Ethan Frome Study Guide

Ethan Frome By Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome is the most striking figure in Starkfield, a ruin of a man with a careless, powerful look in spite of the lameness that checked each of his steps like the jerk of a chain. Frome's wife, the sickly and cantankerous Zenobia (Zeena), is his constant ward until her young beautiful cousin, Mattie Silver, arrives. The two set to work keeping house and caring for Zeena. Ethan is instantly taken by Mattie's vigor and youthful beauty, and feels a strong attraction toward her.

Zeena notices, of course, and also notes that Mattie is feeling a similar sort of queer attraction to the striking and powerful Ethan. Zeena begins to plot and scheme, and plans to hire someone much less attractive and have Mattie sent away.

Ethan has began to take comfort in Mattie's company, and Zeena's threat to replace her with a hired housemaid makes Ethan despondent. Several times between Zeena's delivered threat and Mattie's actual departure, Ethan ponders seriously the idea of leaving his wife and eloping with the attractive Mattie, but his moral rectitude and social pressures prevent him from acting on his desire.

The day Mattie is to leave, Ethan breaks down and tells Mattie that he wants to live with her forever, and Mattie, completely broken, begs Ethan to take a final sled ride down a steep hill and directly into a bulky elm tree -- an attempt to kill both of them rather than live the meaningless separate lives to which they appear destined. Ethan, desperate to escape his loveless marriage, agrees.

The attempt fails. Ethan, at the last second, has a vision of Zeena in front of the sled and veers hard to avoid her. They crash; Mattie is paralyzed, and Ethan can barely walk.

Years later, the narrator is guided through Ethan's home, and finds two old women and an old man. The crippled old woman turns out to be Mattie, and Ethan is the old man. Zeena, who has recovered much of her health in the intervening years, is now looking after Ethan and Mattie just as they once looked after her.

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