Study Guide

Ethan Frome Themes

By Edith Wharton

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    From the very beginning of Ethan Frome we know that Starkfield (the novella's fictional Massachusetts town) is the land of broken dreams, lost hopes, and empty plans. As the tragic story unfolds, we are gripped with the feeling that it didn't have to happen this way. Ethan Frome could have had the life he dreamed of, a life of education, love, and polite company. Unfortunately, everything from the weather, to the people around him, to Ethan's lack of drive keeps him from realizing his dreams. In the end, some of Ethan's wishes do come true, but only in a dark and twisted form. The novel's author, Edith Wharton, is hard on this character, perhaps in an attempt to remind us that in her book, you follow your dreams, or else.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. What are Ethan's dreams? Do any of them come true at the end of the story?
    2. Is this a hopeless story? If not, where do you find hope?
    3. We rarely ever learn Mattie or Zeena's thoughts. What can we guess about their dreams and hopes?
    4. Did you want Ethan to carry out his plan to run away with Mattie? Ultimately what is the main thing that stops Ethan from going though with it?

    Chew on This

    Ethan doesn't get anything he wants because he is afraid to take risks.

    Ethan's love for Mattie is so deep that he would rather be with her as they are at the end of the novel, than not at all. As such, Ethan at least got something that he wanted.

  • Transformation

    The characters in Ethan Frome are particularly marked by the physical transformations they undergo. These physical changes give us hints of depths of the inner transformations taking place. Through the course of the story, we learn how title character Ethan Frome transformed from a healthy young man with dreams and aspirations into a man with severe spinal injury, a suspicious "red gash" on his forehead (Prologue.4), and no hope for a happy future. Ethan's wife Zeena also makes transformations, going back and forth between being sick and healthy all the time. We also see American society in a moment of major transformation, moving rapidly toward modernity. Starkville, Ethan's fictional town, is set just outside this movement. In fact, technology and modernization are not only kept just out of Ethan's reach, but also contribute to his dire transformation.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Who transforms the most in the story? Who transforms the least?
    2. Are the characters' physical transformations connected to inner transformations? If so, how?
    3. When the narrator visits Starkfield, how has it changed from when Ethan was a young man?

    Chew on This

    Even though Ethan suffers an awful physical transformation and has his dreams crushed, his basic kindness remains intact.

  • Technology and Modernization

    Set around the late 1890s to early 1900s, Ethan Frome's fictional Starkfield, Massachusetts has been as good as forgotten by the spinning word of planes, trains, and automobiles. In fact, the extension of rail service to towns near Starkfield, but not to Starkfield, locks the town in a backward spiral towards deeper and deeper poverty. This has horrific effects on the Frome farm and sawmill, as well as on Ethan and his family. The sudden increase in isolation even drives his mother insane, which eventually leads to Ethan marrying for the wrong reasons. Expressing industrial anxieties of the age, the characters in this grim novella are injured by and isolated from progress. Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie remain cruelly trapped just outside of history, unable to move forward.

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. What are some of the reasons Starkfield is moving away from modernity?
    2. What are some of the anxieties the novella expresses with regard to technology and modernization?
    3. Is the train important to this story? Why or why not?
    4. How does Ethan feel about modernization? How does Zeena feel about it?
    5. Using only information found in the novel, how would you judge medical technology in this time period?

    Chew on This

    Ethan Frome shows that while new technology and modernization allows some communities to move ahead, it forces other to move backwards.

  • Love

    Ethan Frome is a tragic love story. Every romantic moment is fraught with tension and anxiety. Why? Because the characters are stuck in a bitter love triangle from which escape is impossible. Edith Wharton's fresh take on this timeless theme puts love on an unreachable pedestal. It shows how a lack of love can twist and warp human beings almost beyond recognition. In the four days leading up to a suicide pact between Ethan and Mattie Silver, his would-be lover, these two lonely characters get a glimpse of love, friendship, and companionship. And then it all falls apart. Yet, they remain together (with Ethan's wife Zeena) even 24 years later. Do you think any spark of their former love remains?

    Questions About Love

    1. Did Ethan ever love Zeena?
    2. Are Ethan and Mattie still in love at the end of the story?
    3. Is the love story convincing? Why or why not?
    4. Does Mattie love Ethan? Does Ethan love her? How do you know? Does the novella give a definition of love? If so, what is it?

    Chew on This

    The most loving thing Ethan could have done was run away with Mattie; by failing to carry out this loving act, he betrays everyone.

    By taking care of Mattie after her accident, Zeena shows that she loves her.

  • Education

    Ethan Frome's title character wants education almost as much as he wants love. His fine mind can't reach its potential because he's never been able to concentrate on its development. He sacrificed his education to care for his parents, and ended up stuck on a farm in a backwards town. If Ethan had abandoned his sick parents, he could have gotten that education he desired, but he probably also would have been wracked with guilt. Though more subtly explored than Ethan's lack of education, the lack of education for the novel's women might leave a 21st century reader appalled. Without education, the characters feel they lack options.

