Study Guide

Ethan Frome Analysis

By Edith Wharton

  • Tone

    Dazzled, Infatuated, Loyal, and a little Condescending

    In the Prologue the narrator makes it clear that he is dazzled by Ethan Frome, and Ethan's kindness, strength, and intelligence, as well as his injury and his silence. Like the Starkfield snow, Ethan blinds the narrator to everything but the mystery of his story. The narrator is interested not so much in Mattie or Zeena, but in Ethan. This intense loyalty to Ethan's viewpoint, makes us feel like the novella is being told by someone who really cares about the man, and who truly understands him.

    The dazzle, infatuation, and loyalty of the narrator for Ethan echo the dazzle, infatuation, and loyalty of Ethan for Mattie and for nature. Appreciation of the natural beauty of the world they live is a big part of Mattie and Ethan's relationship. Edith Wharton's descriptions of this natural beauty (she spent ten years in Connecticut before writing Ethan Frome) help spin the tone of this tragic tale.

    Yet, for all this there is a sense of condescension, even violence toward the characters that seems to come from outside either of the narrative schemes (See "Narrator Point of View"). When we read Wharton's "Author's Note" to Ethan Frome we can see that it's coming from Wharton herself, and is a big part of her motivation for writing the story. In this introduction Wharton describes her characters as "granite outcroppings; but half-emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate." Let's break that down.

    First of all, "granite outcroppings" are chunks of granite that stand above the ground. Granite is a kind of rock that forms after liquid volcanic rock has cooled. In other words, a piece of granite has been through a lot, but is also very strong. Wharton's granite outcroppings (i.e., her characters), though, are half buried underground. It's the last clause of the sentence that really interests us, and makes the condescending tone of her novella more understandable. She says that her characters are "scarcely more articulate" than the rocks. In short, she wanted to represent uneducated people, who have a hard time expressing themselves. That she is so hard on them, and sometimes seems to be making fun of them, comes across as condescending. We'll give you an example:

    And there were other sensations, less definable but more exquisite, which drew them together with a shock of silent joy: the cold red of sunset behind winter hills, the flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow. When she said to him once: "It looks just as if it was painted!" it seemed to Ethan that the art of definition could go no farther, and that words had at last been found to utter his secret soul.... (1.11)

    Here Wharton is very articulate. She offers this gorgeous description of nature. But the comment that Mattie makes is probably one Wharton would have held in contempt. Paintings, after all, she might have said, are less beautiful than the real thing. Wharton also manages to poke fun at Ethan here. If he thinks that Mattie comment is the limit of "the art of definition" then he isn't very clever either. We don't particularly like this side of the novella's tone, but want to point out that it's there.

  • Genre

    Gothic Fiction, Realism, Modernism, Romance, Tragedy

    Ethan Frome doesn't have supernatural elements like some Gothic tales, but it features a strong sense of dread, and is very focused on death, and on the ways that people become trapped, both physically and mentally in their lives.

    Novels that try to capture life as it was or is in a certain place and time are considered "Realist." Realist stories often deal with people who don't have much money or prospects. Sound like the people in Ethan Frome. This is where our theme "Technology and Modernization" comes in. The inhabitants of Starkfield are so poor in large part because the train no longer stops in their town. Starkfield and its inhabitants are being left behind by the modern world.

    As such, this is also a Modernist novel. Modernists in Wharton's period were reacting, in their art, to new technologies and to the increasing industrialization of the world. Modernist art often focuses on the gaps in a story (go to out discussion of Ethan Frome's "Writing Style" for more), and is concerned with what happens when a character falls apart.

    The love affair between Mattie and Ethan make this a romance, and the fact that it ended so badly make this a tragedy. The novella is careful to point out that even though nobody dies, everybody seems to think they would be better off if they had.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title is almost deceptively simple. A man's name. It's kind of an odd name though. Ethan Frome. There is something solid and immoveable about it. And something old-fashioned. This novella is all about Ethan, or, more accurately, it's about the narrator's vision of Ethan, and his adaptation of Ethan's tragic story. The novella is split between the narrator's real interaction with the older Ethan, and his story of the story of the young Ethan. And by story, we mean the story that the narrator is able to imagine after spending the night in the Frome house.

