Upload a copy of Ethan Frome here: Edith Wharton - Ethan Frome.pdf

As you are reading the text you should consider this question: Ethan Frome is a pictorial novel. Using barren, hostile images, how does Wharton create a physical wasteland that serves a a metaphor for the life of the main characters. Your notes on figurative language should help.

Character List

Ethan Frome - The protagonist of the story, Ethan is a farmer whose family has lived and died on the same Massachusetts farm for generations. A sensitive figure, Ethan has a deep, almost mystical appreciation of nature, and he feels a strong connection to the youth, beauty, and vital spirit of Mattie Silver, his wife’s cousin. However, he ultimately lacks the inner strength necessary to escape the oppressive forces of convention, climate, and his sickly wife.
Zenobia Frome - Ethan’s sickly wife, more commonly known as “Zeena.” She comes across as prematurely aged, caustic in temperament, prone to alternating fits of silence and rage, and utterly unattractive, making her the novel’s least sympathetic figure. She is acutely interested in the treatment of her own illness, displaying a degree of hypochondria (imagined illness or minor symptoms secretly relished and exaggerated by the patient). Despite Zeena’s apparent physical weakness, she, not Ethan, holds the dominant position in their household.
Mattie Silver - Zeena’s cousin, who comes to assist the Fromes with their domestic tasks. Attractive, young, and energetic, Mattie becomes the object of Ethan’s affection, and reciprocates his infatuation. Because the reader sees Mattie only through Ethan’s own lovesick eyes, Mattie never truly emerges as a well-rounded character. She often seems more a focus for Ethan’s rebellion against Zeena and Starkfield than an actual flesh-and-blood person with both strengths and weaknesses.
The Narrator - Although he recounts the story’s events, the narrator (an engineer by profession) plays no part in the story itself. That he remains nameless highlights the thinness of his character. As a stranger to Starkfield, he views Ethan Frome’s story with fresh eyes and operates as a conduit between the closely guarded story of Frome’s tragedy and the reader in the world outside the novel.
Denis Eady - The son of Starkfield’s rich Irish grocer, Michael Eady, and sometime-suitor of Mattie Silver. Denis is the focus of Ethan’s jealousy in the novel’s early chapters, before Ethan learns of Mattie’s true feelings.
Mrs. Ned Hale - Widow of Ned Hale and landlady to the unnamed narrator. The narrator describes Mrs. Hale as more refined and educated than most of her neighbors. Although she was once intimate with the Fromes, she hesitates to discuss their plight with her inquisitive lodger.
Ned Hale - Ruth Varnum’s fiancé and later her husband. Ned and Ruth’s romance contrasts with the fruitless love of Ethan and Mattie. Ned has died by the time the narrator comes to Starkfield.
Andrew Hale - Ned’s father, Andrew Hale is an amiable builder involved in regular business dealings with the young Ethan. When Ethan requests that Hale extend him an advance on a lumber load, Hale is forced to politely refuse, citing his own financial constraints. Nevertheless, Ethan (mistakenly) continues to regard him as a possible source of a loan.
Mrs. Andrew Hale - Ned’s mother and Andrew’s wife, Mrs. Hale extends an unexpected degree of warmth to Ethan after encountering him by chance one winter afternoon. Her kindness and praise for his dedication to Zeena lead Ethan to reevaluate his decision to borrow money from Andrew Hale to elope with Mattie.
Jotham Powell - The hired man on the Frome farm. Powell’s main duty is to assist Ethan in the cutting, loading, and hauling of lumber. Markedly reticent, Powell is sensitive to the tensions between the Fromes but loath to involve himself in them.
Harmon Gow - A former stage-driver and town gossip. Gow provides the narrator with a scattering of details about Ethan Frome’s life and later suggests that the narrator hire Ethan as a driver, paving the way for the relationship through which the narrator learns Ethan’s story.