    Questions About Education

    1. Why does Mattie get really sick when she tries to learn accounting? Why doesn't she seem to have any practical skills? What might Mattie suggest about the state of education for women during Wharton's time?
    2. Does Zeena have an education? Where did she learn her nursing skills? Does any of this contribute to the tragedy of the story?
    3. Why didn't Ethan finish his education? How might his life have been different if he had? What does he want to learn?

    Chew on This

    Ethan Frome shows how a limited education equals limited options.

    The character of Mattie Silver is used to express the problem of education in Edith Wharton's time, particularly where women are concerned.

  • Morality and Ethics

    Ethan Frome is concerned with personal morality and puts forth a number of complicated moral quandaries. For example, should Ethan Frome pursue true love and run away with Mattie, or should he stick it out with his wife Zeena? The characters face numerous conflicts which pit their personal desires against their perceived moral and ethical responsibilities.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. If Mattie and Ethan had had sex, would that change the way you feel about them?
    2. Is Zeena just in her treatment of Mattie? Of Ethan? Of herself?
    3. Mattie asks Ethan several times if he thinks Zeena is upset with her. Does this tell us anything about her moral code? Does Mattie think she behaving inappropriately with Ethan? Does Ethan think they are doing anything wrong?
    4. Is Ethan being fair when he doesn't believe his wife's illnesses? Why or why not?
    5. What do you think about Ruth's argument that it would have been better if Mattie had died?
    6. How do you feel about Mattie and Ethan's suicide attempt?
    7. Do you think Ethan had a right to leave Zeena? Did Ethan have an obligation to leave with Mattie since he loved her?
    8. Does Ethan fulfill his moral obligations to himself? What are those obligations in the first place?

    Chew on This

    Because Ethan loved Mattie and didn't love Zeena, it would have been morally correct for him to run away with Mattie.

    In Ethan's moral code, it's more important not to hurt people that it is to find personal happiness.

  • Manipulation

    There is lots of manipulation going on in Ethan Frome. The more desperate the characters become, the more they try to manipulate each other. Often, it's not clear exactly who is manipulating whom, and perhaps even more importantly, what they hope to gain. This is a particularly ugly aspect of the novel, and works with the theme repression. Because the main characters are so repressed in almost every area of their lives, they often fall back on manipulation as a substitute for more direct forms of communication. Zeena, Ethan's wife, is the main embodiment of manipulation, and she uses her health. Her health changes and can be good or bad seemingly depending on her needs at a given moment. But, as Ethan and Mattie Silver fall in love and try to hide it, they also fall into acts of manipulation of both themselves and others.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. Does Ethan manipulate Mattie? If so, how, when, and why? Does Mattie manipulate Ethan?
    2. Does Zeena use her health to manipulate others? If so, how?
    3. What about the narrator? Does he use manipulative techniques to get information about Ethan? If so, give an example. If not, what techniques does he use?

    Chew on This

    Because Ethan feels he can't openly ask Mattie how she feels about him, he tries to manipulate her into telling him.

    Zeena uses manipulation because she feels powerless to express herself in other ways.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Unfortunately, in Ethan Frome, freedom is always just out of reach. Isolated from technology, the inhabitants of Starkfield, Massachusetts, can barely make enough to stay alive, much less leave, or seek out an education. Their poverty is so extreme, and their winters so mean that the characters lose their dreams in the struggle to stay alive. Some of the characters, Ethan's mother for example, are driven insane by the extreme isolation. Yet, there is always the sense that if they had only made different choices the characters could have achieved the freedom they desired. During the doomed love affair presented in this novella, there is a sense of trying to push out from under the situation. Even though it isn't realized, the possibility of escape turns this piece into a cautionary tale, warning us to do whatever it takes to reach freedom. Furthermore, it holds up repression as a great enemy, and examines how people can be repressed by love, duty, circumstances, lack of education, and even by the natural world.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Does his appreciation natural beauty provide Ethan with a sense of freedom, even though he seems to be permanently trapped in Starkfield?
    2. What is the number one thing that has Ethan trapped?
    3. In what ways does isolation contribute to the extreme sense of confinement experienced by the characters? What are some ways in which the characters are isolated? In the end, are Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie equally isolated?
    4. Is silence shown as oppressive in the novel?
    5. Is Starkfield repressed? If so, how? Socially? Economically? Morally?
    6. Does the novella define freedom? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    At the end of the novella, though Ethan is stuck in a small space with Mattie and Zeena, he is isolated from them. His desire for human companionship has been turned against him.

    Ethan's desire to escape Starkfield is repressed by his overdeveloped sense of responsibility for the happiness of others.

    The beautiful description of nature in the novella creates hope for an ultimate freedom for the characters in Ethan Frome, though maybe only in death.