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Teaching Guide

Teaching Ethan Frome

Pack your North Face.


Like what you see? We've also got a complete Online Course about Ethan Frome, with three weeks worth of readings, activities, assignments, and quizzes.


You don't want your classroom discussion to be as chilly as a winter in New England or a dinner party with Ethan and his frosty wife. Instead, it should feel like a thick stew, and we're here to help you pick out all the ingredients that add to the flavor.

Pass on the pickles, please.

In this guide you will find

  • literary and pop culture connections from Romeo and Juliet to Eminem.
  • activities that let students do what they do best: be judgmental.
  • modern resources, like the NPR book club, movie adaptations, and even an opera.

You don't have to go dashing through the snow on a deadly sled ride, either. It's all right here in one convenient place.

What's Inside Shmoop's Literature Teaching Guides

Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our teaching guides will help you supplement in-classroom learning with fun, engaging, and relatable learning materials that bring literature to life.

Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

Objective: Why not keep up the Wharton torture? Let's give the students a few more tales of woe. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "First let us notice that life is a continual story of shattered dreams" (source). It's not the most uplifting subject, but it's important for students to recognize this recurring theme in other works and realize how often irony is used to achieve this effect. Of course, we'll also have them think about how it's possible to change one's course in life and not succumb to those shattered dreams. See? Always a silver lining with Shmoop.

This lesson assumes that students have been introduced to the concept of irony, but if needed, a longer background lesson can be inserted for the literary device. Reviewing can't hurt—we promise.

Materials Needed: Copy of the novel, Internet for video (whole class), Internet access for pairs to read short stories online (or printed copies)

Step 1: Show this clip from A Knight's Tale (Warning: has "damn your stomach" at 3:00), and begin a discussion about a person's ability to make a change or "change his stars" vs. becoming a victim of circumstances.

Step 2: A Knight's Tale had a happy ending, yes, but today, your students will be looking at a few more stories with ironic unhappy endings like Ethan Frome.

First things first. Take a minute to review the three types of irony, but try to focus your discussion on situational irony, since that's mostly what's going down in Ethan Frome.

You might also want to take a few minutes to review the plot arc and ending of the book—especially if it's been a few days since they finished reading.

Step 3: We want the students to recognize similarities in themes, settings, character developments, and use of irony in various different works.

Give the students a quick introduction to each story (Shmoop link provided to help you out!) and then have them break into pairs and choose one of the following to read online. If there isn't Internet access in the classroom, you can print the stories out beforehand.

The Crysanthemums

The Awakening

The Necklace

As you float, engage students in how they feel about the character and his/her choices. Where is the irony in the story?

Students should use a Venn diagram, being sure to notate as they read. They will be looking for similarities and differences between their story and Ethan Frome for the following aspects of the texts:

  • Setting
  • Main character's description/state of being
  • Main character's dream
  • Main character's sacrifice(s)
  • How the ending is ironic

Once the groups are finished, create one giant Venn diagram for the class combining the ideas from each group.

Step 4: Independently, students will create a collage to demonstrate their hopes, dreams, and vision of the future (1, 5, 10, 20 years out—very difficult for some who don't know what they will be up to on Saturday) using Pinterest, Glogster, or other similar applications. In 2-3 paragraphs, they should include

  • their overall vision.
  • what obstacles they might meet or sacrifices they may have to make.
  • how they might avoid becoming victims of irony or situation.

Instructions for Your Students

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Now first let us notice that life is a continual story of shattered dreams" (source). Pretty bleak, right? But plenty of authors tend to agree with him and, throughout the years, have written depressing works of unfulfilled dreams like Ethan Frome.

But do agree? Or do you think anyone can change their path in life? Are these writers trying to warn us to make better choices? Is Wharton using irony to send us a message?

Step 1: Check out this clip of A Knight's Tale. This one had a nice "happy, guy gets girl, wins the contest and becomes a knight" ending. And he vows at the beginning that he "can change his stars." Do you believe someone can change a path in life? What would you do to achieve your goals?

Step 2: Most authors like to write about characters working toward something—but they do love them some irony along the way. Review the definition of irony—focusing on situational irony. And then, if you need a refresher on the irony in Ethan Frome, check our analysis here at Shmoop:

Step 3: Now, it is time to see that Wharton does not have the corner on the irony market. Short story writers love to add irony and zing the reader in a matter of pages. You will choose one of the following short stories about sacrifice and longing and compare and contrast it to Ethan Frome.

Try to think about how you feel about the characters and their choices. Where is the irony in your short story? Use your old favorite, a Venn diagram, being sure to notate while you read. Look for similarities and differences in the following aspects of the texts:

  • Setting
  • Main character's description/state of being
  • Main character's dream
  • Main character's sacrifice(s)
  • How the ending is ironic

Once that's done, you will create one giant Venn diagram combining the ideas from each group.


Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary    Themes    Quotes    Characters    Analysis    Questions    Quizzes    Flashcards    Best of the Web    Write Essay    
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