Readers' Review: "Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton
Born into a life of wealth and privilege, American novelist Edith Wharton was known for her insider’s critiques of the upper class. But her 1911 novel, “Ethan Frome,” featured working-class characters who couldn’t have been more different from her usual subjects. The novel’s namesake is a poor farmer married to a domineering and sickly wife. When Ethan’s wife hires her young cousin as a housekeeper, Ethan falls hopelessly in love with her. The doomed romance set against a stark New England countryside became Wharton’s most widely-read novel. Join Diane and guests for a Readers’ Review of Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome.”
professor of English, Ursinus College; vice president, The Edith Wharton Society
president, PEN/Faulkner Foundation
professor of English, Georgetown University
When Edith Wharton's novel "Ethan Frome" was first published in 1911, reviews were largely negative. Critics called the story cruel and violent and sales of the novel were dismal. Today, Edith Wharton's haunting tale of forbidden romance in a rural New England town is her most widely-read novel.
An Unusual Novel For Wharton
This was an unusual novel for Wharton. Her first novels, like "The House Of Mirth," are novels of "manners" and New York high society, said Goldsmith. But while living in New England, Wharton observed a lot of poverty. When living in Lenox, she found this story. She heard a story of a sledding accident in which one woman was killed and two others were severely injured, and she decided to use it as a germ for this novel, Goldsmith said. Wharton wanted to reverse the stereotypes of New Englanders that other writers had been perpetuating, which were a creation of a kinder, gentler, sanitized New England.
Wharton was very wealthy - one of the wealthiest women in New York in the mid-19th century. Her family came from the family from whom the term "keeping up with the Joneses" was coined, Goldsmith said. "Money is involved in this novel all the time," Pfordrescher said.
Relationships In The Book
Though Ethan's wife, Zeena, is essentially the villan of the story, she is also a little sympathetic, Page said. She sees the affection and love that is blossoming between Ethan and Mattie, a young girl who is sent to live with them who has nowhere else to go. "There's a struggle for dominance in this claustrophobic impoverished New England farmhouse where the two women and man sit all day, struggling against each other," Prordrescher said.
Wharton's Own Struggles
Wharton felt trapped in her marriage, Goldsmith said. She had suffered a breakdown, as had her husband, Teddy. The anonymous narrator of the novel is presumably male, Pfordrescher said, and seems to see the story from a very male perspective. "It would seem to me that there's a bit of Edith Wharton in all of her major characters, that I can see her in some ways as like Zeena because she had an unfaithful husband. I can see her as perhaps yearning to be the Mattie who would be sort of adored," Pfordrescher said.
You can read the full transcript here.