Ethan Frome
By Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
A Study Guide
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Structure and Point of View
Plot Summary
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Study Questions
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012
Type of Work and Publication Year

......."Ethan Frome" is a short novel centering on the tragic life of a New England farmer and his ill-fated romance with his wife's helper and housekeeper. Charles Scribner's Sons published the work in New York in 1911. 


.......The novel begins in the the fictional town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, when the age of the horse and buggy is in its decline. The opening section of the story introduces the main character, Ethan Frome, when he is age fifty-two but looks considerably older because of ordeals he has suffered. The story then flashes back twenty-four years to tell the story of Ethan as a young man who operates a farm and sawmill near the town. 
.......Frigid weather and heavy snowfalls characterize the winter climate of the region. Many of the scenes in the story are set outside town in Frome's run-down and isolated house. 


Ethan Frome: A solemn man with a scarred forehead and a limp who operates a farm and sawmill near Starkfield, Massachusetts. Though he is fifty-two, he looks much older. After the narrator of the novel first encounters him at the Starkfield post office, he wonders why Frome's face is so "bleak and unapproachable" and desires to know more about him. The narrator investigates and discovers that Frometwenty-four years beforewas a vigorous man with a promising future. But he fell on hard times that tethered him to a bleak life at his farm and prevented him from uniting with the love of his life. After visiting Ethan's home, the narrator tells his story. 
Zenobia (Zeena): Frome's wife. Her maiden name was Pierce. She is mean and petty and generally speaks to Ethan only to complain or nitpick. A hypochondriac, Zeena spends a good deal of time in bed to nurse an imaginary illness. 
Mattie Silver: Daughter of a cousin of Zeena. After Zeena begins suffering symptoms of her "illness," Mattie leaves her Connecticut hometown to live with the Fromes and serve as the housekeeper. She receives board but no pay. She and Ethan have an ill-fated romance.
Narrator: Person unidentified by name or gender who stays at Starkfield while working at the construction site of a power house in a nearby community. While living in the town, the narratorprobably a mantakes an interest in Frome, investigates his background, and tells his story. 
Mrs. Ned Hale: Landlady of the narrator. Her maiden name was Ruth Varnum. Mrs. Hale, a widow, lives in a mansion that belonged to her late father, a prominent lawyer. 
Old Mrs. Varnum: Mother of Mrs. Hale. Mrs. Varnum resides with her daughter.
Denis Eady: Wealthy Starkfield grocer of Irish descent. He is attracted to Mattie Silver.
Michael Eady: Father of Denis Eady. Michael started the grocery business.
Harmon Gow: Former stage driver who provides the narrator information about Ethan Frome.
Andrew Hale: Starkfield builder to whom Ethan sells lumber.
Jotham Powell: Ethan's hired hand.
Dr. Buck: Worcester physician who visits neighboring towns. Zeena sees him in Bettsbridge after she develops pains. 
Martha Pierce: Zeena's aunt in Bettsbridge. When Zeena travels to Bettsbridge to see Dr. Buck, she stays with Aunt Martha overnight. 
Daniel Byrne: Man who takes Mattie Silver's packed trunk to the train station.
Mrs Homan: Proprietor of a store where Ethan buys glue.
Fiddler at the Church Dance
Harmonium (Reed Organ) Player at the Church Dance
Deceased Characters: Ethan Frome's father and mother; Lawyer Varnum; Mattie Silver's mother and father, Orin, a cousin of Zeena.

Structure and Point of View

.......Wharton presents the novel in three sections.

Section 1: First-Person Narration (One Chapter)

.......The narrator tells of his first encounter with Ethan Frome, age fifty-two, in Starkfield, Massachusetts, and describes his appearance. Curious about Frome, the narrator inquires about him and desires to know more about his past. The narrator is living in Starkfield while working at the construction site of a power house in a nearby community. When the narrator's regular transportation to the site is unavailable, Frome takes him to and from the site to earn a little extra money. On these trips, the narrator learns a few scraps of information about Frome. One day, when a heavy snowstorm makes it impossible to complete the return trip from the site, the narrator stays at the Frome house overnight and learns enough about him and his life at his farm to write a story about Frome.

