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NA203712 - WHARTON: Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton



In 1911, two years before Edith Wharton finally divorced her husband, Ethan Frome was published. The story of Ethan Frome explores the crippling marriage of a young man to an older woman and his love for her vibrant young cousin, Mattie, who lives as a dependent in the Frome household.


Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born into the wealthy, privileged and

sophisticated world of New York society of the late 19th century, and after a private education and the grand European tour, she married at the age of twenty-three. Her husband, who was a friend of one of Edith’s brothers, was 13 years older than her, and in no sense her intellectual or emotional equal. Much like Ethan Frome’s wife, Zenobia, whose age and manipulative hypochondria oppress Ethan, the man Edith Wharton married was petulant, often ill, and rendered her life one of loveless duty.


In 1907, on one of her many visits to Europe, Wharton met Morton Fullerton, an American journalist working in Paris, and for the only time in her unhappy marriage she was adulterous. She began a passionate affair with Fullerton, which was to last two years. Much of the sensitivity with which she portrays the natural, unspoken intimacy between Ethan and Mattie, and the awakening emotions and sense of joy and excitement in Ethan, perhaps derive their vividness from Wharton’s own, intensely-felt experience at this time. When this tragic story was published, as a prelude to divorce two years later, Edith Wharton was separating from her husband, Teddy; but in Ethan Frome she seems to have integrated the raw experiences of her own life

at this time to create a powerful tale of the tragic destruction of innocent love-written in a stark, compressed and unified form.


The novel is set deep in the remote countryside of Massachusetts, New

England, in a world of small-town prejudice, pettiness and rural poverty.

Edith Wharton knew and loved this world and her unobtrusive but telling use of the details of poverty, and its limitations, reflects an intimacy and sympathy for the lives of her less-fortunate neighbors. She, herself, after her marriage had bought a large house, The Mount, in the Massachusetts countryside which was her retreat and where she wrote many of her works. Her evocation of the bleak winter scenes is a powerful counterbalance to the warmth and vividness with which she portrays Ethan and Mattie.


Unlike many of her other novels, such as The Age of Innocence and The

Buccaneers, which explore the upper classes of New York society, Ethan Frome is, even in its material, ‘subdued’; nevertheless it possesses a unity of form and a deceptive simplicity which make the work memorable. A measure of its poise and tightness of structure is the difficulty with which any seemingly casual detail can be excised from the plot without disturbing the development of the story.


Over time the book has naturally gained the reputation of being her best work.


Notes by Sonia Davenport.




Though American by birth, William Hope trained at RADA in London. He has appeared in theater on both sides of the Atlantic throughout his career. His television and film work have been similarly extensive, and has included roles in Aliens (Gorman) and The Lords of Discipline. A former member of the BBC Radio Drama Company, he is regularly heard on radio in both plays and books.


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