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Winter as a Stifling Force
Ethan Frome, the novel’s protagonist, is described by an old man as having “been in Starkfield too many winters.” As the story progresses, the reader, and the narrator, begin to understand more deeply the meaning of this statement. Although a wintry mood grips Ethan Fromefrom the beginning—even the name Starkfield conjures images of northern winters—the narrator appreciates the winter’s spare loveliness at first. However, he eventually realizes that Starkfield and its inhabitants spend much of each year in what amounts to a state of siege by the elements. The novel suggests that sensitive souls like Ethan become buried emotionally beneath the winter—their resolve and very sense of self sapped by the oppressive power of the six-month-long cold season. Ethan yearns to escape Starkfield; when he was younger, we learn, he hoped to leave his family farm and work as an engineer in a larger town. Though Zeena and poverty are both forces that keep Ethan from fulfilling his dream, the novel again and again positions the climate as a major impediment to both Ethan and his fellow townsfolk. Physical environment is characterized as destiny, and the wintry air of the place seems to have seeped into the Starkfield residents’ very bones.


Illness and Disability
Ethan and those individuals close to him, including (by the end of the novel) Mattie, suffer from sickness or disability. Caring for the sick and the lame defines Ethan’s life. He spends the years before the novel begins tending to his ailing mother, and then he has to care for his hypochondriacal wife, Zeena. Finally, after his and Mattie’s attempted suicides, Ethan is forced to spend the rest of his days disfigured, living with a sick wife and the handicapped Mattie. Outward physical signs reflect inner realities in Ethan Frome, and the predominance of illness in the characters’ physical states indicates that, inwardly, they are all in states of destitution and decline.

Snow and Cold
The imagery of Ethan Frome is built around cold, ice and snow, and hues of white. The characters constantly complain about the cold, and the climactic scene hinges on the use of a winter sport—sledding—as a means of suicide. These motifs work to emphasize the novel’s larger theme of winter as a physically and psychologically stifling force. Like the narrator, we initially find beauty in the drifts, flakes, and icicles. Eventually, however, the unremittingly wintry imagery becomes overwhelming and oppressive, as the overall tone and outlook of the book become increasingly bleak. The cumulative effect is to make the reader feel by the end of the novel that, like Ethan himself, we have “been in Starkfield too many winters.”


Mattie’s Red Scarf and Red Ribbon
In the two key scenes when Mattie and Ethan are alone together—outside the church after the dance and in the Frome house on the evening of Zeena’s absence—Wharton emphasizes that Mattie wears red. At the dance she wears a red scarf, and for the evening alone she puts a red ribbon in her hair. Red is the color of blood, ruddiness, good health, and vitality, all of which Mattie has in abundance, and all of which Zeena lacks. In the oppressive white landscape of Starkfield, red stands out, just as Mattie stands out in the oppressive landscape of Ethan’s life. Red is also the color of transgression and sin—the trademark color of the devil—especially in New England, where in Puritan times adulterers were forced to wear red A’s on their clothes (a punishment immortalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). Thus, Mattie’s scarlet adornments also symbolize her role as Ethan’s temptress toward moral transgression.

The Cat and the Pickle Dish
During their meal alone, and the evening that follows, Ethan and Mattie share the house with the cat, which first breaks Zeena’s pickle dish and then seats itself in Zeena’s rocking chair. The animal serves as a symbol of Zeena’s tacit invisible presence in the house, as a force that comes between Mattie and Ethan, and reminds them of the wife’s existence. Meanwhile, the breaking of the dish, Zeena’s favorite wedding present, symbolizes the disintegration of the Frome marriage. Zeena’s anguish over the broken dish manifests her deeper anguish over her fractured relationship.

The Final Sled Run
Normally, a sled rider forfeits a considerable amount of control and submits to the forces of gravity and friction but still maintains an ability to steer the sled; Ethan, however, forfeits this ability as well on the final sled run. His decision to coast in his final sled run symbolizes his inability to escape his dilemma through action of any kind. The decision parallels Ethan’s agreement to Mattie’s death wish, his conduct in his marriage, and his attitude toward life in general: unable to face the consequences of any decision, he lets external circumstances—other individuals, society, convention, financial constraints—make his decisions for him. Mattie’s death wish appears especially appealing to Ethan in that it entirely eliminates all consequences for both of them, forever. Just as the rider of a sled relinquishes control, so Ethan surrenders his destiny to the whims of Mattie and of fate.