Ethan Frome was written and published during the Edwardian era, which spanned the reign of King Edward VII (1901-1910) and is sometimes extended to the beginning of the First World War in 1914.
Queen Victoria, King Edward’s mother and predecessor, ruled the United Kingdom for more than sixty years before her death. Her reign—the Victorian era—was characterized by significant industrial and political change, as well as a cultural emphasis on morality and social reform. Victorian literature reflected this social consciousness, with influential novels like Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre exploring issues like class and gender inequality.
The Edwardian era is usually remembered as a time of upper-class leisure and idleness, but it too was marked by significant reforms, with historically disenfranchised factions of society, including women and the working class, achieving more political power. Edwardian authors built upon the social consciousness of their Victorian predecessors by critiquing the morals and technological advances of the preceding era, many of which served to deepen existing inequalities.
Edith Wharton follows many of these literary trends Ethan Frome. She uses the character of Mattie to criticize traditional Victorian gender roles, which limited opportunities for women and led them to develop few practical skills. The traditional division of labor also meant that women were often isolated within the home, a predicament that proved especially damaging for women in rural areas. In Ethan Frome, Zeena's experiences in the isolated town of Starkfield transform her into a bitter and hypochondriacal individual.
Ethan Frome also explores the negative effect of Victorian-era technological advancement. In rural Starkfield, the arrival of the railroad eliminates traffic near the Frome farmhouse, further isolating the women who live there. The lack of protective labor laws in urban areas, meanwhile, leads industrial workers, particularly young women like Mattie, to suffer health problems as a result of poor working conditions.
In terms of genre, Ethan Frome was influenced by the literary movements of the Victorian era, including Romanticism and Gothic fiction. Wharton drew inspiration from works like Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, which also deal with themes of forbidden romance, mental and physical illness, and nature. The narrative form of Ethan Frome, which utilizes a frame story to introduce the main plot, also resembles works from these movements.
Wharton was most strongly influenced by Naturalism, a subcategory of Realism that spanned the 1880s through the 1930s. Unlike Wharton’s other works, which tend to concern upper-class New York society, Ethan Frome details the mundane, day-to-day activities of rural, working-class characters, a common characteristic of realist literature. Naturalist authors like Jack London and Stephen Crane rejected the idealism of the Romantic movement and argued that environmental factors, both natural and social, created inescapable conditions that shaped human behavior and fate, an argument that Wharton appears to advance in Ethan Frome. The novel’s distant and detached style, as well as its deterministic viewpoint, further cement it as a work of Naturalism.
Like many other Naturalist works, Ethan Frome also rejects the notion that humans have a special connection to the natural world. Although characters like Ethan and Mattie may appreciate natural beauty and derive emotional and spiritual meaning from their environment, the novel’s setting is consistently portrayed as hostile and ultimately indifferent to human affairs.