Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

‘The Cart, Snow Covered Road at Honfleur’ by Claude Monet

In a year when many are commemorating Dicken’s for his 200th year anniversary, I was prompted by a Dovegreyreader post to do the same for Edith Wharton, in homage to 150 years since her birth on 24th January 1862. A perfect winter read, this slim volume with its enticing cover featuring Claude Monet’s painting was confirmed as my choice when I spotted it in Book in Bar’s annual 50% sale.

Sainte Claire du Vieux Château

So I am making it an ‘Edith Wharton’ year which seems appropriate for many reasons, she is a woman after all, she left her country of birth and came to France which interests me (and I have just learned she had a house here in the south of France at Ste. Claire du Vieux Château) and lastly due to the timely association between Wharton’s novels and the popular Downton Abbey series, which prompted an interesting article in the NY Times discussing the era of wealthy American heiresses marrying into the English aristocracy to save them from financial ruin, some of whom are said to have been associated with Edith Wharton.

‘Ethan Frome’ is narrated by a short stay passer-by in Starkfield whom Frome transports to his place of work during heavy snows and is subsequently invited to seek refuge from a blizzard one evening in his home, an abode no one has entered or been invited to for many years. Upon hearing of his invitation, one of the villagers curious to learn more from the visitor, opens up and reveals much of the story of Ethan’s past to him.

Thus we hear how three people’s lives were paralysed by past events, simple lives complicated by forbidden love and a desperate act. It is a story of its time, an era when people of certain classes were restrained in their behaviours, though not in the intensity of their feelings, endeavouring to suppress them for the sake of saving face or fortune.

I found it interesting how Wharton portrayed the angst of the young would be lovers, drawing the reader into sympathising with them, while portraying Ethan’s wife Zeena in a shifty, calculating way, when she would have been reacting to her natural instinct to want to separate the two. Perhaps in another version of the story it may have been possible to sympathise with Zeena had her perspective been portrayed, it is easy to be lured and swayed by a writer’s deceptive tools when there is more emphasis on one side of a story or on certain characters. I also found it interesting that she decided to portray a husband suffering for having fallen in love with another woman, rather than that of a woman who falls for another man.

I can imagine reading this again, I enjoyed the writing and Wharton’s use of metaphor to depict the landscape and the barren living conditions and I look forward to reading another of her works soon.

So, do you have an Edith Wharton favourite? Have you read any of her books?

30 thoughts on “Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

  1. Wonderful review. I have yet to read any Edith Wharton books, this one sounds very interesting though. Thanks for the review Claire.


    • I agree with Beverly. Ethan Frome is my favorite (though I can only recall The Age of Innocence in addition) and Liam Neeson was outstanding in the excellent film version of this short and nearly perfect novella.

      This is on my list of all-time favorites.


  2. I’ve not, and it’s nice to have someone suggest doing so! *marks this on my list*

    My favourite novel is Labyrinth, by an author who has also made the trek from England to the south of France.


    • Oohh, I read that in the days before I discovered blogging, and then took a summer holiday near Beziers and stole a daytrip to Carcassone with images from that book infesting my brain, it was a bit of a shock to see the amazing Carcassone with contemporary citizens walking about and invaded by shops and restaurants, but those mental images survived the visit. I still have Chartres in my sites for a visit to see the real Labyrinth.

      Are you up for making pilgrimages then Nelle?


      • I’m in no position to, unfortunately, but I have wandered some of this country and Canada in the past.

        Ignorant of what happened in the south of France during the 13th century, when I read Kate’s work I was stunned, and it sent me scurrying for information. (I also very much liked Sepulchre, and my anticipation was such that I ordered it from Amazon UK on first release, rather than wait the 7 months before its US release. This had the dual benefit of being in British English, my preference.)

        Anyway, what happened in Beziers in 1209… Alâis was a larger than life character, much like Dinah in the Red Tent, and she stayed in my head long after I’d read the novel.


    • It appealed to me, perhaps helped by the fact that I didn’t have any preconceptions about it, just a curiosity to discover another new/old voice and a writer who seems to have had an interesting life journey.


  3. Hi Claire,

    I so enjoyed your review of Ethan Frome! Some years ago, I became fascinated with Edith Wharton after visiting her home The Mount in
    Lenox, MA. I began reading many of her books and Ethan Frome was
    one of them. Somehow Wharton’s language was as spare and
    elemental as the world she was describing — and so different from
    her witty, elevated tone in The House of Mirth, my favorite of her
    books that I’ve read. Lily Bart seems so real and her situation almost
    modern in the tangled web that money and lack of it can weave.

    I love your site and I’ll visit again — you’ve reviewed many books that
    I’ve been thinking of reading.

    Write on,


    • Thank you Karin, I just discovered I can download the collection very easily, though I do like to read the book version, but to have access to so much of her work, makes much possible. I think I will begin ‘The House of Mirth’ next.

      Thanks again for visiting, happy reading.


  4. I’m sure I’ll be reading this one eventually – when I have finished with the three Wharton I currently have TBR and the dozens of other books that await me.
    Thanks for the review


  5. I absolutely loved The Age of Innocence, but I’m one of those people who was underwhelmed by Ethan Frome. It seemed too melo-dramatic for me, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t sympathize with any of the characters. I’m amazed that the same person wrote those two books.


    • I’ve yet to read her more socially extrovert novels, if that’s an appropriate label, but I do find it interesting that she wrote ‘Ethan Frome’ in the early days of her moving to Paris and in a period where she was contemplating leaving her own husband. One of the reasons I pondered her creating a male protagonist with a dilemna. Just a theory, but there is no European influence and certainly no optimism or frivolty in her writing during this period. I’m looking forward to spring and the thaw in relation to her writing.


  6. I love Wharton. She’s my second wife if such a thing is permitted. My personal favorite is The Custom of the Country, simply exceptional. Question: does the engineer/narrator of Frome strike you as a little too poetically and narratively gifted? I’ve always felt that Wharton did a poor job of ventriloquizing her scientifically-inclined observer. Cheers, K


    • He was a convenient passer by and we really know little about him so Wharton was able to gift him with whatever voice she chose, he has no background or history and no relationship really to any of the characters, a kind of an oddity really. I think choosing him as the narrator is possibly one of the weaknesses in the book, a more involved character might have given us a very different perspective.

      I’m looking forward to reading ‘Custom of the Country’ it was recommended to me when I asked another Wharton fan about the European influence in her writing.


  7. I read Ethan Frome in high school. Thanks for the reminder to find a copy and reread it. At the time, I think I was dismissive of the atmosphere and events. But, echoes of that world linger in my subconscious, so it would be a must reread.


    • It will be interesting to see how you find it rereading at your leisure, I imagine it was not much of an escape to read as a teenager and prescribed reading often presents challenges that don’t exist when we read for joy or curiosity, even when warned we may find the contents hardgoing. I am happy to have read this volume first, it being somewhat different to Wharton’s other works.


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  12. Just spotted your review of this one (from the link in your ‘Summer Book’ post)! Ethan Frome is such a brilliant little novella and reading your review makes me want to revisit it, You make a very interesting point about how Wharton draws us into sympathizing with the lovers. My loyalties were very much with Ethan and Mattie.

    A wonderful review of a great book.


    • I just spotted it on my shelf this morning and thought the same thing (that I should reread it), partly because I read it after reading a review of it as a reread, I discovered that there are a whole host of readers, who pick this volume up every winter and reread it, there are things to discover and rediscover within its slim binding apparently! 🙂


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