History: This book was published in 1911. Wharton based her story on an accident that she had witnessed in Lenox, Massachusetts. The story of Ethan Frome had initially begun as a French-language composition that Wharton had to write while studying the language in Paris. It is among the few works by Wharton with a rural setting
Plot: Ethan Frome is described as “the most striking figure in Starkfield” with a “careless powerful look…in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain”. Frome's wife is the “sickly, cantankerous” Zenobia ("Zeena"). He is her sole caregiver until her young and beautiful cousin, Mattie Silver, arrives to help with housekeeping. Ethan is taken in by Mattie’s youthful beauty and good humor, but his interest in Mattie does not go unnoticed by Zeena. In fact, when she realizes Ethan and Mattie’s mutual attraction, she plans to hire someone less attractive and to have Mattie sent away.
The comfort Ethan seeks in Mattie's company is threatened when Zeena says that she will replace Mattie with a hired housemaid. During the time between this announcement and Mattie's leaving, Ethan considers leaving his wife numerous times to elope with Mattie, but every time he lacks the confidence to rebel against the morals of his being and community.
On the day of Mattie's departure, emotion overcomes Ethan, and he tells Mattie that he wants to live with her forever. A despondent Mattie pleads with Ethan to take a final sled ride down together into a bulky elm tree, so it will kill them instantly, rather than live the rest of their lives separated. Ethan, desperate to escape his loveless marriage and meaningless life, complies. The accident, however, fails to kill them because Ethan "sees" Zeena out of guilt and tries to turn away from her; instead Mattie is permanently paralyzed and Ethan is left barely able to walk.
After the story is told, the narrator is shown inside Ethan's home, where he finds two old women, one of whom complains in a whiny voice of the coldness. The whining woman turns out to be Mattie, and the other woman is a healthier Zeena who now looks after Ethan and Mattie much as they once looked after her.
Review: This tragic novel casts a weirdly mesmeric spell. Ethan is trapped by social limits and obligations to his wife. The only escape appears to be that of a Shakespearean tragedy. Wharton has a terse but certain flow to her writing, and evokes the New England winter and frustrated romance. This ineffably sad tale is filled with all the revulsion at convention that we associate with Wharton and it is also an insidious and subtle attack in the long American war between the advocates of urban and rural life. Wharton, the ultimate chronicler of urban society, marshals everything from the name of the town, Starkfield, to the portrait of the barren homestead, to the final image of the shattered family left on that farm, to paint the most dismal possible picture of rural life.
Opening Line: “The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners.”
Closing Line: “And I say, if she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived; and the way they are now, I don't see's there's much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; 'cept that down there they're all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues."
Quotes: "The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict. There was no way out - none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished."