Ethan Frome

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Ethan Frome Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Edith Wharton
Born Edith Newbold Jones to socially prominent middle-class parents (the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" refers to two of her great-aunts), Edith Wharton's literary ambitions surprised and slightly embarrassed her merchant-class family. Married off at 23 to Teddy Wharton, a wealthy Bostonian, Wharton did not begin to write full-time and publish novels until she was in her 40s, when she was living in Lenox, MA. She achieved literary celebrity with The House of Mirth (1905), followed by Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912), The Custom of the Country (1913), Summer (1917), and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, becoming the first woman to achieve that distinction. Over that same period, however, her marriage unraveled, and ended in divorce in 1913. Wharton was a prolific writer, writing in total 22 novels and novellas, 87 short stories, nine volumes of nonfiction, and two volumes of poetry. In 1910 Wharton moved permanently to France, where in 1916 she was named an officer of the Legion of Honor for her wartime work on behalf of refugees.
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Historical Context of Ethan Frome
The climactic scene in Ethan Frome was inspired by a sledding accident in Lenox in 1904 that killed one young woman and gravely injured four of her companions (Wharton knew one of the victims). The fatal paralysis of Wharton's neighbor Ethel Cram after a pony-cart accident in 1905 also played a role in shaping the narrative. The novel also provides accurate social commentary on life in urban and rural areas in turn-of-the-century New England, including transactions between farmers and builders, the effects of the new railway system, the inadequate education of girls, the status of doctors, attitudes toward debt, and levels of unemployment.
Other Books Related to Ethan Frome
In writing Ethan Frome, Wharton was greatly influenced by Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book and Balzac's short story "La Grande Bretèche," from which she drew her narrative method, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance, from which Zeena's name is taken (Ethan's name was based on another Hawthorne character, Ethan Brand), and John Keats' poem "The Eve Of St. Agnes." Wharton's 1920 novel The Age of Innocence features a male hero, Newland Archer, who like the character Ethan Frome allows circumstances to determine the outcome of his love affair with a beautiful woman who is not his wife.
Key Facts about Ethan Frome
  • Full Title: Ethan Frome
  • When Written: 1910-11; French exercise begun in 1907
  • Where Written: Rue de Varenne, Paris, France
  • When Published: September 1911
  • Literary Period: Edwardian Period
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: The fictitious town of Starkfield, Massachusetts
  • Climax: The sledding accident
  • Antagonist: Zenobia (Zeena) Frome
  • Point of View: First-person observer (frame story); third-person omniscient (main narrative)
Extra Credit for Ethan Frome

Views on Marriage: Wharton frequently wrote about unhappy marriages, and herself divorced a mentally-ill husband at a time when divorce was a hot topic (divorce figures doubled between 1880 and 1900, and doubled again by 1920, owing to new laws and changing social mores). Wharton was particularly critical of American marriages in which the husband looked down on the wife because she took no interest in his business affairs, and the wife retaliated by spending enormous amounts of money. Although Ethan Frome is sometimes seen as anomalous among Wharton's novels because it is not about upper-class New York society, it is typical in its concern with how traditional institutions and values perpetuate an imbalance of power between men and women that often destroys their relationships with one another.