Ethan Frome - Edith Wharton

If I were to review this novel using one word, I would say "bleak". After the last novel I read, I wanted to read something a little more uplifting. I picked up Ethan Frome - my first Edith Wharton - thinking it was probably a love story that would leave me smiling. Well, it was a love story, but it is one of the saddest love stories I have read in quite awhile. It's a very beautiful novel, but also incredibly heartbreaking. Since the novel is told in flashback form, the reader knows from the start Wharton does not offer a happy ending. Because of this device each page seems a little heavier, ultimately delivering a deep and emotional punch.

This is a novel about tragic longing and reckless passion. For me, what stood out the most in Wharton's work (besides the beautifully tragic ending) was her winter imagery. She writes of winter in a way that actually makes me yearn for snow, but look forward to Spring:
But at sunset the clouds gathered again, bringing an earlier night, and the snow began to fall straight and steadily from a sky without wind, in a soft universal diffusion more confusing than the gusts and eddies of the morning. It seemed to be a part of the thickening darkness, to be the winter night itself descending on us layer by layer.
The frozen, sparse landscape mirrors the state of Ethan's heart and also works to create a sense of oppressiveness throughout the novel, an oppressiveness that effects each character in the novel: 
He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface.
I really enjoyed this novel. Wharton is a fantastic writer and I look forward to reading more of her work. 

Publisher: Scribner, 1911


  1. I love Wharton...though she is not known for happy endings...my favorite is House of Mirth and then there's The Buccaneers which she was working on when she died. Can you believe I've never read Ethan Fromme??? I have it on the shelf ready to go this weekend! :)

  2. I've read The House of Mirth and it absolutely killed me -- I was soooo sad at the end of it, but I loved every part of the story. There's just something about her writing and you truly get sucked into it -- The House of Mirth is fabulous, and I need to read The Buccaneers and The Age of Innocence as well!

  3. Heh, I associate Edith Wharton with bleak. I've never read anything she wrote that was happy...

  4. Peppermint, It sounds like I need to pick up more Wharton! Give Ethan Frome a shot. I think you'll really like it.

    Coffee, I need to prepare myself before House of Mirth, if it's anywhere near as sad as Ethan Frome.

    Amanda, That's what I've been hearing...

  5. I adore Wharton. Her writing, while bleak, is so beautifully crafted. Every word has a purpose and an emotion and that is what makes her work so wonderful.

    I'm glad you enjoyed this one. Her short stories are also wonderful if you get a chance to read some!

  6. Beautiful review! I have never read any of Wharton' works and this book while being somewhat sad sounds quite lovely.

  7. Yes, bleak is certainly the right word. But like you I also found it beautiful. I really need to read more Wharton.

  8. I'm really looking forward to read Wharton. As phallocratic as I am, I have hard time appreciating a female pen, but a lot of my favorite writers love Wharton. I didn't know where to start, but I'm going with Ethan Frome. Thanks Brenna!

  9. I read this in sophomore year in high school. And the most vivid recollection I have of it is my english teacher letting us know Wharton meant by a meal of pickles and doughnuts...and how the whole story is about sexual repression and domination.

  10. This is such a great book. I loved The Age of Innocence too and The House of Mirth has been high on my list for awhile. I think you nailed the perfect word to descrobe it... bleak.

  11. The first time I read Ethan Frome was senior year in high school, and it is one of the most memorable books I've ever read. I just listened to it recently, and loved revisiting it with a different perspective.

  12. I read Ethan Frome this past January... certainly brought home the winter chill. The novel is incredibly dark, but like you, I adore Wharton's eloquence, so much so that it's difficult to warn others of it's depressive nature. I almost picked up Age of Innocence at a used book store the other afternoon, but refrained. I'll certainly look into more of her work after reading your review. P.S. How do you finish novels so quickly? Any secrets? :)

  13. Well, if you want to really read "bleak" read Thomas Hardy or Cormac McCarthy. Having said that though, I do agree that Wharton is bleak. She is a 'naturalist' and largely of the same school that gave us Hardy. Fate is important, regardless of what the protagonist might think or do. In other words, "Shit happens" and even to good people.

    Wharton is an amazing author, and I personally consider her one of America's greatest authors. The first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921 for The Age of Innocence. Ethan Frome is ever so painful to read, but ever so beautiful at the same time.

    Read Hermione Lee's biography of Wharton and you'll begin to ferret out the rationale behind many of her novels and short stories. What a woman, what a woman.

    Wonderful review, Brenna! Keep 'em coming! Cheers! Chris

  14. A new one for me! Thanks for this review.

  15. Allie, You're right her writing is beautiful. Bleak, but really beautiful.

    Vaishnavi, You should check it out!

    Nymeth, Me too!

    Ben, It was my first too. I think it's a good one to start with.

    Lecia, Interesting.... I'm not sure I got that reading but I suppose if I looked for it.

    Avid Reader, I think I'll have to read one of those soon. She's great.

    Shelley, I hadn't heard of it until reading about it in the blogging community. I wish I could have read it in highschool.

    Beth, No secrets! My version of this book was only 150 pages so it didn't take me too long. It also helps that I don't have a husband and kids or a family to take care of, just me. I've got a lot of "me time" on my hands :)

    Christopher, I think I'll have to read The Age of Innocence next. I didn't realize she won the Pulitzer for it.

    Mystica, You'r welcome!

  16. She did write one novel with a happy ending. I was going to include the title but I was afraid that would be a spoiler! And her short stories often have an ironic twist, but I'm not sure if they'd be considered happy.

  17. how did i not notice you read this too? seems to be "ethan frome" month on the internets, or something. i loved the winter imagery too...wharton is one of the writers whose style just leaves me speechless. (that the only way i could think of saying what i wanted to say was by using a cliche is probably a sign that i won't have the same effect on my future imaginary readers.) i think she's going to be my big writer for this winter, because after the age of innocence & ethan frome i'm really excited to read house of mirth. i hope you'll be hitting some more wharton soon so i can compare notes!