Edith Wharton and 'Ethan Frome'

Forbidden love in the aptly named New England town of Starkfield forms the plot of Edith Wharton’s memorable novella, Ethan Frome. The New York Times called the story “compelling and haunting”. Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Come with me on a fabulous reading journey through 2020. Together we will explore a thought-provoking selection of 19th and 20th Century classics. For each novel you will receive an illustrated monograph packed full of intriguing stories about the author behind the book, explaining its themes, tempting you with film versions to watch, and challenging you with discussion questions.

I love to share my passion for great literature. Please consider joining me in this literary exploration.

According to Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, the wise reader reads a book not with the heart, or the brain, but with the spine. It is there, Nabokov insists, that one feels the “artistic quiver” which is proof that we are reading a book of quality. I’m not certain it’s my spine responding, but I do feel that quiver when I read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome! There are such superb turns of phrase, such precision of language, and such brilliantly drawn characters trapped in their tragic plight, that I do feel a tingle every time I read it and know that I am in the presence of a great work of literature.

Ethan Frome was published in 1911, the year that Edith Wharton finally separated from her husband. Wharton understood all too clearly that the price of liberty can sometimes be a very high one, and that passion and death are near relations. One critic called the book “one of the most autobiographical novels ever written” because it reflected her sense of entrapment and loneliness.

This is not a happy book. Poor Ethan’s chances of happiness are thwarted by circumstance and character. The ending of the novella is one of the grimmest I’ve ever encountered. But it is a memorable book, and the fate of the characters and the decisions they make are things you ponder long after turning the last page. It’s probably not a book you can ‘enjoy’, but it is powerful.

“While it will not be possible to bestow too much praise on Edith Wharton’s latest story, Ethan Frome, it is one of those stories which absolutely defies an adequate description.

It is so short, a long short story, and not one word can be skipped in the reading. It is such a complete and perfect piece of work that the reviewer can only say — read it.

The art and the technical skill are not surprising from this author — do you not remember the flawless “Duchess at Prayer”, which appeared years ago? She has not made one mistake, there is not one word too much, but one is impelled to say over and over that it is perfect.”
― From the original review in the San Francisco Call, January 14, 1912

According to literary critic Harold Bloom, Ethan Frome is “Wharton’s only fiction to have become part of American mythology”. He praised her ability to “render such pain with purity and economy” and declared “Truly it is a northern romance, akin even to Wuthering Heights”. I can see the influence of Emily Brontë’s novel on this American classic – the framed narrative, silent and isolated characters, the starkly beautiful landscape and weather which are all so intimately connected with the human drama being described, and the feelings of remoteness and entrapment which both novels share.

It also draws on a heritage of Puritan literature – such novels as Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in which adultery and its punishment form the major theme. Edith Wharton had lived for many years in New England – she knew its towns and villages, the role of the church, and the small-mindedness of some of its people.

I hope you find Ethan Frome as memorable as I do. If it is your introduction to the fabulous Edith Wharton, I hope you’ll go on and read more of her books. As the first woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, she was a ground-breaking author, and an altogether fascinating woman.

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Featured image credit- Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome. Liam Neeson in Ethan Frome (1993), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106833/
Body image credit- Edith Wharton, https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16.Edith_Wharton
Body image credit- Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome. Liam Neeson & Patricia Arquette in Ethan Frome (1993), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106833/

Comments (16)

  1. Keryne Rosato

    Oh my goodness! You nearly lost me with this one. It was so stark and bleak I felt I was reading with one eye closed and squinting with the other. I almost couldn’t look at the train wreck that is this book. But I kept thinking “No, Susannah must think there’s something in this so I’ll keep reading”. When I read your comment “This is not a book you’ll probably enjoy” I felt vindicated! I certainly didn’t enjoy it but I’m glad I read it (I think). Your notes really helped me to make sense of it, so thank you.


    • Susannah Fullerton

      When I planned to include this book I, of course, had no idea that people would be reading it in this especially stressful time. It is not the right book for a time of self-isolation and anxiety.
      I did love your description of it as a ‘train wreck’ – very apt, and yet it is a powerful book and one I think people ought to read. Sorry if you have been traumatised and p/ease move on to something more cheerful very soon.

  2. Angela Rodd

    Susannah, thanks so much for your excellent discussion about the novel, its characters, settings and atmosphere. I found “Ethan Frome” absolutely riveting – there was (of course) a horrible inevitability about the sled accident which was tremendously powerful, like a Greek tragedy. I remember visiting Edith Wharton’s lovely house on your literary tour of the east coast some years ago. While were standing in the elegant library listening to the docent talking about Edith and her insistence on good manners and etiquette my mobile phone, which I’d forgotten to switch to silent, rang. I was mortified! I agree that a movie about the author’s fascinating life would be fabulous, but there would be so much to fit in that I think it would work better as a series on Netflix.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I had forgotten the mobile phone incident, but wasn’t it fabulous seeing that house and garden! I’m delighted you so enjoyed Ethan Frome – such a pwoerful novel and an intense build-up to the tragedy.
      I hope you and Michael are staying well and safe in this horrid time.

  3. Catherine DeMayo (Kate)

    Given the apparent lack of fun in New England at the time, I was somewhat surprised to find “Ethan Fromë” opening with a dance. I guess even those sober folk did kick up their heels on occasion, and the scene where Ethan is waiting for it to finish certainly depicts it as a lively gathering. I also think it’s interesting that despite the background of judgmentalism and repression, it isn’t primarily public opinion that keeps Ethan from escaping with the woman he loves, it is money. Yes, he is principled enough not to ask for money under false pretences, but had he been loaded, he wouldnt have let the burden of public opinion bother him.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, it’s very much a matter of money. He’d have left earlier had he been able to pay someone to care for his ailing parents, and then he’d have left with Mattie had he had the cash. He is so trapped.
      Isn’t it interesting that this bleak novel begins with a moment of fun and energy – the dance. It’s downhill all the way for the characters from that moment.

  4. Catherine DeMayo (Kate)

    I got to know Edith Wharton from The Age of Innocence, and loved it. I was also impressed by Ethan Frome, despite it being such a different work. I hail from New England, not that far from the fictional town in Western Massachusetts where Ethan lives. Yes, all you say about the setting is right. Western Mass is very picturesque, but the month of February is so bleak, the skies can be grey for days at a time, most of the trees are bare, the snow and dark and cold get very depressing. And those lovely colonial churches and houses mask a highly judgmental Puritanism, especially then. Ethan did the “right” thing by his parents (though his marriage wasn’t forced on him by any means), and he is suffering for it. There really is no way out. I found it hard to read in a way, as I knew it was going to end badly – it’s like going to the opera, where I want to just stop them and say, “Don’t do it!”

    So glad I read it, I am not going to read The House of Mirth.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I quite agree that now is not the time to read ‘The House of Mirth’ – there’s enough grim news in the world.
      Yes, those churches are very pretty, but the code of behaviour and general disapproval of any sort of ‘fun’ or people being ‘different’ must have been hard to live with. I think LM Montgomery’s Anne books also reflect that – she doesn’t fit in as a girl because of her imagination and free spirit.
      My book selection for this month is not all that cheerful either – you’ll have to wait for Kipling’s wonderful story for some light relief.

  5. Brian Doyle

    Julianne Moore would be up for contention
    Reading Emma for the umpteenth time and yet still laughing out loud at Mr Woodhouse on the ills of eating wedding cake, to no avail, his pronouncements on food are hilarious and I wonder where Jane got them from, did she overindulge perhaps or simply observe it in others, it’s a book once started is impossible to put down, I hope she was aware and proud of her great achievement, one simply has to believe it so.

  6. Brian Doyle

    In our next life Susannah we are teaming up as the most successful script writing couple the world has ever known with sqillions of dollars to produce and cast all our favourites novels to perfection, I’m green lighting your suggestion as our first project and as it’s your idea you can choose who will portray Edith

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Absolutely! But who to play Edith? That will have me thinking all day!

  7. Brian Doyle

    Absolutely a masterpiece from one of my favourite authors, I’ve read it many times and will read it many more, there are certain books that seem to have talismanic power over me and this is one of them. Just recently I’ve moved and as I was unpacking my books i took Ethan Frome from the box and as soon as it was in my hands I had to read it again, the very same feeling came over me as I was picking up the Jane Austen novels and am now reading those again,( Persuasion) today. So thrilled that you’ve selected Ethan Frome as your book of the month and am very much looking forward to it

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It is such a memorable novella, isn’t it. So short and yet so superbly constructed and oh that ending!

      • Brian Doyle

        i absolutely love the way Edith Wharton pares back her dialogue to give you the maximum amount of information and atmosphere with the minimal amount of exactly the right words, especially in Ethan Frome. Undine from Custom of the country is one of the most repellent characters in all her novels and why she hasn’t been bought to life on film is impossible to understand as everything she stands for is still so relevant if not more so today.

        • Susannah Fullerton

          If I had abilities in script-writing, I’d write a film script about Edith Wharton’s life. With all those gorgeous clothes and houses, her sexual awakening with Morton Fullerton, her fascinating friends and her travels, it could be really good. Sadly, I lack that talent.
          Yes, Ethan Frome is spare and superb.

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