Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Personal or Social Tragedy? A Close Reading of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome

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The Lesson

Introduction

Edith Wharton at her writing desk.

Edith Wharton at her writing desk.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

…after all, the tragedy unveiled to us is social rather than personal… “Ethan Frome” is to me above all else a judgment on that system which fails to redeem such villages as Mrs. Wharton’s Starkfield.

—Literary critic and author Edwin Bjorkman

Readers of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome (1911) can hardly fail to be moved by the suffering of the title character. Ethan is, quite literally, a physical and emotional wreck. His misery captivates the narrator. Indeed, the whole body of the novel represents the narrator’s effort to reconstruct the tragic circumstances of Ethan’s life. Yet even as the story concludes, we are not quite sure what or who to blame for Ethan’s ruin. Was Ethan ruined by his personal problems (his loveless marriage) or by “the crushing, choking atmosphere” of his social environment? Had Ethan been able to express his love for Mattie, could he have lived happily in Starkfield?

This lesson will challenge students to weigh the textual evidence for and against the claim that Ethan’s woes lay in staying in Starkfield—and not in the details of his personal relationships. In the process, students will engage in a close reading of pre-selected passages from the novel, along with a few passages of their own choosing through at-home reading journals. These close reading exercises will culminate in an in-class debate and possibly the crafting of a short argumentative essay, in which students will have an opportunity to respond to Bjorkman’s thesis.

Guiding Questions

  • Is Ethan’s story a personal tragedy born of his indecision and personal failures, a social tragedy forecast by the oppressive New England setting, or both?

Learning Objectives

  • Situate Ethan Frome within the context of American regionalist literature
  • Gather, annotate, and analyze key quotations from Ethan Frome
  • Respond to contemporary reviews of Ethan Frome
  • Use textual evidence to support their own claims about the plight of the novel’s protagonist

Background

Who is responsible for Ethan’s ruin and misery? Ethan himself? Zeena? Fate? Starkfield? What would it have taken for Ethan to be happy? Marrying Mattie? Having more money? More courage? Better luck? Leaving town? Ever since the book’s publication, these questions have been central to the critical reception of Ethan Frome. The critic Edwin Bjorkman, for example, offered the following comment in a 1913 essay:

Glancing over the all too brief volume [Ethan Frome] in retrospect, I can find only one point where it suggests a certain degree of failure, of growth still unachieved…

As I read the book now, I come away with an impression that, in the author’s mind at least, the one thing needed to change Ethan’s life from a hell to a heaven would have been the full and free expression of his love for Matt.

Romantic love, as idealized for us by our forefathers, has long ago gone into bankruptcy. Had Zeena died and Matt married Ethan—well, it is my private belief that inside of a few years life on that farm would have been practically what it was before Matt arrived, with Matt playing the part of a Zeena II—different, of course, and yet the same. For the life in our Starkfields is cursed or saved not by this or that single incident, not by the presence or absence of this or that individual, the curse lies in staying there, in breathing the crushing, choking atmosphere of Starkfieldian sterility.

Bjorkman points to a fundamental ambiguity in Wharton’s narrative—is the oppression of the environment such that opportunities for personal growth are choked out? Is this a problem for the society as a whole, or is it, instead, simply a problem for Ethan and his family?

Wharton conception of Ethan Frome was motivated, in part, by her response to a previous generation of (mostly female) “New England fiction” writers, who wrote with some affection about the small communities tucked away in the New England landscape. What follows are Wharton’s own comments on the New England fiction of the late nineteenth century, and its influence on the writing of Ethan Frome:

I had known something of New England village life long before I made my home in the same county as my imaginary Starkfield; though, during the years spent there, certain of its aspects became much more familiar to me.

Even before that final initiation, however, I had had an uneasy sense that New England of fiction bore little—except a vague botanical and dialectical—resemblance to the harsh and beautiful land as I had seen it. Even the abundant enumeration of sweet-fern, asters, and mountain-laurel, and the conscientious reproduction of the vernacular, left me with the feeling that the outcropping granite had in both cases been overlooked. I give the impression merely as a personal one; it accounts for “Ethan Frome,” and may, to some readers, in a measure justify it.

—From Wharton’s Introduction to Ethan Frome

But the book to the making of which I brought the greatest joy and the fullest ease was “Ethan Frome.” For years I had wanted to draw life as it really was in the derelict mountain villages of New England, a life even in my time, and a thousandfold more a generation earlier, utterly unlike that seen through the rose-coloured spectacles of my predecessors, Mary Wilkins and Sarah Orne Jewett. In those days the snowbound villages of Western Massachusetts were still grim places, morally and physically: insanity, incest and slow mental and moral starvation were hidden away behind the paintless wooden house-fronts of the long village street, or in the isolates farm-houses on the neighbouring hills…

—From Wharton’s 1934 autobiography, A Backward Glance

These comments, along with the Bjorkman passage cited above, are all reproduced in the Ethan Frome: Sources handout. You may want to print and distribute that handout before beginning the lesson in preparation for the activities below.

