her supposed illnesses as an excuse to drive Mattie away.

After Ethan’s and Mattie’s smash-up, Zeena’s illnesses mysteriously vanish, leaving her free to care for both Ethan and Mattie—a role she welcomes, since she likes to take charge of other people’s lives.

Mattie Silver

Zeena Frome’s orphaned cousin, age 21 at the time of the “frame” story. She is lively, cheerful, dreamy, beautiful, and fascinated by nature. She is a poor housekeeper but loves to laugh. Gradually, she falls in love with Ethan, who calls her “Matt.”

In the end, with no place to go, she convinces him to die with her. She survives the crash but becomes a paralyzed, complaining, wizened shrew, like Zeena.


An unnamed, inquisitive, city-born engineer who comes to work in a town near Starkfield. He shares Ethan’s interest in science and animals. Some critics claim he represents the kind of man that Ethan had once hoped to be.

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Themes and Ideas

The Tragedy of Wasted Lives

“Ethan Frome” is a dark, haunting, and pessimistic tale about people who are destroyed by social forces beyond their control. The world of Wharton’s characters is hostile and nightmarish. Ambition is frustrated, romance is stifled, and hope for the future is annihilated. Although Ethan and Mattie are honest and decent, their love is doomed from the start by Zeena’s bitterness and scowls.

Zeena finds pleasure in nagging her husband and tormenting Mattie. Like in Wharton’s other works, her women are shrewish, vindictive, and hateful beings who bring unhappiness to others. Ethan’s mother is depicted as a forlorn, insane woman who hears voices no one else does. Zeena becomes silent and uncommunicative after marrying Ethan, and Mattie becomes whining and pitiful after the sledding incident, resembling the witchlike Zeena.

All three women lead drab, isolated lives and depend entirely on men for their livelihood. Wharton shows that unhappiness and frustration are the result of this financial and mental poverty, and that the women’s hostility is a response to their own misery.

Wharton, who has been called a “misogynist,” feels sympathy for Ethan Frome. She portrays him as a victim of heartless, callous women who prevent him from fulfilling his goals and deprive him of happiness. But Wharton realizes that the women, too, are victims of a society that keeps them poor and dependent by denying them legal and economic rights.

Wharton’s chilling lesson is that women will remain coldhearted and burdensome until they are treated equally in society. She implies that equality cannot exist until women abandon the notion that love and romance are their only means to happiness and fulfillment.

No Escape

As a young man, Ethan tries to break away from his desolate surroundings by going to college, but the illness and death of his father bring him back home to the stifling atmosphere of the farm. His loveless marriage to Zeena adds to his bleak circumstances rather than provide him with an escape.

Mattie alone offers him a chance to escape – in the form of suicide. But even death is unavailable to Frome. After their failed suicide attempt, he and Mattie remain bound to their bleak existence, to each other, and to Zeena even more than before.

Frome, Zeena, and Mattie are unable to express their feelings about themselves, each other, or their lives – and the end result of this inability to communicate is a silent, lonely, wretched existence for all three characters.

Fantasy vs. Reality

Ethan fails in his attempt to bring love and feeling into his life. When he is with Mattie, he dreams that they can have a life together. He puts his arm around her while they are walking back from town and fantasizes that she will be buried next to him as they pass the family graveyard.

He believes that he is more eloquent, aggressive, and manly when he is with her, and that Mattie’s domestic instincts would surface if she were married to him. Mattie, too, has fantasies.

She puts a ribbon in her hair, makes a special meal for Frome, and sets the table with the best dishes as an enactment of her romantic fantasy about being Ethan’s lover or wife.

But their fantasies are dashed by the reality of Frome’s most eloquent phrase (“come along”) and by his one attempt at wit (i.e., when he tells Mattie about seeing Ned and Ruth kissing), which embarrasses them both. Zeena uses the illusion of illness to deny the painful reality of her marriage. She escapes her household duties by hiring Mattie, and ultimately compensates for her own feelings of inferiority by manipulating both Ethan and Mattie.

In “Ethan Frome,” Wharton explores the theme of fantasy versus reality and shows that romantic ideals often clash with the harsh realities of life. Ethan and Mattie’s dreams of escape and happiness are shattered by the social constraints of their time, their poverty, and their inability to communicate their true feelings. Zeena, on the other hand, uses her illness as a tool to manipulate and control those around her.

Wharton suggests that the characters’ inability to distinguish fantasy from reality is a result of their isolation and lack of opportunity. The novel is a tragic portrayal of human limitation and the destructive power of unfulfilled desire.