Section Two: Third-Person Narration (Nine Chapters)

.......The narrator flashes back twenty-four years to tell Frome's story from the time that he was a young man married to Zeena to the time when he and Mattie Silver attempt but fail to kill themselves. 

Section Three: First Person Narration (One Chapter)
.......The narrator concludes the story with additional information about Frome, Zeena, and Mattie provided by his landlady, Mrs. Ned Hale. 


        The tone is generally cheerless and depressing. The cold climate and the heavy snows that isolate one person from another tend to undergird the tone. Examples of sentences that help set the tone are the following:

A dead cucumber-vine dangled from the porch like the crape streamer tied to the door for a death. (Section 2, Chapter 2)

Here and there a farmhouse stood far back among the fields, mute and cold as a grave-stone. (Section 2, Chapter 2)

They stood together in the gloom of the spruces, an empty world glimmering about them wide and grey under the stars. (Section 2, Chapter 2)

The spruces swathed them in blackness and silence. They might have been in their coffins underground. (Section 2, Chapter 9)

Plot Summary

.......The narrator sees Ethan Frome for the first time at the post office in Starkfield, Mass. Though he is no more than fifty-two, Frome looks considerably older. 
.......“He's looked that way ever since he had his smash-up; and that's twenty-four years ago come next February” (Section 1), Harmon Gow, a stage driver until the advent of the trolley, tells the narrator, who is much younger than Frome..
.......The accident scarred Frome's forehead and deformed his right side, causing him to limp. But Frome's “careless powerful look” (Section 1) and his height make him impressive to behold. Frome usually goes to the post office every day around noon. Generally, there is nothing for him except a newspaper, the Bettsbridge Eagle. But sometimes there is an envelope containing medicine for his wife, Mrs. Zenobia Frome, called Zeena. The townsfolk greet him with the same gravity suggested by his appearance. Once in a great while, one of the older men of the town stop to speak with him.
.......The bigger towns of the region—such as Bettsbridge and Shad's Falls—have libraries and theaters. But when winter isolates the narrator from the modern world, he begins to realize what life was like for Frome in an earlier time.
.......The narrator's employers had sent him to Massachusetts to work at Corbury Junction, where a power plant is under construction. But after a strike by carpenters suspends work, the narrator has to lodge at nearby Starkfield for the better part of winter. December piles on the snow, and the sky clears and the sun shines brilliantly on the glazed landscape. Then gray overcast returns with bitter cold and more snow. 
.......The narrator resides with a widow, Mrs. Ned Hale, and her mother in a grand mansion that was the home of Mrs. Hale's father, a prominent lawyer in the village. Mrs. Hale is a refined lady and a storehouse of information about the town and its people. She is just the right person, the narrator thinks, to fill in the details about Frome's life. But when he asks her about him, she makes only a brief comment, “Yes, I knew them both . . . it was awful . . . ” (Section 1). Others in town are no more responsive, 
.......Not long after his arrival in town, the arranges with Ned Eady, an Irish grocer and owner of a livery, to provide him transportation to Corbury Flats, where the narrator takes the train to Corbury Junction. But one day well into winter, Eady's horses get sick with an illness that making the rounds of stables. After two days, Harmon Gow suggests a solution: Ethan Frome. He has a healthy bay and needs money. His sawmill and poor crop yield had made him hardly enough profit to get through the winter. In earlier days, Frome worked his enterprises from morning to night and, says Gow, “kinder choked a living out of 'em” (Section 1). Now, it's even harder for him.
.......“Fust his father got a kick, out haying, and went soft in the brain, and gave away money like Bible texts afore he died,” Gow says. “Then his mother got queer and dragged along for years as weak as a baby” (Section 1).
.......Each morning, Ethan drives his sleigh two miles into town, then takes the narrator Corbury Flats three miles from Starkfield. And each evening, he picks him up for the return trip. The only time he speaks is to answer a question—and then in monosyllables.  Curious about Frome, he wants to know something of his history. He wants to know what put that look on his face—“as if he was dead and in hell” (Section 1).
.......One morning, a heavy snowstorm severely limits travel, but Frome arrives as usual for his passenger. Because a train stuck in the snow blocks their regular route, Frome takes another route that extends their journey to ten miles. 
......."The bay'll do it if you give him time,” Frome says. “You said you had some business there this afternoon. I'll see you get there" (Section 1).
.......On the return trip in the afternoon, the snow begins to fall again, accumulating rapidly, and they make it only so far as Frome's house. Frome then welcomes the narrator to stay for the night. It is then that the narrator learns the story of Ethan Frome. The narrator then flashes back twenty-four years to tell Frome's story.

