Ethan Frome


Edith Wharton

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Themes and Colors
Determinism and Free Will Theme Icon
Duty and Morality vs. Desire Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Marriage Theme Icon
Work, Industry and Progress Theme Icon
Hostile or Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Ethan Frome, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Determinism and Free Will

In Ethan Frome, Wharton explores the concept of determinism—the idea that human lives are determined by outside forces, including social customs, heredity, environment, history, and laws of nature. For instance, Ethan's life is "determined" in a variety of ways: his desire to become an engineer is thwarted by the moral necessity of returning to Starkfield to care for his dying parents; his plans to leave Starkfield after his marriage are thwarted by the infertility…

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Duty and Morality vs. Desire

Ethan struggles against the customs and rules of society, fighting an inner battle between what he feels he needs in order to be happy and what he feels he must do to appease his family and society. Most prominently, this theme plays out in Ethan's struggle between his desire for Mattie and his sense of duty toward Zeena, his wife. Wharton portrays Zeena as horribly shrewish, devoid of any redeeming attributes, while Mattie is…

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Gender Roles and Marriage

As in many of Wharton's novels, Ethan Frome makes the case that traditional gender roles limit the potential of men and women, and destroy male-female relationships. Through Mattie, the novel critiques gender expectations that resulted in young women being raised to become nothing more than domestic servants and companions for men. Mattie is an example of a middle-class girl who was educated only to trim a hat, make molasses candy, recite poetry, and play…

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Work, Industry and Progress

Technology, symbolized in Ethan Frome by the railroad, was developing rapidly at the turn of the century. Cities were growing, their populations swelled by the arrival of immigrants and people from the countryside, lured by jobs in factories and mills. Young women in particular often suffered serious health problems owing to the harsh working conditions that existed before protective labor laws were passed. In rural communities, technology provided new connections to the outside world, but…

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Hostile or Indifferent Nature

In the rural Berkshires where Ethan Frome is set, the characters are at the mercy of nature. The short New England growing season and thin mountain soils discouraged large-scale agriculture, ensuring that most farms, like the Frome farm, allowed for only "subsistence" farming that prevented farm owners from overcoming poverty. In addition, as Harmon Gow's comment that Ethan has "been in Starkfield too many winters" suggests, the prolonged and brutal winters of the region had…

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