Sometimes overlooked by those attracted to Wharton's longer, more ironic novels, this novella is one of stark simplicity set against a bleak New England countryside at the beginning of the 20th century. With characteristic economy, Wharton tells a compelling story about the human need for passion and affection in a situation where only abject coldness exists.

Ethan Frome is introduced by the narrator in this way: "It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starksfield, though he was but the ruin of a man" (3). Determined to learn more about Ethan, while temporarily located in an appropriately-named village, the narrator manages to gather pieces of information about the figure who seemed an "incarnation of frozen woe in the melancholy landscape" (11).

The spark of hope that might have led young Ethan toward education and escape expired when care for his chronically-ill mother fell first to him and then to a cousin named Zenobia. Unable to abandon his mother and their needy homestead, he was easily attracted to Zenobia, the kindly young woman who assisted in his mother's care. They married, the mother died, and Zenobia inexplicably assumed a sick-role that would make Ethan's life loveless and tragic. Permanently stuck in Starksfield, his years become emotionally and economically depressed. Barely able to eke out a living hauling lumber and subjected to his bed-ridden wife's petty and constant demands, Ethan's impoverishment seems unending.

Miraculously, a third person, Mattie, enters the narrative. A distant cousin with no resources, she has been summoned by Ethan's increasingly mean-spirited wife to do chores within the house. The scene is set for two lonely and isolated people, despite age differences, to discover small bits of warmth in stolen moments together. Walks through the snow or gentle kindnesses in the dull household routine sustain the otherwise desolate pair of innocent lovers. An unexpected turn of events transforms a hopeless set of circumstances into permanent desolation and trauma. The conclusion is one of unimaginable horror.


Usually this story is read in one sitting. It is particularly useful in explorations that deal with human relationships and our individual and collective needs for love. What may be anticipated in life or in a relationship may not occur. Wharton's narrator sustains focus on a figure passing through the town who might otherwise have been ignored. The result is gripping and powerful.

The story has been used successfully in courses that focus on couples portrayed in literature, art, and film. Among these are films Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Interiors, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and John Updike's novel, Rabbit at Rest.


First published: 1911


A Signet Classic: New American Library

Place Published

New York



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