Critics have called Ethan Frome the most carefully constructed of Edith Wharton's novels, and have praised the economy of its language and its intensity. The novel is a naturalistic-that is, unsentimental-portrait of emotional frigidity set in the New England winter. Young Mattie Silver arrives in the mountain village of Starkfield to help with housekeeping for her cousin Zeena, the sickly, cantankerous wife of Ethan Frome. Ethan, who has long been resigned to the care of his ailing wife and farm, is drawn to Mattie's youthful beauty and good humor. When Zeena realizes their mutual attraction, she arranges to engage a less attractive companion and to have Mattie sent away. Unable to bear the idea of parting, the lovers attempt to kill themselves by sledding into a tree. The attempt is a failure, and it leaves Mattie and Ethan crippled for life and condemned to Zeena's care. Early reviewers praised Wharton's style but were dismayed by the novel's bleakness and the inability of her characters to find a way out of their situation. Later critics were even harsher in their evaluations, citing numerous inconsistencies and debating whether Ethan Frome himself is truly tragic or simply morally inert. All the same, this study in frustration, loneliness, and moral responsibility became a popular favorite, somewhat to the surprise of its author, and is frequently taught at the high school and college level.
Ethan Frome is the story of a man who, following the death of his father, gives up his education and other opportunities to return to the family farm in Starkfield, Massachusetts to support his ailing mother. When his mother dies, Ethan, overcome by loneliness, impulsively marries Zeena Pierce, an older cousin who helped nurse his dying mother. Within a year of their marriage, Zeena becomes ill and Ethan must again assume the role of caregiver and give up his dreams of moving to a large town and becoming an engineer. Ethan's outlook changes, however, when Zeena's cousin, Mattie Silver, comes to live with them as Zeena's aid. She shares Ethan's sense of wonder and sensitivity to the appeal of natural beauty, Mattie is everything that Zeena is not. She restores Ethan's ability to imagine happiness and, before long, a mutual but unexpressed passion develops.
The story is told by an unnamed narrator who is sent to Starkfield on business. He first meets Ethan in the town's post office and, finding the fifty-two-year-old “ruin of a man” the “most striking figure in Starkfield,” becomes fascinated by his life story. He learns from a local resident that Ethan has looked this way ever since his “smash-up” twenty-four years ago. Bit by bit, the narrator hears fragments of Ethan's story and constructs a narrative based on the paradoxical accounts of his life. His task is facilitated when, one stormy winter night, he is given a rare invitation to spend the night at Frome's farm. It is there, after hearing a woman's voice drone querulously as he approached the house, that the narrator...