by Edith Wharton
Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
Ethan Frome includes a "frame narrative" or, a story within a story, so we have two initial situations. In the Prologue the narrator introduces us to the figure that has captured his curiosity and imagination, Ethan Frome. Have you ever seen someone with an obvious physical problem (be it burn scars or a broken leg) and desired to know his or her story? Something like that is going on with the narrator. Something about Ethan immediately strikes the narrator, and the more he sees of Ethan and the more he learns of Ethan, the more curious the narrator becomes. So that's the initial situation of the Prologue: we meet two mysterious men, the narrator and Ethan Frome.
In Chapter 1 of Ethan Frome we are sent back in time about 24 years, and we find "Young Ethan Frome" walking on a snowy, moonless night to some mysterious purpose (1.1). The space between the 52-year-old Ethan of the Prologue and the 28-year-old Ethan of Chapter 1 is waiting to be filled in by the rest of the story.
A love triangle…
It doesn't take us long to figure out that Ethan and Mattie have something going on. It's pretty clear that Ethan at least is head over heels for young Mattie, which is certainly a conflict because he's married to Zeena.
Ethan's wife Zeena
Ethan and Mattie seem to want to forget about Zeena, but she is not about to let that happen. She makes it difficult for them to continue any kind of relationship. Mattie and Ethan seem to be oblivious to everything but each other, but Zeena is hatching a plan to end their romance. She gives them their night alone together, but she's about to pull the rug out from under their feet.
Heartburn and broken glass
When Zeena gets back from her visit to the new doctor everything comes to a head. Zeena tells Ethan she wants Mattie on the next train out, and Ethan's dreams shatter like Zeena's red pickle dish (a wedding gift). Speaking of the dish, when Zeena finds it broken and put back together (but not glued), she comes unglued. Her tears work with the broken dish to make us feel the hearts of these three people breaking and aching.
Should I stay or should I go?
The suspense is mostly on Ethan. We know that Mattie really does have to go. The question is, will Ethan go with her or not? The suspense in this novella opens up the moral questions being posed. Should Ethan follow his heart, or should he honor his duty to his wife?
The sled ride
Dénouement is a French word that means "untying of the knot." In this case, Mattie and Ethan's impromptu suicide pact is their way of trying to untie the complicated knot of their lives. Death is the only option they can see before them. They have a romantic vision of dying in each other's arms.
Much has been made of the dramatic irony in this stage of Ethan Frome. The readers can see a thousand and one options for the couple besides suicide. But, as we all know, it's easy to see the options when we are outside of the problem, but not so easy when you are in the heat of the moment. And that is what makes dramatic irony a powerful thing.
"Yes, it's pretty bad, seeing all three of them there together" (Prologue.16).
Ruth, who has the last word of the novel, suggests that Ethan and Mattie surviving the sled accident was, as they say, a fate worse than death. For more on the conclusion, check out our "What's Up With the Ending?"