Ethan is a young man from the fictional town of Starkfield–a symbolic name if ever one existed. He escapes the town to go to college and has dreams of becoming an engineer and living in a city. But then his father dies suddenly and his mother becomes seriously ill. So Ethan’s forced to give up his dream and return to the family farm.
After Ethan’s mother dies, he marries her caregiver, Zeena. Almost immediately it’s clear that the marriage is a dreadful idea. Zeena turns into a hypochondriac, Ethan is trapped, and their future together is bleak. Then Mattie Silver arrives. Mattie is Zeena’s cousin, come to help Zeena around the house. She’s young, charming, and beautiful. She and Ethan quickly fall in love. Mattie represents hope of a better life for Ethan, but…
The novel is narrated by an outsider, an engineer working temporarily in Starkfield. He’s stuck there over the winter and meets Ethan Frome by chance, ending up a guest in Ethan’s house one evening when they’re snowed in. We learn it’s 24 years since “the smash up.” The novel is the narrator’s discovery about the story of Ethan’s relationship with Zeena and Mattie before the smash up, and then a brief snapshot of their life since.
Wharton is exploring the idea of lives wasted and the tragedy for all three characters of being trapped into social, economic, and familial circumstances that are often beyond their control. The novel is filled with irony and Wharton’s typical satire. And having it narrated through flashbacks by an outsider adds layers of ambiguity that make this brief novel an intriguing read. It makes me want to reread her other novels now.