Reading New England: Ethan Frome

Posted July 8, 2016 by Lory in reviews / 30 Comments

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)

EthanFromeAfter reading one of the funniest books ever (according to multiple top ten lists, anyway), I moved on to what has to be one of the most depressing books of all time: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I am SO glad that I was not made to read it in high school, because that probably would have put me off reading Wharton for the rest of my life. In notes referenced in my Modern Library edition, she avows that her purpose is to counter the rosy picture of old-fashioned New England put about by lightweights like Sarah Orne Jewett, and show the grim reality of isolated farms, suffocating snowfalls, and grinding poverty.

It’s a story of excruciating hopelessness, which we know from the start is going to end in disaster, due to a framing device in which our narrator, an outsider to the town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, meets the crippled Ethan Frome twenty-five years after his “smash-up.” Curious about Ethan’s history, he pieces it together and presents it as a third-person narrative before coming back to the present day for a heartrending epilogue. We never learn exactly how he accessed all the intimate details of Frome’s life, or how from being an engineer he suddenly morphed into a skilled novelist, but never mind that; the pull of the tragic story quickly draws us in.

What is the purpose of this grim tale, other than to de-romanticize our notions of rural New England? It illuminates the inner life of a man who, though in regular interaction with people through his work, has no one with whom to communicate his inmost essence, and thus lives in terrible loneliness. With New England moral logic, as soon as he finds a true mate — forbidden, because he is already married to a pathological tyrant — they both have to be put to death, figuratively if not literally.

Yet through the magic of storytelling, we readers now possess the secrets of Ethan’s soul, his passion, his hopes, his despair, his moral choices, and his ultimate, fatal mistake. What are we to do with this knowledge? Does it make us more likely to rage against or calmly bear our own fates? How would we act when trapped in an impossible situation?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think that perhaps Wharton meant with Ethan Frome to make us ask them. Unlike Ethan’s, our stories are not over, and we do have power to change, if not our outer circumstances, the inner attitudes and intentions with which we meet them. Gratitude for even the smallest acts of self-determination is one lesson we can take away from this bleak tale, and perhaps Ethan’s suffering will not then be in vain.

Classics Club List #25
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic by a Woman Author
Reading New England: Massachusetts

Reading New England: Ethan FromeEthan Frome by Edith Wharton
Published by Modern Library in 2001 (originally 1911)
Format: Paperback from Personal Collection








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30 responses to “Reading New England: Ethan Frome

  1. I lived for several years in NH in a house built in 1786. My parents insisted that we live like Little House on the Granite Hill, for some reason. We had electricity, etc., but they made us split and stack wood for days on end and gather sap to make maple syrup while on snowshoes. There were ice storms when we lost power for a week, meaning we had no heat and no running water (pump brought it in from the 200 year old well). One winter we slept in the family room that had a wood stove until the furnace could be fixed. Cable was not an option and bad weather knocked out the TV’s antenna signals from Boston.
    Big fun.
    Not really.
    I can’t imagine how awful such a life would have been with no modern options at all. And then the one time you decide to have fun and go sledding…

    • We shouldn’t romanticize the olden times too much. I think the worst part was not having any options to meet people aside from possibly a deranged hypochondriac cousin (until too late, of course).

  2. I had to read Ethan Frome in high school and it did put me off Edith Wharton for life. I hated that book with a passion. It just made me so angry. I only recently, years and years after high school, picked up a Wharton book at a thrift store. It is sitting on my shelf but I don’t know if I will ever get around to reading it.

    • I think it’s worth a try. I’ve liked other Wharton that I read (The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth) although she does tend to deal with depressing subjects.

  3. I am still to read something by Edith Wharton…and this sounds like it should definitely not be my first read. I don’t think I could deal with ‘a story of excruciating hopelessness’!

    • True, I think it might not be the best place to start — although it is short, so you don’t have to endure the hopelessness for too long.

  4. I read this one in high school, and it was certainly a book I did my best to stop thinking about once I finished. I loved reading your review though, for the positive spin you put on such a bleak story. Thinking about it now, this is a very melancholic and tragic story, but it is redeemed if you think about how you can not fall into Ethan Frome’s footsteps. Great review!

    • It baffles me that high school teachers assign this book. At that time I don’t think I would have been able to find any redeeming message in it at all.

  5. I think this is one of the most depressing classics I’ve read to date. But it started my love for Edith Wharton’s writing, so I have nothing bad to say about this book. (Have you read Summer? I liked that one, too.)

    • Not yet, but I intend to! Taking a break from New England at the moment and reading for Paris in July.

  6. I am another who read and loathed it in high school. Decades later, I gave this book one star on Goodreads, just because it fills me with rage every time I think about it. I have read some other Wharton (because I was all about “being well read” in college), and while I understand her fame, she’s just not my cup of tea.

    • I’m pretty sure I would have felt the same at that age. How much more tolerant and balanced I am now. (Ha.)

  7. This is a sad story. Just the hopelessness of Ethan Frome’s life…I’m glad I didn’t have to read it in high school either. But the way Wharton writes is amazing. Even when her stories are so sad.

    • Her writing is beautiful – that’s why I find the framing device a bit unbelievable.

  8. Sounds like a really tough read, but the way you have drawn out some thoughts about it and possible application to our own lives is important. Yes very bleak existence for those who live in such rugged landscapes back then. I’ve not read Edith Wharton but did come across her in another book where she was mentioned so I was curious!

    • As you can see from the comments, there are some who love her and some who don’t. It’s worth reading something by her to see where you stand!

    • Faintheartedness in regard to this book can be considered a self-defense mechanism. The gloom is truly profound.

  9. Oh dear….my daughter is going into her junior year, and this is on her reading list for American Lit. I promised to read it with her…should I make her read Age of Innocence first? I told her I *liked* Wharton! The smae reading list also includes Faulkner; maybe the teacher likes to torture 16yos?

    • My question exactly. Why do this to them? If you think she’d like Age of Innocence better, it’s not a bad idea to read it first, to show her there is a different side of Wharton before she gets completely turned off.

  10. Great review Lory.

    I have only read The Age of Innocence and House of Mirth by Wharton. She tended to write dark stories. Though IU sometimes get depressed by such tales I think that it is valuable when art reflects this aspect to life.

    • There is incredible tragedy and sorrow in the world, of course. Wharton brings out that side of life very powerfully here.

  11. I read Ethan Frome after reading a couple of Wharton’s other books and all I could think was it is the women who suffer in her novels. They are punished for stepping out of society’s parameters. I continued to read her books and I love her writing, but I distinctly remember this was my thought at the time. Who knows if I would feel the same way now?

    • I think that is indeed a very strong theme in her novels, but Ethan also suffers here and it’s his viewpoint we see the story from. It would be interesting to see if you have a different experience on reading it again.

  12. I’m hoping to read this book soon – it will be my first Wharton. I like depressing books, so now I’m curious to find out exactly *how* depressing it is. 🙂

  13. Wow, this does sound depressing! I enjoyed The House of Mirth pretty well, but would have liked it better had it been happier, so I’m not sure if I’ll be reading more books by Wharton or not.