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Ethan Frome

Updated: Sep 12, 2023


Edith Wharton

1911


Charles Scribner's Sons




195 small pages for a 24-hour flu



Overall:

Tragic tale of one man's life in rural New England in the early 1900's.







Summary

A man comes to a small rural town in New England on business, encounters Ethan Frome old and crippled, and out of curiosity, uncovers the poor man’s story.


Twenty-four years earlier, Ethan Frome is a young man who had to cut his promising studies short and return home to the family farm to care for his ailing parents, and afterward his sickly wife, Zeena. After several years of rather unhappy marriage, Zeena’s young relative, Mattie, comes to stay with them to help with the housework. Over the course of a year, Ethan and the young girl fall in love, though largely unexpressed.


Eventually Zeena, perhaps sensing her husband’s attachment, declares that Mattie must leave with the excuse that she, Zeena, needs a hired girl, and they cannot afford to support Mattie as well. Ethan is appalled at his wife’s decision, as Mattie is penniless and without prospects. Moreso, he is devastated that his only source of happiness will be taken away, yet his own lack of resources leaves him helpless to prevent it.


As Ethan takes Mattie to the station, the pair become even more despondent about parting. They decide to stop and take a sled ride together, as they had planned to do before, but were not able to. After the first ride down, Mattie suggests they ride down again so they’ll “never come up anymore”, meaning that they kill themselves by crashing into the big Elm tree at the bottom. Ethan finally agrees, but instead of being killed, he becomes crippled and she becomes paralyzed.


Twenty-four years later, the businessman learns that the trio have ended up living at the farm together, with Zeena taking care of Mattie, and Ethan barely scraping out a living for them.



Review

Disappointment, forbidden love, and tragedy – that’s what you get with Ethan Frome. But the writing is so good, the reader takes it willingly. The story itself is simple and straightforward, but the author’s skill in delivering the story, with important details revealed here and there in little bits, and the layering of past and present, creates an engaging tale of this man’s life.


The one weak point in the plot is the idea of crashing into a tree on a sled as a means to kill yourself. Common sense would say it's just a good way to get yourself badly injured.


Though melancholy as it is, it’s still a good little novel.



To the author’s credit:

The dialect is wonderful. It’s not the southern hick of, say, The Yearling, but something, I suppose, from old, rural north. It's perfect for the bleak environment and rustic lifestyle.



To the author’s discredit:

My copy of this book is a second edition, with an introduction by the author herself, Edith Wharton. The introduction is essentially her commentary on why and how she went about writing the story, and she takes six pages to basically say it was a very difficult task that she pulled off quite well. It feels like a lesson in writing, which no reader wants, but Ms. Wharton claims it was all she had to offer of value for an introduction. I claim that it is a bit narcissistic and in poor taste.



Best Line:

...but all their intercourse had been made up of just such inarticulate flashes, when they seemed to come suddenly upon happiness as if they had surprised a butterfly in the winter woods...


Honorable Mention:

The words were like fragments torn from his heart.







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