Book 250: Ethan Frome

My students are given the opportunity to blog about the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die for extra credit. The following is an extra credit post received by Myra (Katie) White, who is a second year student at BCTC–Leestown Campus and is studying Medical Assisting.

Ethan Frome…love, betrayal, an extramarital affair, a horrible accident!  Scandalous!  I signed up for the rest of the book.  Set in the fictional town of Starkfield, Massachusetts during a long winter.  We are introduced to Ethan by a newcomer and unnamed narrator to the town who seeks to understand the mountain of a man most people in the town never refer to without mentioning “the accident”.  The newcomer soon finds himself intrigued with Ethan and begins a friendship, if it can be called that, with him due to a lack of transportation to his job in a neighboring town.  While plodding along in the high snow the tries to converse with Ethan, but he is a man of few words, so the information must come from others in the town.

Through the gossipmongers, we learn that Ethan was once a young and robust young man who went to further his education out of state, where he wished to learn more about mechanics.  Upon learning of his mother’s illness, and with his father already deceased, he returns home to help care for her. A distant cousin of his mother’s is also sent to help care for her.  Zenobia (Zeena), who is seven years older than Ethan appears to be of good health and decent company, so after his mother’s death, Ethan decides to marry Zeena so as to not be alone.  But soon after their marriage Zeena takes ill, with no obvious notations, we’re to assume she is a hypochondriac.  Though she and Ethan had discussed moving to a big city, Zeena’s illness coupled with their lack of financial backing, Ethan soon learns moving will not be an option.  Instead of moving, they actually need someone to come to help tend to the household chores as Zeena is no longer able to because of her illness.

Mattie Silver, an orphan cousin of Zeena’s is sent to help. Young and full of life, she catches Ethan’s eye as he is so downtrodden with life, she must seem like a ray of sunshine, especially with the red ribbon she often wears in her hair. He thinks of her often and kind of dreams of her and the life they could have. Zeena never says anything about the air of romance between the two, but she simple does small childish things to lead them to wonder if she is aware of their feelings for each other. Like not putting the key to the door under that mat, so when they arrive home after Ethan picked Mattie up from a dance, they are left in the cold until Zeena decides to come unlock the door, claiming she forgot to put the key under the mat.

Around this time Zeena begins to tell Ethan they need to come up with an alternate plan because Mattie’s been there too long and she’s sure she’s going to marry soon and move out.  Ethan is devastated and begins thinking of ways to keep Mattie there.  During Zeena’s trip out of town for medical advice, Ethan and Mattie find themselves alone.  The infamous pickle dish, a wedding gift from a distant cousin that Zeena never used, even for special guest, is broken during the evening meal and Mattie is sure that Zeena will send her packing when she discovers the broken dish. It seems as though the pickle dish is representative of Zeena and her invisible presence, something that Mattie and Ethan feel at all times. A conspiracy is set in place when Ethan sets the dish back in the cupboard and tells Mattie he will get glue and glue it back together so no one will be the wiser.

Most of the next day is Ethan scrambling to figure out a way to keep Mattie but do the right thing by Zeena. He searched through town to find glue for the pickle dish, but upon his return home Mattie tells him that Zeena’s has returned from her overnight trip and the climax of the story begins. She tells Ethan that the Dr. has told her she must get someone to help her and she has even hired someone to come, they will be there the next day and she has set up a plan for Mattie’s trunk to be moved and someone to take her to the train station. Zeena tells Ethan that she lost her health because of caring for his mother, so it will be his responsibility to figure out how to pay for the new “nurse”. Zeena soon discovers the pickle dish, while searching for hidden medicine and wants to know what happened. Mattie finally confesses that she had used the dish and Zeena uses this as more ammunition to show Ethan that she has to leave.

Going to his “study” that night Ethan remembers all the plans he had for his life and thinks of leaving Zeena.  Maybe he could get an advance on the lumber he has delivered to the mill and he and Mattie can go out west and begin a new life!  Zeena could sell the farm and live off the proceeds!  Ethan even begins a letter to Zeena about him leaving and how she can sell the farm, etc. but he crumbles it in his hand as he realizes, this would just be a dream.  That there would be no profit on the farm and Zeena would have no means to survive. A man of good morals, but a passive man, Ethan knows that in staying in Starkfield he is going to lose Mattie.

The plan for Mattie’s trunk to be sent along takes place and Ethan tells Zeena he will take Mattie to the train station. With heavy hearts, Ethan and Mattie start for the train station. They remember they had always planned to go sledding, but never had, so a quick trip down the hill is called for.  Sitting with Mattie in front of him, and Ethan sitting behind her, the two realize they cannot live apart, their love is too strong.  The danger of sledding and hitting the infamous elm tree at the bottom of the hill enters the picture and a suicide pact is discussed.  If they die together they will never have to be apart.  A few stolen kisses later, with Ethan in the front, they soar down the hill.

The following scene shows the newcomer/narrator being forced to spend the night at Ethan’s home as the weather is too bad to travel in. There we find two aging women, Zeena who is fixing a meal and tending to the household duties, while Mattie sits in a chair, paralyzed. It seems as though things have come full circle.  Zeena now has to care for Mattie, as Mattie once did for her. And Ethan is doomed to a life of unhappiness, living with the woman he loves from afar, and the woman he is supposed to love, his wife. It becomes apparent to the visitor why Ethan is viewed the way he is. A victim of circumstances, Ethan, lacked the real emotional strength and the ability to make a decision has forced him to live a life as a disfigured man. Some wonder if Zeena takes a sick pleasure in caring for them, as she knows they were trying for a quick death to escape her. And we wonder if Mattie still feels undying love for Ethan. As the three begin their meal with their guest, we are left to wonder how long the three can live together, how long the can endure the tension that has filled the house for years and the stark, white winters than can only be seen as the background that is Ethan Frome’s life.

Thanks, Katie, for sharing this book with us. Happy Reading!


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1 Comment

Filed under 1001 Books, Guest Bloggers

One response to “Book 250: Ethan Frome

  1. Kim

    This book fueled a reading binge of Edith Wharton for me. I was looking for something to fill the void after I had read everything from Jane Austen. Wharton’s short stories are amazing! Her books are so powerful that she wrote the first book that made me skip to skip the end: Custom of the Country. Only one other book ever did that to me: Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Thanks for reminding me of this book!

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