    Chapters 1 through 9 can be seen as an exercise in imagination. The narrator makes an imaginative study of Ethan, an extraordinary and mysterious man who has been badly damaged. The title tells us that Ethan is probably the muse of this story, the spark that lit the narrator's creative fire.

    This is not to say that Mattie's story and Zeena's story are less important, or less tragic than Ethan's. In fact, the title lets us know that not all the characters will be given equal attention, and that we'll have to read between the lines to get at their sides of the story.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    There are two endings in Ethan Frome. The first is right after Mattie and Ethan crash into the elm tree, at the end of Chapter 9. The second ending happens at the end of the Epilogue, 24 years later.

    It is this second ending that makes the story brilliant, but also earns it a high rating on our creepy-meter. In the pre-accident part of the story, Mattie and Ethan seem to think that the best they can hope for is to be able to continue living together with Zeena, and seeing each other as often as possible. This impractical desire comes true in a hideous way. The second ending reveals that the characters have undergone gruesome and not-so-gruesome transformations, but that they are all three still living together in the poverty stricken Frome home.

    The second ending also leaves us with a new mystery. What exactly did Mattie say to Ruth when she woke up after the accident? Why couldn't Ruth bear to repeat it to the narrator? Whatever it was, it, combined with the change (for the worse) in Mattie's personality, leads Ruth to speak the novella's final lines:

    There was one day, about a week after the accident, when they all thought Mattie couldn't live. Well, I say it's a pity she did. I said it right out to our minister once, and he was shocked at me. Only he wasn't with me that morning when she first came to... And I say, if she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived; and the way they are now, I don't see's there's much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; 'cept that down there they're all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues. (Epilogue.27)

    That's some pretty chilling stuff. We realize there are lots of things going on in this final paragraph, and we want to help break it down. The first shocking thing that Ruth says is that if Mattie had died, Ethan could have lived. At this point we can be pretty sure that living for Ethan would mean escaping Starkfield, Zeena, and finding a place where his educational and social needs could be met. In short, this has to do with the getting away that we hear so much about. Is this what Ruth means? Does she mean that if Mattie had died Ethan could have left Starkfield?

    These kinds of questions reveal why "Morality and Ethics" is an important theme in Ethan Frome. Ruth raises the question: is Ethan's life somehow worth more than Mattie's? Even if it was, how could Ruth be so sure that Mattie's death would have given Ethan life? Does Ruth know that Mattie and Ethan were in love? If so, does Ruth consider this a moral or ethical crime because Ethan and Zeena were married? Why does she seem to blame Mattie, but not Ethan? Is this a comment on views toward women living at the turn of the century in America?

    We'll leave you to think about these questions. Let's move on to Ruth's statement that everyone in the Frome house would be better off dead. That's harsh. We can see why she would think that these people lead miserable lives, but her reason for why they would be better off dead is really bizarre. Glance at it again. She says it's because dead women "have got to hold their tongues." In other words, if Ethan and those women were dead, he wouldn't have to listen to them talk.

    Ruth seems incredibly biased toward Ethan, but she also sounds like somebody who doesn't like women very much. If a man spoke these lines we would call him a misogynist (a woman hater). By placing these lines in the mouth of a woman, Edith Wharton is able to get at the pervasive vision of women as inferior that ran rampant in those days. In fact, this opinion was so commonly held that many women believed it, too. Another way of looking at this quote is to say that Ruth dislikes anyone who speaks abusively – which Mattie apparently does quite vocally, and Zeena does rather quietly.

    The second ending is also hideously ironic, and yet another example of how when Ethan gets something he wishes for (which is rare). What Ethan gets will likely be damaged, a twisted mockery of what he had in mind.

    One important thing Ethan wishes for is a house without silence. Remember, Ethan went as far as marrying Zeena in order to avoid living in a house of silence. Unfortunately, she stopped talking almost as soon as she moved in. Ethan is always fighting silence, and always yearning for friendly voices. He gets the voices – it's not quiet with both Zeena and Mattie around – but it doesn't sound too friendly. We have to wonder if this is better than being alone, or better than silence? The situation is probably not better than escaping Starkfield.

    The ending turns Ethan Frome into a cautionary tale, a warning to the readers that not following your dreams can have serious negative consequences.

