Wharton's winter ain't no wonderland.
Ethan Frome is the kind of book designed to make you feel better on your worst day—but not because it's cheery or chipper or even the slightest bit optimistic. No, it will make you feel better because you will never be as miserable as the characters in this book. And who isn't a fan of schaudenfreude?
This short course on Edith Wharton's slim novel is filled to the brim with interactive assignments, readings, and intros to walk you through all the depressing goodness that is Ethan Frome. Over the course of 15 lessons, you'll
- analyze the ways in which the frame narrative in Ethan Frome enhances the main narrative.
- think about how setting can play just as big a role as a character in a novel.
- close read the symbols of Ethan Frome; a pickle dish has never seemed so deep.
- examine the character of Ethan Frome himself as a tragic hero and a villain.
- get your doctor on, crafting original arguments about the function of illness in Ethan Frome.
Suggestion: don't start reading on your flight to New England.
Unit 1. Ethan Frome
It's a short novel, but it sure isn't short on meaning. In this unit, you'll close read Ethan Frome, digging into themes, symbols, characters...and why it feels so good to watch other people suffer.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 12: Zeena-Phobia
Zeena, Zeena, Zeena. She gets no love. Not from Ethan, not from Mattie, and certainly not from the narrator, who describes her voice as a "flat whine," talks about how prematurely aged she is, and mentions how everyone wants to punch her in the face.
Well, maybe not the last one exactly, but the spirit sure is there.
Zeena is a weird one, for sure. She comes into the Frome house as a nurse, and as soon as she's married, she flops over to being a patient. Then, when Mattie and Ethan come back all banged up from their accident, she becomes the nurse again for (we assume) the next few decades.
What gives, Zeena?
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.12: Baroness Zeena?
First things first: read this article over at The Stranger.
Starkfield and Internet medical forums have more in common than you thought, huh?
Take a deep breath after having read that bizarre article. Now take another deep breath and restore your faith in humanity. Now take another deep breath and contemplate the question of Zeena.
Depending on whose side you take, Zeena is either a sickly meanie-pants set on ruining her husband's only chance for happiness or a poor, neglected wife whose husband wants to run off with her cousin.
It's kind of a lose-lose situation.
But armed with this article, we could look at Zeena through the lens of metal illness—specifically Munchausen syndrome. Now, we know that Munchausen syndrome wasn't officially a thing until the 1950s, but we're guessing that the impulse to pretend to be sick in order to get attention and love and bowls of sweet, sweet chicken soup has been around for a while.
The article states:
"[There are] people who go to incredible lengths to fake illness or psychological trauma for the express purpose of attracting medical attention and sympathy from other people. Munchausen sufferers don't just shave their heads and say, 'Look! Cancer!' They alter their medical records, starve themselves, install catheters and chemo ports, even convince doctors to perform unnecessary surgeries on them—anything to legitimize the fantasy of their sickness."
Our question: is Zeena one of these people?
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.12a: Zeeny The Meanie Completed
Take a side, any side. Well, actually, scratch that. Take a side, one of three sides.
Here are your options:
- Zeena is sickly and mean.
- Zeena is sickly, yes, but also a brave nurse, perfectly kind but angry that her husband loves another woman.
- Zeena suffers from Munchausen syndrome and Starkfield, like the Internet, is a super-easy place to fake illness.