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Ethan Frome

By Edith Wharton (8)

Edith Wharton’s bleak New England novel, Ethan Frome, is the story of dreams blighted. When the narrator arrives at Starkfield, he meets a wreck of a man who, over twenty years earlier, had been badly injured, and his woeful tale is told in flashback. Married to his ailing wife, Zeena, Ethan falls in love with her cousin Mattie, who has come to help around the house. Ethan’s plans to declare his love are continually foiled; even when Zeena is away, circumstances thwart his directive, yet Ethan senses that Mattie returns his love. When Zeena decides to send Mattie away, and hire another woman to manage the housework, Ethan grows desperate. Driving Mattie to the station, the unhappy pair pause at a hill where they once meant to go sledding, and Mattie suggests a suicide pact to end their misery. Ethan agrees to aim the sled for a tree, but the accident, short of killing them, causes serious injury. Zeena now assumes the role of caretaker, and Mattie’s embittered disposition is the final ironic result of the failed pact. Wharton's chilling depiction of the rural tragedy, with everlasting repercussions, was inspired by an actual account of a similar accident, and remains one of her most famous pieces of work.

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