Literary Discussion: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton


“Ethan Frome, a poor, downtrodden New England farmer is trapped in a loveless marriage to his invalid wife, Zeena. His ambition and intelligence are oppressed by Zeena’s cold, conniving character. When Zeena’s young cousin Mattie arrives to help care for her, Ethan is immediately taken by Mattie’s warm, vivacious personality. They fall desperately in love as he realizes how much is missing from his life and marriage.

Tragically, their love is doomed by Zeena’s ever-lurking presence and by the social conventions of the day. Ethan remains torn between his sense of obligation and his urge to satisfy his heart’s desire up to the suspenseful and unanticipated conclusion. (Penguin Group edition.)”

Discussion Question from

  1. Discuss the three characters. Do you find Zeena’s shrewishness believable? Does Ethan control his life, or do life’s events control him? Is Mattie a sympathetic character or not?

Zeena, even with her ailments, was not a sympathetic character in my opinion. Selfish and self-absorbed, she doesn’t make it easy for the reader to look at her with a compassionate eye. She doesn’t seem concerned with the toll her limits take on those around her. In fact, Ethan, while himself self-loathing, is a much more sympathetic character, albeit creepy. HE sees his life being controlled by his circumstances, while I tend to agree that he’s been handed a poor deck- we do have the power to change how we live. Instead of doing anything to change his life, he sinks into it and becomes bitter. I did not get the impression at all that the marriage between Ethan and Zeena is one of love, but rather one that from the start was of convenience and duty. Mattie- oh this is a tough one. She is to a degree sympathetic due to her own life circumstances, however, is she one who unlike Ethan tries to change her life?

Reflecting now that I have finished, Zeena perhaps is a little more sympathetic than I first thought, Ethan, is still viewed as sorrowful, and Mattie as one who knows how to perhaps manipulate to change her own course…

2. Mattie wears red when we readers first see/meet her. What does red signify?

Lust, desire and love. I myself overlooked this hint- or at least didn’t think about it perhaps the way the other intended.

3. Discuss Mattie’s and Ethan’s decision on the sleigh-an act of desperation clearly. Is it justified, immoral, unethical, irresponsible? Or the only honorable way out of an untenable situation?

Certainly Ethan and Mattie feel the have no better option. Of course we know that is just not true. Ethan’s own goodness is in part why he thinks there is no better way, which is ironic. I think that this is where I began to think of Mattie in a different way- less sympathetic and more self serving. I think the reader has to remember the time the story was written vs. today. Today, for a multitude of reasons, the couple would not have made the decision they did, in my opinion of course.

4. Discuss the ending. How do you feel about Ethan’s final situation?

Wharton certainly delivered one hell of an ironic punch! Misery loves company, this book proves that true!

Side note: I continue to learn my own likes and dislikes of literature. In Ethan Frome  Edith Wharton uses an observer to open the story. Like in Frankenstein, I find myself not particularly seeing the need for this. For it to work, in my opinion, the observer needs to serve a bigger purpose as a character than either did.

I really enjoyed this dark and tragic classic!


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