Set against the backdrop of a somber New England winter, Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome tells the story of the forbidden love affair between the novel's namesake and his wife's cousin, Mattie Silver. Torn between duty to his wife and his desire for happiness, Ethan struggles with the idea of breaking societal convention in order to find personal satisfaction.
As the novel opens upon the small town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, readers are introduced to Ethan Frome. Though the narrator points out his disfigured face and limp, he soon delves deeper into Ethan's history, offering his account of Ethan's early adulthood and the events leading up to his disfigurement. It becomes clear that years before, out of fear of being lonely, Ethan enters into a loveless marriage with his sickly wife, Zeena. In order to care for his ailing wife, Ethan and Zeena hire Zeena's cousin, Mattie, to help them around the house. For Ethan, Mattie's presence serves as a source of light in the usually somber home. As time passes, he finds himself drawn passionately to Mattie, thinking about her constantly and wishing the two could be together. When Zeena begins to catch on to their attraction, she decides to let Mattie go and hire a new girl as a domestic servant. Ethan and Mattie are forced to question just how great their connection truly is, and what they are willing to do to stay together.
Wharton's story skillfully contrasts the barren New England winter to Ethan's passion and desire for Mattie. Her descriptions of the desolate landscapes and small town life serve the novel well, allowing readers to enter into the world that Ethan inhabits. Though Ethan is a flawed character, one who is miserable in his marriage and contemplates cheating on his wife and leaving her, Wharton manages to make him sympathetic, as she portrays his constant struggle between self-satisfaction and societal duty. An exploration of the power of human choice, Ethan Frome is a timeless story of passion and forbidden love.