Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is unique in that it doesn’t deal with Wharton’s typical setting. The characters in the book are not wealthy; the eponymous main character, Ethan Frome, is a farmer who has a sick wife at home. His wife’s cousin, Mattie, has been staying with the Frome’s to help take care of Zeena, the wife. Ethan has developed feelings for Mattie but both are unable to act on them. Ethan grabs for any chance of time spent alone with her, leading to a situation where Zeena suspects and learns of her husbands feeling for her cousin.

The novel deals with themes of love, regret, suffering, pain, and duty. On one hand, Frome has a duty to his sick wife – to take care of her and ease her suffering. One character notes as such, commending him for taking care of his wife in her time of need, and his own parents before that. His duty is at loggerheads with his heart, which yearns for Mattie. He hopes for time alone with her and reacts negatively when his wife wishes to send her away.

His love for her directly leads to the ending of the novel, which deals with the theme of making a decision and living with it, irrespective of want or desire. Ethan and Mattie make a decision which leads to an irrevocable change in both of their lives – one that, almost by necessity, forces them to be together for all time.

Unlike her contemporary, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of Herland, a utopic novel, Wharton goes in the other direction. Instead of portraying a utopic situation, she has it devolve into the worst of all worlds; the characters get what they want in the worst way.

If you want to do a deep dive into the text, the Norton Critical Edition is ideal. You can also enjoy a 1993 film adaptation here.