  • Setting

    Starkfield, Massachusetts, late 1800s to early 1900s

    Ethan Frome is set in the fictional town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. The story spans about 25 years, probably beginning in the late 1890s or early 1900s. Historically, this time period is marked as one of great change with innovations in communication, manufacturing, and travel technologies. The many advancements spin American society into a period of progress and modernization.

    Yet, opportunities for women remain limited, and education is hard to come by, especially for those who are poor. For those like the characters in Ethan Frome, technology and modernization are passing by, but not necessarily having an impact on daily life. This is the broad backdrop of the novella.

    But, the bulk of the story's action (Chapters 1-9) happens over just four days in February. These four days are the culmination of a year of attraction between Ethan and Mattie, and also of a terrible tragedy.

    It's also important that the novella is set in the winter. In fact, the narrator believes that older Ethan's character was formed as much by his apparent tragedy as by the particularly rough winters in Starkfield, as we see in these lines:

    I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters. (Prologue.29)

    Winter is also blamed for Ethan's decision to marry Zeena, who had been nursing his mother before she passed away:

    After the funeral, when he saw [Zeena] preparing to go away, he was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay there with him. He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter...(4.6)

    This brings us to an important detail. February. The narrator learns from Harmon Gow in the Prologue that "the smash-up" happened "twenty-four years ago come next February" (Prologue.3). What's just around the corner from February? Spring. This is all part of the dark irony and deep tragedy of the story. Spring and summer in Starkfield are only dimly remembered, never seen lived or experienced. It's as if by the time the characters have recovered from one winter, another is already on their heels.

    So what exactly is this place Starkfield? In the "Author's Note to Ethan Frome" Edith Wharton says that one of the reason she wrote the novella was because she didn't think other fiction writers had properly captured the New England landscape. She wanted to show the "harsh and beautiful" land as she saw it, in all its beauty and all its danger.

    But, while Starkfield is modeled on a fairly specific place (New England), we can also think of it as any place that a person gets stuck in, any place where it seems impossible to stay, and impossible to leave. This can be a geographical location, a state of mind, a building or a city, or tiny kitchen on a broken down farm.

    When we notice that there is also a "Springfield" in the story, we realize that Starkfield (stark meaning, hard, bare, difficult) really is supposed to be the place of eternal hardship. Springfield is the place Zeena goes to visit doctors and get medicine. This is perhaps to emphasize that Starkfield has the absolute worst kind of winters you can imagine. This also emphasizes that spring (and health) is always a false promise for the characters.

    For more on the setting of Ethan Frome, check out our discussion of "The Church Basement and the Frome Home" and "The Farm, the Sawmill, and the Railroad" under "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory."

  • Writing Style

    Full of Gaps and Tricky Foreshadowing

    In the Prologue the narrator gives us some important information:

    Though Harmon Gow developed the tale […] there were perceptible gaps between his facts, and I had the sense that the deeper meaning of the story was in the gaps. (Prologue.16)

    Although the narrator is talking specifically about Harmon Gow's version of the story, he's also giving us a suggestion on to how to read the story of Ethan Frome that he has "put together" (Prologue.65). This is a suggestion to pay attention to what has been left out of the story, and to be on the alert for holes and gaps that we can explore.

    This brings us to an interesting discussion of punctuation. You probably noticed that Ethan Frome is full of these little guys: "…" The three little dots… The ellipsis…What does an ellipsis do? It lets us know that something has been left out, that there is a gap in the story.

    So take a look at the fifty ellipses at the end of the Prologue, and the forty-three ellipses (and an apostrophe – which also lets us know something is missing) at the end of Chapter 9.

    What is going on here? A big gap. Lots of things are left out. What do these ellipses look like to you? Black dots? Drops of blood on snow? Like some kind of frantic code?

    So we've established that what's left out is a big deal in Ethan Frome's style. Well, what is left out? Zeena's story and Mattie's story. At the end of the novella we don't really know what moves them, what drives them, what they are all about. As a woman writer concerned with women's issues, Edith Wharton would have been interested in the female point of view. She could be making the point that the woman's point of view is often forgotten or left out. Ruth goes as far as to say that it is Ethan "that suffers most" (Epilogue.25).

    Other things are left out too. For example, the narrator tells us that when he spent the night at the Frome house, he figured out Ethan Frome. What does he mean? Maybe he got the clue from Mattie, maybe from Ethan, maybe from Zeena. Maybe he read something, or saw something that opened up the mystery. All we can do is imagine what the clue might be.

