Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

In 1862, Edith Newbold Jones – later Edith Wharton – was born into a dying social class: the American aristocracy. Her upbringing was distinctly genteel. She spent much of her childhood in Europe and was educated exclusively by tutors and governesses. Schooled in modern languages and good manners, Wharton soon developed a fierce loyalty to what she called “good taste.” This included an appreciation for fine food and wine, art and literature, and people who revered the English language.

Although Wharton wrote critically – even at times satirically – of her own class, she never forsook its values. She judged life according to the strict aristocratic standards for professional and personal integrity. To Wharton, any departures from those standards were inexcusable. Naturally, the changes brought about by industrialization and the mercantile class struck her as appalling.

After marrying Edward Wharton in 1885, she continued to live the lifestyle that she had known as a child. However, unlike her anti-intellectual peers, Wharton felt a need to expand her understanding of literature and art forms and to chronicle the societal changes that disturbed her. By 1902, she had published six major works. Due primarily to her husband’s poor health, Wharton moved to Paris in 1907 and spent most of her remaining years there. Her marriage was a failure; many believe Wharton was unhappy because of her unfulfilled love for another man.

In 1913, Wharton finally divorced her husband. She devoted her time to volunteer and charity work and to improving her writing. However, happiness continued to elude her. The death of her lifelong friend and mentor, Henry James, and the loss of several close friends during World War I seemed to affect Wharton’s ability to write. Despite a Pulitzer Prize in 1920 for her novel The Age of Innocence, and honorary Doctor of Letters from Yale in 1923, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letter, Wharton seemed unable to summon her former wit and masterful language. Although she continued to write until her death in France in 1937, her later works failed to measure up to her earlier writing.

Besides Ethan Frome, her most widely acclaimed works include The House of Mirth (1905), The Custom of the Country (1913), The Age of Innocence (1920), and her autobiography A Backwards Glance (1934).

The Philosopher

Edith Wharton devoted little time to developing or articulating religious, political, or social philosophies. Although horrified by the cruelty and injustice of prevailing social conditions and the war, she made no attempt to condemn or reform. In fact, many critics have claimed that Wharton’s writing was little more than a pastime for an intelligent, wealthy woman. Despite criticism, Wharton’s purpose was not simply to amuse herself. She had a keen passion for the English language and literary art forms, and her writing reflects her attempt to refine forms of artistic expression.

Two recurring themes reveal the only philosophical statements Wharton was likely to make: (1) Innocence is victimized by circumstances and convention; and (2) Unhappiness will often result if an individual is unable to adapt to his or her lifestyle.

Form was important to Wharton. Writing as objectively as possible, she used her observations and emotions as a reporter might. Wharton tried to render in as few words as possible the essence of a scene, character, or situation.

In the preface to Ethan Frome, Wharton explains that the difficulty she experienced in writing the novel was one of form rather than subject matter. She finally decided to use an objective narrator and a series of flashbacks to construct a story in which the climax occurs a generation after the actions that precipitated it. With this form, Wharton manages to capture the starkness of New England life.

The barrenness is also reflected in her characterizations and plot structure. The characters in Ethan Frome are static, almost caricatures, and their motivations are ignored. Extraneous features have been eliminated, leaving only the most basic facts and images. This ability to concentrate plot, characters, and language with the barest minimum makes Wharton an undisputed forerunner of realism – a contribution that has often been ignored.

Stylistic Devices

Ethan Frome is often considered a tragedy. According to the Aristotelian definition of tragedy, the protagonist must be of admirable moral and social stature, and must fall from a position of honor or power. The fall is initiated because of circumstances and a character flaw such as pride or greed – a flaw that would go unnoticed were it not for some rare occurrence. By choosing to act, the protagonist unknowingly engineers the fall. In this manner, the flaw takes on tragic significance. Ethan is merely an ordinary man, distinguished only by his dreams of college and city life. Although neither grand nor heroic, he falls from his meager position when his dreams and the spirit that moves them are stifled.

An examination of Ethan’s life reveals his frequent reluctance to act in his own best interests. Going away to college is Ethan’s first step toward escaping Starkfield, but he is forced by his father’s illness to abandon school. He then takes responsibility for his family’s mill and farm for his sickly mother. Unable to manage alone, Ethan welcomes the arrival of Zenobia Pierce, a distant cousin. Together they talk of someday living in the city. When he is finally able to unload the mill and the farm, Zenobia is unwilling to leave. Instead of insisting, he concedes, establishing a pattern of submission to his wife’s petulance. Once he is tied to Zeena’s desires, he is unable to assert himself without violating his own morals and standards.

Examined in this light, Ethan becomes a victim of the choices dictated by circumstances and upbringing. His actions reveal his tragic flaw – an overriding sense of duty that surfaces as a result of circumstances out of his control.

Imagery

Starkfield

The Frome Farmhouse

The Frome Graveyard

Endurance Frome

Starkfield Winters