Note that the generation of New England fiction that motivated Wharton was a subset of the much broader “local color” or “regionalist” movement in American literature, which flourished during the decades following the Civil War. An overview of the local color movement (its defining characteristics, techniques, and authors) is available on Prof. Donna Campbell’s American Literature site (via Internet Public Library). You may wish to copy and distribute this overview for use with Activity 1 below, or prepare to project it on a screen or otherwise share it with students.

Edith Wharton: A life in pictures and texts, via Internet Public Library, offers a biography of Wharton through pictures, and serves as a nice introduction to her life for students. The excellent exhibit, Edith Wharton’s World, at the EDSITEment-reviewed Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery website highlights Wharton’s associations with various great literary, cultural, and political figures of her era, including: William Dean Howells, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Theodore Roosevelt. The EDSITEment-reviewed website Scribbling Women also has a wonderful biography of Wharton (free registration required).

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Edith Wharton and (New England) Regional Literature

Begin by introducing the class to Edith Wharton’s life, using the resources discussed in the Background section above. Explain that Wharton follows a generation of mainly female authors who wrote about life in New England—authors who placed a heavy emphasis on the significance of the regional landscape, culture, mores, and dialect. Note that these authors belonged to a movement in nineteenth century American literature called “local color” or “regionalist” fiction.

Provide an overview of the local color movement, drawing from Prof. Donna Campbell’s American Literature site (see Background for more information, above). Review the list of “characteristics” and “techniques” associated with regional literature, and have students take note of the specifics for the following:

  • Dialect
  • Detailed description
  • Frame story
  • Setting
  • Characters
  • Narrator
  • Plots
  • Themes

As you go through this list, remind students that they will be keeping “reading journals” as they read Ethan Frome, and they should keep the above in mind as possible ways to respond to their reading selections (e.g., for one journal entry, students might focus on the narrator, or a specific theme, or the use of description in a chapter).

Note to students that Edith Wharton was in some ways critiquing some of the New England regionalist writers of the time. Read with the class Edith Wharton’s own comments on her New England regionalist predecessors, which can be found in the Ethan Frome: Sources PDF (a link is also available via the EDSITEment LaunchPad). Notice that despite the apparent affinities between Wharton and her predecessors, Wharton’s own motivation lay largely in repudiating the idealized portrayals of New England life characteristic of the regionalist genre.

Take note of the two authors whom Wharton explicitly accuses of viewing New England through “rose-coloured spectacles”: Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins (Freeman). If students in the class are familiar with the works of either Jewett or Freeman, ask them if Wharton’s complaint against Jewett and Freeman seems justified? Otherwise, encourage students to pay close attention to the qualities of regionalist literature as discussed above. Throughout their reading of Ethan Frome, they should keep in mind this question:

  • Based on the criteria discussed in class, to what extent is Ethan Frome consistent with the typical regionalist novel? To what extent does it break from the regionalist mold?

This question is an excellent one to return to at the conclusion of the novel.

Activity 2. Introducing Ethan

Turn to the introductory chapter of Ethan Frome and, if time allows, read it aloud with students (alternatively, have them read it the night before). As the class completes the chapter, help them closely review the chapter with the following questions in mind, pointing to specific passages in order to discern answers. The point of this exercise is both to introduce the novel as well as to demonstrate close reading skills that students show employ as they read the novel and consider ideas in their reading journals.

Review “who” is telling the story and how the narrator is getting his information. Ask students to describe the characters they are introduced to in the opening “frame” of the narrative. Invite the class to discuss the setting of Ethan Frome and its role in the overall construction of the novel.

  • Who is the narrator and where is he from?
  • Is it significant that the narrator is from out of town? Why or why not?
  • How does the narrator differ from those who supply him with information about Ethan Frome?
  • How is Starkfield depicted? What does its name suggest?
  • How does the narrator describes the town and its inhabitants? Is the tone celebratory, disdainful, or somewhere in between?

This exercise is partially to review the novel, but also to show students how to read closely by first beginning with a simple question (e.g., who is speaking?) and then move into a deeper reading of the situation with more in-depth questions. Be sure to point out to students how beginning with straight-forward questions and then “drilling down” with increasingly complex questions in the same line of thought can reveal quite a lot about a novel’s elements, be it narration, setting, or theme. Also note that questions can begin as factual ones (e.g. “What is the name of the town”) to more abstract, argumentative ones (e.g. “Is Wharton’s depiction of Starkfield always ‘stark,’ or does she also note some redeeming qualities of the landscape?”).