Twenty-Four Years Earlier

.......After a snowfall of two feet, young Ethan Frome walks through the village to the white-steepled Congregational church—past Irishman Michael Eady's grocery and Lawyer Varnum's mansion. Several years before, he was studying at a technology college in Worcester, but his father's death ended his education. His time at Worcester had given him just enough knowledge to speculate on the meanings behind daily events. 
.......In the church, a dance is in progress. A fiddler and an organist are providing the music. Frome posts himself outside a window and peers inside. During a Virginia reel, he observes a woman with dark hair and a slender figure moving down a line. Her partner is Denis Eady—son of the grocer—who looks upon the girl as if he owns her. 
.......“Heretofore,” the narrator says, “Ethan Frome had been content to think him a mean fellow; but now he positively invited a horse-whipping” (Section 2, Chapter 1).
.......The girl's name is Mattie Silver, the cousin of his wife, Zeena. She had come from Stamford, Connecticut, to live with the Fromes to help Zeena, who is sickly. 
Whenever Mattie goes to Starkfield for some amusement, Ethan accompanies her to and from the town. He had balked at first when Zeena asked him to perform this occasional chore. Now he looks forward to it. He is aware of Mattie's beauty, and he enjoys talking with her and telling her things. 
......."That's Orion down yonder,” he would say, using his learning from the college. “The big fellow to the right is Aldebaran, and the bunch of little ones—like bees swarming—they're the Pleiades . . ." (Section 2, Chapter 1).
.......At the church dance, he notices with dismay that she gives her young partners the same looks that she gives him. He had thought that such looks were reserved only for him. Zeena had never spoken of Mattie as a rival, but lately she has been complaining about the inefficiency of her housework. Ethan has to admit that Mattie is not the best of housekeepers. 
.......One winter morning while Ethan is dressing, Zeena says to him, "The doctor don't want I should be left without anybody to do for me." 
.......When Ethan asks what she means, Zeena says she might be left without help if Mattie marries Denis Eady. Ethan replies, "Denis Eady! If that's all, I guess there's no such hurry to look round for a girl" (Section 2, Chapter 1).
.......He hurries dressing, saying he has to get to work. Zeena replies, "I guess you're always late, now you shave every morning" (Section 2, Chapter 1). This remark is a hint that ever since Mattie arrived Ethan has made it a point to shave every morning. That is Zeena's way—letting things happen and then, weeks later, making an oblique remark about them. 
.......Ethan recalls these incidents involving Zeena while he is waiting at the dance for Mattie. When the dance ends, he is standing in shadows outside the church door. After the dancers exit, he sees Denis Eady approach Mattie and offer her a ride home in the cutter he borrowed from his father. But Mattie refuses to get in. He tries to persuade her and snatches at her arm, but she runs away. Ethan makes himself known, and he and Mattie begin the walk home—arm in arm. When they reach the top of a hill on Corbury Road, she mentions that a lot of people have been sledding down the icy slope in front of them. Ethan then promises to take her sledding.
.......As they walk on, Ethan asks whether it is true what people are saying about her, that she is leaving the Fromes' employ. Sensing that Zeena had put the idea of her leaving in Ethan's head, she admits that she has shortcomings as a housekeeper but says Zeena ought to voice her complaints as a cue for Mattie to try harder. Ethan, too, should speak up, she says—“unless you want me to go too” (Section 2, Chapter 2).  Frome is pleased that she is concerned about what he thinks. But he simply says, “Come along.” When they reach the gate at Ethan's home, he says, “Then you don't want to leave us, Matt?” She says, “Where'd I go, if I did?” (Section 2, Chapter 2). Inside, Zeena greets them coldly, then retires. 
.......The next day, Ethan spends the morning preparing a load of wood for Andrew Hale, a builder in Starkfield. When he returns home, he finds Zeena in her best dress. She tells him that she has had severe shooting pains and will be going to Bettsbridge to see a new physician. She will be staying overnight with her aunt, Martha Pierce. She asks Ethan to allow a hired hand, Jotham Powell, to drive her to the train stop. 
.......“Of course Jotham'll drive you over,” Ethan says (Section 2, Chapter 3).
.......Already, Ethan is thinking that he will have a night alone with Mattie.
.......That evening, Ethan and Mattie enjoy supper and later sit at the fireplace. Their passions are high, but the invisible presence of Zeena comes between them. They retire to their separate bedrooms at eleven o'clock.
