Ethan Frome Summary
Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel Ethan Frome is set in the fictional New England town of Starkfield, where the narrator encounters the title character. Ethan Frome is a man with a mysterious past. Much of the story is told in terms of flashback, as the narrator and Ethan must take shelter for the night from a winter storm.
The novel switches to the past, where Ethan is waiting for his wife’s cousin, Mattie Silver. Ethan is secretly in love with the girl, and there is some mutual attraction, but Ethan’s sickly and shrewish wife, Zeena is suspicious. When Zeena leaves town, Ethan and Mattie dance around their feelings, without ever verbalizing them. Zeena returns and threatens to dismiss Mattie and hire another servant girl. The constant presence of others inhibits Ethan from revealing his true feelings. Ethan then hatches a secret plan to get money and elope with Mattie. On their way to the train station, Ethan takes Mattie sledding, who suggests that Ethan drive the sled into a tree in a suicide pact.
The novel then jumps forward to the present, and the narrator arrives at the Frome house, where he is introduced to two elderly women, Ethan’s wife Zeena and the paralyzed Mattie. Mattie has lived with Ethan and Zeena ever since the accident, and the bright young girl has become an embittered old spinster, revealing that all three are trapped in a living hell.