As students read through the whole of Ethan Frome, they can focus on any number of issues, while keeping track of their ideas in their reading journals. In addition to following attributes of regionalist literature, students might consider any or all of the following questions:

  • Where in the text of Ethan Frome can we detect Wharton’s professed commitment to portraying life in New England “as it really was”?
  • Based on Ethan Frome, what are some characteristics of rural New England and the people who live there?
  • How do we know that the story is as much about Starkfield—the place—as it is about Ethan, the person? How are the characters and the setting intertwined?

With these in mind, conversations about literary realism, depictions of community and setting, and other such topics can be discussed throughout the class exploration of the novel. To help guide students further in their close-reading efforts, use the following activity as your class is reading the novel.

Activity 3. Reading Ethan Closely

To stimulate close reading of the novel, present the short excerpt from Edwin Bjorkman’s essay, written 2 years after the publication of Wharton’s novel. (Note that the excerpt can be found in the attached Ethan Frome: Close Reading handout.) First, ask students to explain Bjorkman’s central thesis: namely, that Ethan was ruined by staying in Starkfield—not by staying with Zeena. Then discuss:

  • Is Bjorkman right to claim that, “in the author’s mind at least, the one thing needed to change Ethan’s life from a hell to a heaven would have been the full and free expression of his love for Matt”? Does the class share Bjorkman’s impression that Wharton concedes too much to “romantic love”?
  • Is there any textual evidence to support Bjorkman’s claim that, “Had Zeena died and Matt married Ethan…inside of a few years life on that farm would have been practically what it was before Matt arrived”? Is there any textual evidence against that claim?
  • How does Bjorkman’s critique square with Wharton’s own comments on New England regionalist literature?

After a brief discussion of these points, students will be ready to complete the “Close Reading” worksheet. The worksheet contains four pre-selected passages from Ethan Frome, each containing evidence for and/or against Bjorkman’s claims. With his claims in mind, as well as Wharton’s own professed reasons for writing the novel, students should analyze and annotate the passages. Then, in the space provided, students should write 3-4 sentences using each passage to address the following question:

Does the text portray Ethan as a victim of his social and physical environment, or of his own personal choices and temperament?

Once students have analyzed the four assigned passages, they should add additional quotations of their own choosing and repeat the passage analysis exercise for each one. Note that this activity can be assigned in a variety of ways—spread out over several evenings of reading; given as an in-class assignment for individuals or for groups; divided among groups who then must debate one another on either side of the issue; or any number of other options.

Depending on the time available, generate discussion based on quotations students find, questions such as those listed above, ideas students share from their reading journals, or return to the discussion about regionalism. Students will likely bring up issues such as free choice (or lack thereof) and personal agency, peer pressure, public versus private, personal versus social roles and responsibilities, and any number of others. Feel free to contextualize Wharton further as a realist who reflected, in Ethan Frome particularly, a more deterministic flair often seen in the naturalists. As with previous exercises, ask students to use textual evidence to back up their assertions.

As a final activity, consider asking the class to take one side or the other on the central issue of Ethan’s agency and debate the point. Give students at least 5 minutes to find key passages to use as evidence (and more time, if possible, so that the debate is substantive).

Assessment

There are a number of potential assessment activities for this lesson plan. Student reading journals can be collected for review, as can the close reading worksheets. Teachers might evaluate the students’ group work or individual participation in the final debate in Activity 3. Attention to textual evidence, originality of ideas, and presentation of material all serve well as criteria for evaluation.

For an essay assignment, students who completed the Close Reading Worksheet will be ready to compose a short essay discussing the following claim: Ethan is portrayed as a victim of his social and physical environment. Students should not merely state their agreement or disagreement with the claim; they should try to articulate a more complicated reading of the text, indicating the extent to which the claim is true and the extent to which it must be qualified. They should give reasons for their conclusions, in the form of close analysis of textual passages. The most effective essays will strive to account for the whole body of evidence, noting counter-examples and anticipating counter-arguments along the way. Note that by this point, students have already done all the prep-work necessary to begin this assignment, as they will have already compiled and annotated at least eight passages that bear directly on the essay prompt.

Extending The Lesson

As Wharton began her career, the realist school that had so dominated American fiction since the Civil War was just beginning to give way to the rising stars of literary naturalism. Indeed, in many ways Ethan Frome stands at the confluence of the realist and naturalist periods of American literary history. Wharton was claimed by the older generation of prominent realists (like William Dean Howells) for depicting life “as it really is”; yet her emphasis on the power and hostility of our physical and social environments also marked her as a naturalist. Students will notice that both of Wharton’s literary identities are on full display in Ethan Frome, making the text an ideal segue into the works of naturalists like Stephen Crane and Jack London. To explore the complex relationship between realism and naturalism, this lesson can be taught in conjunction with Crane, London, and Literary Naturalism.

 

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

3-5 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
Skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Writing skills
Authors
  • Jeremy Golubcow-Teglasi, Yale University (New Haven, CT)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Student Resources
Media