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Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton

Theme: The Effects of Isolation
Grades: Grades 11-12

Ethan Frome struggles to make a living as a farmer near the bleak Massachusetts town of Starkfield, while his dour wife Zeena whines and complains about her imaginary ailments. When Zeena's destitute cousin, Mattie Silver, a sweet and cheerful young woman, comes to live with the couple, the growing friendship between Ethan and Mattie arouses Zeena's jealousy, and she evicts Mattie from the house. As they are about to part, Ethan and Mattie take a sled ride down the big hill near town. In despair now and aware of their love for each other, they decide to end their lives by crashing the sled. Instead they are both left crippled for life. At the end of the story, the original roles have changed. Ethan is deformed, hopeless, and poorer than ever, and Mattie is now the helpless invalid. Caring for them both—presiding over their wrecked lives—is Zeena.

  1. Concept Web.
    Ask students to work independently or in small groups to create a word web or other graphic organizer that explores one or more of the following concepts: duty, isolation, personal happiness, economic hardship. You might encourage students who are having trouble getting started to 1) define the concept, perhaps using a dictionary or a thesaurus; 2) give specific examples from their own experience or from their reading that illustrate the concept; and 3) list their personal reactions to and associations with the concept.
  1. Role-Playing.
    Two of the central themes in Ethan Frome are individual happiness versus responsibility and the effects of isolation. To explore these concepts, have students role-play or discuss one of the situations that follow:

    • In order to fulfill your own happiness you have to hurt or gravely disappoint a family member or a friend. What would you do, and why? Is hurting another person ever justified? What price are you willing to pay for personal happiness?
    • Imagine that you live alone, in a remote rural area, without either companionship or any means of communication such as a telephone, TV, or electronic mail. What do you think it would be like to live isolated from other people? What are some possible effects of living a life of isolation? How do you think you might react to living an isolated life?
  1. The Numbers Game.
    Have students consider how powerful a force the time and place of the novel is in determining the lives of the characters in Ethan Frome. Then have them rate to what extent each of the main characters (Ethan, Mattie, Zeena) is affected by the setting. Suggest that students use a scale of 1 (least powerful) to 10 (most powerful). Once they complete their ratings, students can display them on a bar graph, and explain why they chose each rating.

  1. Agree/Disagree.
    In her 1922 introduction to Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton refers to the novel as a tragedy. Ask students whether they agree with this statement or not. Have them evaluate whether the tragedy results from circumstances which the characters have no control over or from avoidable errors in judgment. Once they have reached a conclusion, instruct them to write a speech supporting their stand and perform it in front of the class.
  1. The Psychology of Isolation.
    The characters in Ethan Frome are affected by the isolation of life in a rural area during the winter. Using a psychology book, a health textbook, or another resource, have students research the importance of having social relationships and the emotional, physical, and social effects of isolation on an individual. Then instruct them to write a short case study to examine how isolation affects either Ethan, Zeena, or Mattie.

  2. Setting.
    The physical setting of this novel—a village in the Berkshires—is integral to the plot. Have students research western Massachusetts and write a report concentrating on the economy, nineteenth-century history, geography, cultural resources, or social customs of that region.