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Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton
Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title Ethan Frome

author  Edith Wharton

type of work Novel

genre Tragic romance

language  English

time and place written  1910, in Paris

date of first publication 1911

publisher  Scribner’s, New York

narrator An anonymous visitor to Starkfield, Massachusetts, narrates the introduction and conclusion. In Chapters I–IV, the story flashes back approximately twenty years to Ethan Frome’s youth and the first--person narration gives way to a limited third-person narration (predominantly reflecting Ethan Frome’s point of view).

point of view The frame story (introduction and conclusion) is told in the first person, from the narrator’s limited point of view as a visitor unfamiliar with Starkfield and Ethan Frome. However, most of the book is written in the third person limited, in which the narrator accesses Ethan’s thoughts but not those of the other characters.

tone Foreboding, bleak, ironic, tragic, spare

tense  Past

setting (time)  The late nineteenth–early twentieth century

setting (place)  Starkfield, Massachusetts

protagonist  Ethan Frome

major conflict  Ethan’s main fight is with his own conscience, as he decides whether or not to reveal to Mattie his true feelings. His struggles are exacerbated by his surroundings—Zeena, the bleak Starkfield landscape, his home—which often take on an oppressive quality.

rising action  Ethan’s passion for Mattie grows as he walks her home from a dance; Zeena goes away for the night, leaving Ethan and Mattie alone, but they find their dinner together tense and awkward; Zeena decides to replace Mattie with another household helper; Ethan drives Mattie to the train station and neither can stand to leave the other.

climax  Ethan and Mattie confess their love for each other and decide to commit suicide by sledding into a large tree.

falling action  Ethan and Mattie regain consciousness after crashing into the elm; Zeena takes both of them in and cares for them into old age.

themes  Society and morality as obstacles to the fulfillment of desire; winter as a stifling force

motifs Illness and disability; snow and cold

symbols Mattie’s red scarf and red ribbon; Zeena’s cat; Zeena’s pickle dish; the final sled run

foreshadowing The repeated references to sledding, and to the dangers associated with it, foreshadow the climactic scene in which Ethan and Mattie crash into the elm. The narrator’s introduction to the story describes Ethan as a disfigured man who has had an accident, foreshadowing that his relationship with Mattie will meet a tragic end.