Starkfield – The town’s name suggests the bleak, lonely, cold, barren, winter setting of the novel (i.e., stark fields).

Kitchen of the farmhouse – Becomes, symbolically, Ethan’s prison and tomb, where he spends the rest of his life, “buried alive,” bound to Zeena, watching and listening to the complaining Mattie, a sharp contrast to the gentle, charming woman with whom he had fallen in love.

Red pickle dish – A wedding gift from Zeena’s Aunt Philura Maple in Philadelphia. When shattered, it symbolizes the broken nature of the Fromes’ marriage, which Ethan is unable to “glue” together again.

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1. Masterful Storytelling and Engaging Structure

Ethan Frome is a beautifully crafted novel that showcases Edith Wharton’s prowess as a master storyteller. The book employs a frame story structure, with a narrator who starts and ends the tale, providing a unique perspective on the protagonist’s life.

Wharton’s intricate development of the story keeps the reader engaged, leading to a gripping and surprising conclusion. Despite its somber nature, Ethan Frome’s impeccable structure and storytelling make it an unforgettable read.

2. Emotional Intensity and Complex Characters

One of the most impressive aspects of Ethan Frome is the depth and complexity of its characters. The protagonist, Ethan, is a shy, duty-bound man who evokes a range of emotions in readers, from sorrow and sadness to anger.

His relationship with other characters is intensely emotional, despite the minimal dialogue. Wharton’s ability to convey such visceral emotions is a testament to her talent as a writer. The characters in Ethan Frome are so well-developed that readers often find themselves returning to the book, discovering new layers and nuances with each read.

3. Symbolism, Realism, and Timelessness

Ethan Frome stands out as a classic piece of American literature for several reasons. The novel is rich in symbolism, with the setting and descriptions providing deeper insight into the characters and their struggles.

Moreover, the story is grounded in realism, illustrating the harsh realities and hardships that people face in life. This sense of authenticity and relatability makes the novel timeless, as readers from different generations can empathize with the characters and their feelings of hopelessness.


1. Overwhelming Sadness and Hopelessness

While Ethan Frome is undeniably well-written, its somber tone can be difficult to bear. The characters in the novel experience constant pain and suffering, with many seemingly just waiting for death.

Set during the harsh winter months in a small, isolated village in western Massachusetts, the story paints a bleak picture of life during that time, particularly for the three protagonists. The unrelenting sadness and hopelessness can make it challenging for readers to fully appreciate the novel’s literary merits.

2. Frustrating Character Dynamics

The relationships between the characters in Ethan Frome can be a source of frustration for readers. Ethan, the protagonist, feels trapped by his marriage to Zeena, a manipulative and self-centered woman.

Their dysfunctional relationship is further complicated by the introduction of Mattie, Zeena’s young cousin, who becomes the object of Ethan’s affection.

The dynamics between these three characters are marked by bitterness, resentment, and unfulfilled desires, which can provoke feelings of anger and irritation in readers.

3. Misrepresentation and Treatment of Female Characters

Ethan Frome has been criticized for its portrayal and treatment of its female characters. Both Zeena and Mattie are often depicted in a negative light, which raises questions about the intentions of Edith Wharton, the novel’s female author.

Zeena is portrayed as a domineering, manipulative, and sickly wife, while Mattie is a young, impressionable girl who falls for Ethan’s kindness. Some readers argue that the novel may be unintentionally misogynistic in its representation of these characters, or that it fails to properly explore the ways in which both women are victims of Ethan’s romanticism.


Ethan Frome is a thought-provoking and evocative novel that has left a lasting impression on readers throughout the years. The story serves as a reminder of the consequences of unfulfilled lives and the importance of seizing opportunities.

While the novel’s somber tone and intricate writing may not be suited for those seeking a light-hearted read, it offers a deeply relatable exploration of love, loss, and the power of unspoken words.

For those who have experienced the trials of romantic love, Ethan Frome is an alluring and poignant tale that will resonate with readers long after they’ve turned the final page.

Overall, this classic piece of literature is a powerful testament to Edith Wharton’s extraordinary storytelling ability and her keen understanding of the human condition.

About The Author

Edith Wharton was born in 1862 into a wealthy and socially prominent family in New York. In 1885, she married Edward Wharton and they lived off his inherited income while travelling extensively.

After settling in Paris in 1907, Wharton divorced Edward in 1913. Her novels and short stories often criticized the manners and behavior of the wealthy and elitist world of New York City aristocracy, with the exception of Ethan Frome, which was set in the countryside.

Some of her most famous works include The House of Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913), Summer (1917), and The Age of Innocence (1920). She won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence in 1921.

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