Places: Ethan Frome

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1911

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedStarkfield

Starkfield. Ethan FromeFictional village in the hills of western Massachusetts’s Berkshire County, where Wharton herself lived for many years. Small and rural, Starkfield lives up to its harsh name. Though connected by trolley to the larger town of Bettsbridge–which has libraries and theaters–Starkfield is isolated and lonely during the long New England winters. The village has a post office and a Congregational church. It also has one mansion, Lawyer Varnum’s house, in which the narrator boards during his enforced residency in the community. The narrator refers to the “deadness” of the community only two pages after describing Ethan Frome as looking dead.

Ethan lives outside Starkfield on his own infertile farm, where he ekes out a meager living by the force of his labor in the fields and in the sawmill that he has inherited from his father. Ethan is the embodiment of the landscape, an “incarnation” of its frozen woes. Even as Wharton describes the loneliness and the accumulated cold of the hard, lean winters in the Berkshire Hills, she is also describing her protagonist. His life is as harsh as the climate, and his world as desolate as the village in winter.

Frome farm

Frome farm. Ethan’s farm outside Starkfield, with a lonely New England farmhouse that seems to make the landscape even lonelier. Its starving apple trees grow out of a hillside on which slate is more visible than cleared fields. The ugly house is made of thin wooden walls in need of paint. It is smaller than it was in Ethan’s father’s time because Ethan has removed the “L,” which the narrator describes as the center or “hearthstone” of the New England farm. This suggests to readers how Ethan’s life has narrowed, while the narrator sees in the “diminished dwelling” an image of Ethan’s “shrunken body.” The barren land reflects Ethan and his wife Zeena’s childless marriage, and his unsuccessful sawmill serves as a reminder of Ethan’s inability to get ahead.

The farmhouse is homelike only on the night that Zeena is absent. When Mattie decorates the table with Zeena’s treasured red glass pickle dish, a wedding gift that Zeena herself refuses to use even for guests, Mattie transforms the drab house with that single little bit of color. When she and Ethan share their evening meal free of the misery caused by the whining Zeena, they briefly experience warmth and conversation that contrasts tragically with their normally cold, silent meals.

Ethan’s property also includes a graveyard, which serves as a focal point for all the novel’s images of death. A dead cucumber-vine dangles from the porch like a crepe streamer tied to a door for mourning. Other farmhouses dot the landscape like gravestones; the graves of Ethan’s ancestors mock any momentary desire for happiness. Indeed, there is even one headstone with the name Ethan Frome–the ancestor for whom the protagonist was named–that serves as a silent reminder of the death in life that pervades the novel.

School House Hill

School House Hill. Hill overlooking Starkfield that is the location of the climactic scene of the novel. The hill is also the site of sledding parties and moonlight kisses, but its hint of happiness and romance is always tempered by a dangerous curve at its base, where one mistake can mean serious injury or death. Here in the black and silent shadow of tall spruce trees that give Ethan and Mattie the feeling of being in “coffins underground,” the two make the suicide pact that leads to the bleak and bitter ending in which there is little difference between the Fromes on the farm and the Fromes in the graveyard.

Bettsbridge

Bettsbridge. Sounding like a combination of the names “Berkshire,” “Pittsfield,” and “Stockbridge”–all actual names from the western Massachusetts region, Bettsbridge is the fictional city that Zeena goes to when she feels the need to see another medical specialist. She also refers to visiting Springfield, a real city in central Massachusetts, where she consults doctors whose recommendations invariably require expenditures that further stretch the Fromes’ insufficient income.

*Worcester

*Worcester (WEW-ster). City in the east-central portion of Massachusetts where Ethan attends college (perhaps Worcester Polytechnic Institute) and studies engineering. This site represents Ethan’s lost opportunity. Now only a reminder of what Ethan wants out of life–intellectual stimulation and freedom to see the world–the memory of his life in the city provides a bitter contrast to his impoverished existence on the hardscrabble farm.

BibliographyAuchincloss, Louis. Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Novelists. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965. A general discussion of influential female American writers that includes a section on Wharton.Bloom, Harold, ed. Edith Wharton. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of critical essays on the body of Wharton’s work. Ethan Frome is addressed in the essay “Ethan Frome: This Vision of His Story,” by Cynthia Griffin Wolff, which includes an in-depth discussion of the role of the narrator. Wolff implies that the narrator as character is on an equal footing with the other main characters and that the narrator’s “vision” is a manipulation of reality and must be questioned.Howe, Irving, ed. Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1962. Two of the essays deal directly with Ethan Frome. Blake Nevius’ “On Ethan Frome” disputes previous positive interpretations and posits the idea that the work demonstrates a “despair arising from the contemplation of spiritual waste.” Lionel Trilling’s influential essay “The Morality of Inertia” takes the position that Ethan makes no moral decision, paralyzed by inaction, and that this type of “inertia” characterizes a large part of humanity. Both essays are valuable in terms of understanding the traditional critical perspectives on this work.Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Excellent presentation of Wharton’s life. Offers a relationship between the novel and Wharton’s divorce from her husband Teddy.McDowell, Margaret B. Edith Wharton. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A succinct overview of Wharton’s work, including a section called “The Harsh Artistry of Ethan Frome.”Nevius, Blake. Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953. Fixes the novel in the main tradition of Mrs. Wharton’s fiction.Trilling, Lionel. “The Morality of Inertia.” Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Irving Howe. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Trilling caused a major controversy in the study of Ethan Frome. Holds that Ethan is weak, and the novel only demonstrates the suffering he endures.Waid, Candace. Edith Wharton’s Letters from the Underworld: Fictions of Women and Writing. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. A distinctively modern approach to Wharton utilizing the terminology and premises of postmodernist literary criticism. Chapter 2 analyzes Ethan Frome in terms of the themes of barrenness and infertility inherent in Wharton’s images.Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964. Wharton’s autobiography, an important work for understanding the author and the main events surrounding her works. Written in a comfortable, reminiscent style.Wharton, Edith. Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome”: The Story, with Sources and Commentary. Edited by Blake Nevius. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968. Text of the story with critical commentary that presents opposing views along with clarifications of Wharton’s sources (an actual sledding accident).Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Wolff offers a psychological study of Wharton and the novel.
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