.......The next day, Ethan goes out to buy glue to piece together a red pickle dish—Zeena's favorite dish—that the cat knocked off the supper table the previous evening. He does not want Zeena to find it in pieces. After he returns, Mattie tells him that Zeena has come back and is upstairs in her room. When Ethan goes in to see her, she says, “I'm a great deal sicker than you think . . . I've got complications” (Section 2, Chapter 7). In Starkfield, no one ever uses the word complications unless it refers to a very serious illness. Ethan says, "What do you know about this doctor anyway? Nobody ever told you that before" (Section 2, Chapter 7).
.......Zeena replies, "I didn't need to have anybody tell me I was losing ground every day. Everybody but you could see it. And everybody in Bettsbridge knows about Dr. Buck . . . Eliza Spears was wasting away with kidney trouble before she went to him, and now she's up and around, and singing in the choir" (Section 2, Chapter 7).
.......Zeena says the doctor wants her to hire another girl to do all the housework and that Aunt Martha has found one. This revelation angers Ethan. He now suspects that Zeena went to Bettsbridge for the sole purpose of finding another housekeeper. And the expense—he would have to dig deep into his pocket to pay regular weekly wages to the new housekeeper. He asks sarcastically whether the doctor told her how Ethan was to come up with the money.
......."No, he didn't,” she answers. "For I'd 'a' been ashamed to tell him that you grudged me the money to get back my health, when I lost it nursing your own mother!" (Section 2, Chapter 7). (Zeena, a cousin of Ethan, had come to the Frome house to nurse his mother when she was dying. After Mrs. Frome died, Ethan married Zeena out of loneliness.) 
.......Ethan says he lacks the money to pay regular wages to a housekeeper. (Mattie is receiving no pay, only board.) Zeena says that she will die if she has to go on “slaving the way I've had to” (Section 2, Chapter 7). Mattie will have to be replaced with a more competent housekeeper. Ethan argues that Mattie is a “poor girl without friends or money” (Section 2, Chapter 7) and reminds Zeena that Mattie is her relative. What will people say if Zeena puts her out? But Zeena knows why Ethan wants Mattie to stay—that there is something between them—and she tells Ethan so and clinches the argument. Mattie has to go. 
.......At supper later, Mattie says she might be able to get work in Stamford. But Ethan says he has decided that Mattie should stay. Zeena always gets her way, he says, but not this time. Zeena comes downstairs to eat, and the other two quietly finish their meal with her. After the meal, Zeena develops heartburn and goes into another room to find her stomach powders. When she returns, she is raging with anger as she carries the pieces of the broken pickle dish. Mattie tells her that she used it while Zeena was away to make the supper table more attractive. However, she says, the cat got onto the table and knocked it down. 
......."You wanted to make the supper-table pretty," Zeena says, "and you waited till my back was turned, and took the thing I set most store by of anything I've got, and wouldn't never use it, not even when the minister come to dinner, or Aunt Martha Pierce come over from Bettsbridge" (Section 2, Chapter 7).
.......Ethan now considers running away with Mattie. However, he has no savings. In fact, he had to borrow money to make repairs to his property. He has no security left to borrow more.
.......“The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict," the narrator says. "There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light [Mattie] was to be extinguished” (Section 2, Chapter 8).
.......Zeena wants Jotham Powell to take Mattie to the station to catch a train for Stamford, but Ethan declares that he is going to take Mattie himself. On the way, he and Mattie reminisce. He asks her what she will do, and she says she will look for work in a store.
.......“I suppose you'll marry?” he says (Section 2, Chapter 9).
.......She says she wishes she were dead. No one has even been so kind to her as Ethan, she says. When they reach the top of Corbury Road, Ethan spies a sled along the road and proposes that they coast down the hill. They get in and speed gleefully to the bottom, past a big elm tree. 
.......“Were you scared I'd run into the elm?” Ethan says (Section 2, Chapter 9).
.......She says she is never scared with him. On their way back up the hill, they kiss. They both vow that they cannot part from each other. Then they decide to take another ride down the hill—and to crash into the elm tree. But their suicide attempt fails. 

