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Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome


by Edith Wharton

Analysis: Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

Christopher Booker is a scholar who wrote that every story falls into one of seven basic plot structures: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Shmoop explores which of these structures fits this story like Cinderella’s slipper.

Plot Type : Tragedy

Anticipation Stage

Lurking in the dark, looking for love…

In this stage the hero is looking for something to fill the empty place inside him. For Ethan Frome this something, is a someone named Mattie Silver. And Ethan anticipates hanging out with her as much as possible. Because Ethan knows he's married to another woman, he feels he doesn't have the "right" to show his feelings to Mattie (1.37). This is why he doesn't interfere when Denis and Mattie are talking, but instead stands in the shadows, hoping for the best.

Dream Stage

A romantic evening, just for two

When Zeena leaves Mattie and Ethan home alone, things seem to be going well for Ethan. Booker says that in this stage the tragic hero seems to be "getting away with it," and he relaxes. Ethan thinks that if Zeena would leave them alone together then she must not suspect that they are attracted to each other. Ethan and Mattie both seem perfectly content to continue building their relationship under Zeena's nose. They even make plans to sled together the next night, which will be the night Zeena returns from the doctor.

Frustration Stage

Things fall apart, including Zeena's pickle dish

After Ethan's blissful morning encounter with Mattie in the kitchen, the reality of life sets in. Everything seems to be going wrong, and Mattie and Ethan accidentally break Zeena's special pickle dish (a wedding gift). Ethan wants to buy some glue, thinking that will make everything right. But before the day is through, not only will Zeena's dish remain broken, but Ethan's dream of cozy sleigh rides with Mattie will be ripped cruelly from his grasp.

Nightmare Stage

Zeena's return

Zeena retuns, realizes what's going on, and tells Ethan that Mattie has to leave immediately. Ethan experiences what Booker calls "a mounting sense of despair." Actually, Ethan has had this feeling all along, but now he can't deny it. The jig is up. The bottom has dropped out.

Destruction or Death Wish Stage

Impromptu suicide pact

Ethan Frome fits this stage perfectly. Mattie and Ethan have a literal death wish. How much clearer can you get than this: "Right into the big elm. You said you could. So 't we'd never have to leave each other any more" (9.147). This is Mattie talking, she has the original death wish. Up to that point Ethan had mostly only fantasized about Zeena dying, not them. Quickly, though, he decides to go along with Mattie's plan and sled into the elm tree. But these tragic lovers survive the crash, which according to Ruth, is the real tragedy of the tale. Do you agree with her?

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