    We found another important thing that is left out of the story. Check out what Ruth says:

    "They gave her things to quiet her, and she didn't know much till to'rd morning, and then all of a sudden she woke up just like herself, and looked straight at me out of her big eyes, and said..." (Epilogue.19)

    What could Mattie have said to Ruth? Whatever it was, Ruth didn't like it, and can't even repeat it. This might be signaling us to the fact that no story is completely knowable, and that "the deeper meaning is in the gaps" (Prologue.16). The gaps are places we can fill with our own imaginations, thoughts, and feeling. In this way we can make the story our own.

    But we aren't done yet. Foreshadowing is another very important element of Ethan Frome's style. One of the first things we hear Mattie and Ethan discuss is the elm tree, and its power to cause death to innocent people sledding:

    She lingered, pressing closer to his side. "Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum came just as near running into the big elm at the bottom. We were all sure they were killed." Her shiver ran down his arm. "Wouldn't it have been too awful? They're so happy!" (1.31)

    As we discuss in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" death is constantly foreshadowed in this story. But no one actually dies. That would be too easy. Wharton put a new twist on things. The seeming death foreshadowing is actually foreshadowing the final lines of the story, spoken by Ruth. (Check out "What's Up With the Ending?" for more). She says that Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena, are living in state even worse than death. Wharton's relies heavy on this foreshadowing to build suspense and keep the readers' interest alive.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Dead Cucumber Vines, Crepe Streamers, and Other Symbols of Death

    Ethan Frome is loaded with symbols of death. We thought the dead cucumber vine was a pretty good one:

    A dead cucumber-vine dangled from the porch like the crape streamer tied to the door for a death, and the thought flashed through Ethan's brain: "If it was there for Zeena-" (2.58)

    Ethan just wished his wife were dead. Did this make you think Zeena was going to die? It did us. At first, we even though Ethan might murder Zeena.

    The red dish is another symbol of death, though not necessarily physical. The red pickle dish was a wedding present to Zeena and Ethan, and was shattered during a romantic dinner between Ethan and another Mattie. The broken dish symbolizes for Zeena the death of their marriage, and for Mattie and Ethan possibly a warning that something else is about to shatter – like Ethan and Mattie's bodies. We are told that Zeena picked "up the bits of broken glass she went out of the room as if she carried a dead body..." (7.127). This definitely makes us think someone is going to die.

    If all of these death references still haven't convinced you, we also have actual graves. Ethan's ancestors, including his namesake, are buried right there on his property, and Ethan sees them everyday.

    As you can see from our discussion so far, there is lots of foreshadowing of death in Ethan Frome. But the joke is on us. The foreshadowing doesn't foreshadow literal death, but rather the death of any dreams, hopes, and plans for the future that Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena might have had.

    The Color Red

    The red pickle dish isn't only a symbol of shattering and death. It's also a player in another set of symbols, all centering around the color red. The color red is often related to desire, love, seduction, sin, passion, heat, and lust. Blood, accidents, danger, warning, and alarm also factor in.

    There are eight items specifically described as red in the story: Ethan's scar, the "cherry-coloured fascinator," Mattie's "cherry-coloured scarf," the notorious pickle dish, the fire, the Mattie's "crimson ribbon," and most often, the sun.

    Let's focus on Ethan's gash. Many readers will instantly be reminded of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, about 61 years before Ethan Frome. In that story a woman is forced to wear a scarlet (red) letter "A" on her chest to show that she commit adultery. In Ethan Frome, Ethan is similarly branded with a red mark.

    If you've read our discussion of "Genre," you know this is a Gothic piece. Red is definitely a Gothic color, and Ethan's scar is a Gothic touch. The red items in Ethan Frome are related to anxieties surrounding marriage, passion, adultery, and sexuality, as well as public and private forms of shame and related emotions. All of these anxieties are placed, quite literally, on the forehead of Ethan Frome.

    The Church Basement and the Frome Home

    When Ethan goes to pick up Mattie from the dance, he watches her through the windows of the church basement. He is literally outside in the cold looking in on the warm place, where young people are dancing, and enjoying themselves. This divide represents the distance between Ethan's current life and his hopes for happiness. Why can't Ethan go in and join the fun? What force holds him back?