Twenty-Four Years Later

.......Twenty-four years later—on the night of the heavy snowfall—the narrator enters the Frome house with Ethan and sees two gray-haired women in the kitchen of the shabby dwelling. One, tall and bony, rises from a chair to make dinner. The other sits in an armchair near the stove. When Frome remarks about how cold it is in the house, the woman in the armchair says the tall woman fell asleep, allowing the fire to die down. The former then says she had to awaken the tall woman to get her to tend the fire, which is only now coming to life. Ethan introduces the tall woman as his wife, Zeena Frome, and the woman in the armchair as Mattie Silver. 
.......When the narrator returns to Mrs. Hale's the next morning, he tells her and her mother, Mrs. Varnum, what happened. They are surprised to learn that Ethan had taken the narrator to and from the construction site at Corbury Junction and, during a blizzard, had housed the narrator overnight. 
.......“I don't believe but what you're the only stranger has set foot in that house for over twenty years,” Mrs. Hale says (Section 3).
.......She herself visits the house on occasion, usually at New Year's and once in the summer. But she does not enjoy seeing the tragic faces there. Mrs. Hale then reveals what happened after Ethan and Mattie's suicide attempt. 
.......“I was here in the house when they were carried up—they laid Mattie Silver in the room you're in. She and I were great friends, and she was to have been my bridesmaid in the spring . . . When she came to I went up to her and stayed all night” (Section 3).
.......When Zeena was informed of what happened, she immediately went to the home where Ethan had been taken for treatment. Then, when physicians said Mattie was well enough to be moved, Zeena took her in. 
.......“Zeena's done for her, and done for Ethan, as good as she could," Mrs. Hale says. "It was a miracle, considering how sick she was—but she seemed to be raised right up just when the call came to her” (Section 3).
.......Mattie became cranky over time, and she and Zeena often argued. But Mrs. Hale thinks Ethan suffered the most over the years.


.......Ethan Frome is in conflict with his wife, Zeena, and with his economic circumstances, his moral convictions, and his isolated environment. Mattie Silver is also in conflict with Zeena, who views Mattie as an incompetent housekeeper and decides to replace her. 


.......The climax occurs when Ethan and Mattie decide to attempt suicide by crashing their sled into a tree.


Ethan Frome as Fortune's Fool

.......Fortune treats Ethan Frome cruelly. As a young man, he had a promising future while studying for a technical career in Worcester. Then his father suffered a brain injury in a farm accident, and Ethan had to end his education—and his dream of bettering himself—to return home to attend his father and run the farm and sawmill. .......According to Harmon Gow, Ethan's father was giving away money “like Bible texts” (Section 1) in his last days. After he died, Ethan's mother became ill and slowly declined. When she was in the final stages of her illness, her cousin Zenobia Pierce (Zeena) came to the Frome house to help care for her. 
.......After his mother died, Ethan married Zeena for the company she would provide in his isolated surroundings. They did not love each other; it was a marriage of convenience. But Zeena then became sickly herself. However, her illness was imaginary; she was a hypochondriac. Over time, she became irritable and bad-tempered. Meanwhile, Ethan had to keep up the farm and sawmill while attending her. 
.......Then Mattie Silver appeared to help out. Ethan and she fell in love. But Zeena's presence and her dominant personality came between them. Moreover, the Puritan moral ethic—passed onto Ethan and other Starkfield residents over the centuries—prevented Ethan from betraying his wife in her own house. And then there was social convention: What would people say if Ethan openly carried on a romance with Mattie? Finally, Ethan was impoverished. He could not afford to to run off with Mattie; he could not afford a divorce and alimony.
.......Too many circumstances—too many forces beyond his control—were conspiring against Ethan. He was, in the words of Shakespeare, “fortune's fool” (Romeo and Juliet, 3.1.103). Because he and Mattie saw no way out for themselves, they attempted suicide. But they survived and lived on, psychologically and physically maimed, under the dour tendance of Zeena. 


.......Circumstances isolate many of the characters. 
.......Ethan marries out of loneliness but ends up with a wife who rarely speaks to him except to complain. The climate, the remoteness of his home, and his Puritan heritage deepen Ethan's isolation. The narrator observes, 

He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters." (Section 1)
.......Zeena withdraws into herself, becoming an irritable hypochondriac, after the isolated farm works its effect on her. Mattie Silver loses her father, then her mother, and faces the world alone at age twenty. Her health suffers when she tries stenography and fails to improve after six months in a department store. When she joins the Frome household and falls in love with Ethan, Zeena and propriety come between them. Except for brief snatches of conversation with him—and her walks with him back from her night in town—she too lives in isolation. 
.......Rheumatism and the death of her husband isolated Old Mrs. Frome. She even had difficulty moving from one room to another.

Zeena's Martyr Complex

.......Zeena's imaginary sickness is her way of calling attention to herself. Acting like a martyr bolsters her self-esteem and garners her the sympathy of the townspeople. As the narrator points out, within a year of her marriage to Ethan “she developed the 'sickliness' which had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances" (Section 2, Chapter 4).
.......After the suicide attempt of Ethan and Mattie, Zeena rallies and takes care of the debilitated Mattie in her own home. But Zeena's seemingly commendable deeds appear to be her way of telling the world that she leads a hard life, an impossibly difficult life. In her mind, the burden of caring for Mattie demonstrates her heroism in the face of suffering. 

Thwarted Hopes and Ambitions

.......Ethan Frome aspired to success in a technical or scientific career while attending a college in Worcester. But his father's accident forced him to return home and work the farm and sawmill while attending his father. After his father died and his mother became ill, Ethan had no choice but to abandon his education and accept the rigors of daily life on the farm. The final blow came when Zeena ended his hope of having a future with Mattie Silver.
.......It appears unlikely that Mattie had any special aspirations other than to be with Ethan. But it is possible that she had musical talent, as the following sentence suggests:" Mattie, at twenty, was left alone to make her way on the fifty dollars obtained from the sale of her piano" (Section 2, Chapter 3).


The Cat: Zeena. When Ethan and Mattie are dining alone, Ethan says, "I suppose he [Jotham Powell] got Zeena over to the Flats all right?" Mattie answers that he did. But the mention of Zeena's name casts a pall over the dinner. The cat then ruins their meal by jumping onto the table and knocking the pickle dish off; it shatters. Mattie becomes upset, aware that it was Zeena favorite disha wedding gift from Zeena's aunt in Philadelphia. 
Zeena's Shattered Pickle Dish: The broken relationship between Ethan and Zeena. 
Starkfield: As the name suggests, the dreariness of life at Starkfieldin particular, Ethan'sand the bleak, stark, snow-covered landscape of the region.
Cold Weather: The coldness of the relationship between Ethan and Zeena.
Mattie's Red Fascinator (Scarf) and Red Ribbon: The vibrancy and passion of Mattie. Like a glowing fire, she brings warmth to the cold Frome house and enkindles Ethan's love for her. 
Hemlocks: The tragic outcome of the relationship between Ethan and Mattie. See Foreshadowings for additional information.
Silver: Mattie's last name symbolizes her shining presence in Ethan's life. 
Ethan's Run-Down Home: His ruined life.
The Railroad: The march of progress that Ethan hoped to be a part of when he was attending college. The railroad passes through Starkfield but does not stop.


The Elm Tree

.......Foreboding references to the elm tree at the bottom of the sledding course in Starkfield foreshadow the attempted suicide of Ethan and Mattie. Following are examples of these references.

"Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum came just as near running into the big elm at the bottom. We were all sure they were killed." Her shiver ran down his arm. "Wouldn't it have been too awful?" (Section 2, Chapter 2)

"The elm is dangerous, though. It ought to be cut down," she insisted. (Section 2, Chapter 2)

Mattie sat perfectly still, but as they reached the bend at the foot of the hill, where the big elm thrust out a deadly elbow, he fancied that she shrank a little closer. (Section 2, Chapter 9)

The Hemlocks

.......The following sentences may also foreshadow the attempted suicide.

And there were other sensations, less definable but more exquisite, which drew them together with a shock of silent joy: the cold red of sunset behind winter
hills, the flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow. (Section 2, Chapter 1)

They [Ethan and Mattie] walked on in silence through the blackness of the hemlock-shaded lane, where Ethan's sawmill gloomed through the night. On the farther side of the hemlock belt the open country rolled away before them grey and lonely
under the stars. (Section 2, Chapter 2)

They had reached the point where the road dipped to the hollow by Ethan's mill and as they descended the darkness descended with them, dropping down like a black veil from the heavy hemlock boughs. (Section 2, Chapter 9)

A hemlock plant is poisonous. One species of the plant, Conium maculatum, is extremely toxic. People have frequently used hemlock preparations to commit suicide. The hemlock tree, an evergreen, is not poisonous. However, it is possible that the author used the word hemlock to suggest a tragic outcome to the romance of Ethan and Mattie.


Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in Ethan Frome. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.


We pushed on to the Junction through the wild white scene. (Section 1)

The snow began to fall straight and steadily from a sky without wind. (Section 1)

Even his sense of direction, and the bay's homing instinct, finally ceased to serve us. (Section 1)

A moving lantern ray now and then lit up a face flushed with food and dancing. (Section 2, Chapter 2)

A couple of straw-bottomed chairs and a kitchen dresser of unpainted pine stood meagrely against the plaster walls. (Section 3)

The words were like fragments torn from his heart. With them came the hated vision of the house he was going back to—of the stairs he would have to go up every night, of the woman who would wait for him there. (Section 2, Chapter 9)
A young man with a sprightly foot and a shock of black hair shot into the middle of the floor and clapped his hands. (Section 2, Chapter 1)
The black wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped from the porch. (Section 1)
Comparison of the creeping plant to a ghost (wraith)
Metaphor and Simile
In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles. (Section 2, Chapter 1)
Metaphor: comparison of the sky to iron
Simile: comparison of the points of the Big Dipper to icicles
Ethan and Mattie live for the moments when they can be alone, away from the critical eye of Zeena. But they both end up spending the rest of their lives, physically and psychologically marred, in Zeena's presence.
The sky, swollen with the clouds that announce a thaw, hung as low as before a summer storm. (Section 2, Chapter 9)
Comparison of the clouds to persons making an announcement
Ethan Frome drove in silence . . . his brown seamed profile, under the helmet-like peak of the cap, relieved against the banks of snow like the bronze image of a hero. (Section 1)

Comparison of Frome's profile to that of hero depicted by a bronze statue or bust

We came to an orchard of starved apple-trees writhing over a hillside among outcroppings of slate that nuzzled up through the snow like animals pushing out their noses to breathe. (Section 1)
Comparison of the slate to animals
The musicians . . . belaboured their instruments like jockeys lashing their mounts on the home-stretch. (Section 2, Chapter 1)

He kept his eyes fixed on her, marvelling at the way her face changed with each turn of their talk, like a wheat-field under a summer breeze. (Section 2, Chapter 5)

Comparison of Mattie's face to a wheat field
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • What does the name Ethan mean? Is the name an appropriate choice for the protagonist?
  • In ancient history, who was Zenobia? Is the name an appropriate choice for Ethan's wife?
  • How did the beginning of train service near Starkfield affect Ethan's mother?
  • Write a short psychological profile of Ethan Frome or his wife. Use information from the novel, as well as library and Internet research, to support your thesis.
  • If you encountered Ethan Frome and Mattie before their suicide attempt, what would you say to try to persuade them to seek another solution to their problem?