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 bothpresiding over their wrecked livesis
- 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.
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
- 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?
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.
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.
- 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.
The physical setting of this novela village in the Berkshiresis
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