    This distance begins to dissolve when Ethan is alone in the kitchen with Mattie. Part of Ethan's problem is that he can't imagine being with Mattie anywhere but in the Frome kitchen. This can definitely be taken as a comment on the limited roles available to women in the early 1900s. Ethan's wish to always have Mattie in his kitchen is granted, but it's warped, and not at all what he had in mind. Instead of the haven Ethan imagined, in the Epilogue we see that the kitchen becomes a trap, a place of endless strife and suffering, a place where broken beings seek warmth, love, and comfort, but never quite reach it.

    The Farm, The Sawmill, and the Railroad

    Like many of the symbols in Ethan Frome the farm, the sawmill, and the railroad show Ethan their most sinister aspects, expressing the anxiety of an early 20th century people moving away from rural, agricultural society and toward an urban, industrial one.

    The sawmill, a machine that processes wood for a variety of uses, stands in stark opposition to the natural beauty around it. Ethan, with his deep love for nature seems an unlikely mill operator, which is probably a factor in his lack of success with it. When he, a man that makes his living by cutting down tries, tries to kill himself and his lover by colliding with a tree, a deep environmental anxiety is being expressed.

    The railroad is a symbol of progress, movement, change, and modernity. For Ethan and other residents of Starkfield, the train symbolizes just the opposite. It signals their stagnation, their backward slide into deeper economic miseries. Because the train can now take people from the surrounding areas into the larger town and cities, nobody stops in Starkfield to do business, to make a purchase, or to visit. As such, Ethan's farm and mill aren't worth enough to sell. He can't sell, and he can't save. He's trapped by a technology that has left him in its dust.

    Silence and Voice

    Silence is a big symbol in Ethan's life. He wants laughter and sound, but he always gets silence. We learn Ethan married Zeena because she was the first voice he had heard in his house since his mother stopped talking. Ironically, Zeena soon lost her voice too. Ethan is always described as the strong, silent type, and only Mattie seems to be able to help him free his voice. Again we see Ethan's desire being granted to him, but with a bitter twist. In this case Ethan wished for a house full of noise, and he got the transformed, damaged Mattie Silver "droning querulously" night and day (Prologue.62).

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Peripheral Narrator); Third Person (Limited Omniscience)

    There are two narrative schemes going on in Ethan Frome. In the Prologue and Epilogue the narrator speaks in the first-person. He is a peripheral narrator because he is not telling his own story. Rather, he is on the edge (i.e., the periphery) of Ethan's story. He is so much on the periphery that he prefers to remain anonymous. We never learn his name, age, or other biographical information. But, he does give us one crucial bit of information – his occupation. He's an engineer. What a coincidence. That's just what Ethan has always wanted to be. Wharton could have dreamed up any number of reasons for the narrator to be in Starkfield. By making his excuse an engineering project, he becomes Ethan's alternative "successful" self, the kind of man Ethan could have been if his life had turned out differently.

    Likewise, the narrator is drawn to Ethan because Ethan is what he might have been if he had made different choices or had been raised in different circumstances. For all we know, the narrator was born and raised in a town exactly like Starkfield, in poverty, and easily could have turned out like Ethan.

    Now for the second narrative scheme. In Chapters 1 through Chapter 9 the narrator drops out of the story completely (since he wasn't around 24 years ago), and switches over to the third-person. At the very end of the Prologue, the narrator says, "I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to piece together this vision of his story." So the narrator is still telling the story, he just moves from peripheral status to marginal status. He literally exists only in the margins of the text.

    As a third person narrator he's unreliable for several reasons. First of all, he doesn't ponder what Zeena or Mattie think or feel, but only how they might have appeared to Ethan in the past, and Ethan is definitely biased in favor of Mattie. Also, the narrator has already told us (in the Prologue) that his "vision" of Ethan's story is a combination his imagination and of each townsperson's "different" story (Prologue.65.; Prologue.1), which may or may not be accurate. Since none of these townspeople could have seen most of the events, they can't be considered reliable sources of information.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    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?

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    Mystery men…

    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.

    Conflict

    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.

    Complication

    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.

    Climax

    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.

    Suspense

    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?

    Denouement

    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.

    Conclusion

    "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?"