Ethan Frome – Review

“Sickness and trouble that’s what Ethan’s has his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping.”

The book introduces us to Ethan Frome, an aged man with a noticeable limp and a very quiet and melancholy disposition. Just like the narrator wonders, who is this man and how did he end up this way? The narrator inquires from a local, Harmon Gow who says:

“When a man’s been setting round like a hulk for twenty years or more, seeing things that want doing, it eats inter him, and he loses his grit.”

The book opens in the present but flashes back over twenty years for us to become acquainted with Ethan and how he loses his grit, how sickness and trouble seem to be the only thing Ethan’s encountered in his lifetime.

“He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. 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.”

When Ethan returned home to care for his parents and the family farm after his father’s accident, and then his sick mother, Zeena, his cousin, is a constant support and companion. Zeena seemed to know exactly what to do and she understood Ethan’s feelings. Ethan, no doubt with relief, listened and followed her direction. It seems natural that the two of them fell into an easiness and understanding, especially under shared grief.

Ethan’s aspirations to be an engineer and move with his new wife, Zeena away from the family farm and after selling it aren’t realized. No prospects of potential buyers seem to come forward and after a year of marriage, Zeena develops an ‘illness’ of her own, which Wharton leads you to believe is imagined.

The winter setting of Ethan Frome creates a coldness felt in the relationship between Ethan and his wife Zeena but also Ethan’s plight.  He seemed frozen in place with no opportunity for much happiness since his wife is a hypochondriac and he probably wouldn’t have ended up back home on his parents farm in Massachusetts if his parents had not fallen sick.

This short novel packs a frigid little punch an left me completely in awe of Wharton’s ability as a writer. She created an empathy for Ethan because you couldn’t help but feel sorry for how his life turned out. It seems as if life thrust him into situations he may have NEVER had to deal *if* he had never come back home. I asked myself over and over what if? Would he have found true love with someone like Mattie or Zeena but less hypochondriac if he would have had the opportunity to stay at school and expand his horizons and his prospects? How might his and Zeena’s relationship been different if they would have sold the farm and moved to a bigger city, which Wharton implies Zeena was used to?

“It seemed to Ethan that his heart was bound with cords which an unseen hand was tightening with every tick of the clock.”

How does circumstances beyond our control, like the prolonged illness of family member(s), shape the choices and decisions we make?  Do we choose to find happiness despite them or like Ethan are we frozen in place because it seems there may be no other alternatives? Ethan’s situation was sad and seemingly unchangeable, until the end, when Wharton seems to reveal something else about Zeena and Mattie. Does Wharton try to impress upon the the reader that cultivating contentment in circumstances we find ourselves in, even disheartening ones (family illness) could be better than the alternative?

This book is a perfect winter read! Maybe I’ll read it next year in the winter since I picked it up on a whim during the summer. I purchased a copy of this Everyman’s Library edition so I could read more of Wharton’s work.

Do you have a favorite book by Edith Wharton? Have you read Ethan Frome, Summer or Bunner Sisters?

Published by booksbythecup

Lover of good books and tea

15 thoughts on “Ethan Frome – Review

  1. So lovely! You pick up the loveliest editions, and I know I’ve told you that already! I bought a very slim not-too-pretty copy of this book a couple years ago and I haven’t picked it up yet. I definitely need to. I actually think I haven’t read anything by Wharton because I also remember buying Summer but not reading it yet. On my list for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Bookstagram has influenced a lot of my pretty edition finds when it comes to books. 😊

      This was a book I decided to get since I’d read Wharton before and since it was short a quick summer read. But now I think I’m going to start picking books based on the seasons there set in because this seems like it would be the perfect book to read on a very cold snow day.

      Maybe we can read Summer in the summer as a buddy read?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve read both of those as well and am very impressed with Wharton’s writing, someone told me earlier she usually ends with something unexpected which I remember from The House of Mirth which I might read again too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I confess that this is the one book in high school English that I pretended to read. I think I was too young to appreciate it. After your review I want to read it again — especially since I have people in my life with chronic illness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had never heard of this book until looking online at other books by Wharton. I read this book months ago but it still has me thinking.

      I’d really be interested in your thoughts after you do read it. Have you found that books you “had” to read in school are different when you pick them up as an adult with more life experience and perspective?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: