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LITERATURE ISSUES

ETHAN FROME

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BACKGROUND

Although it is often called an American classic,

Ethan Frome was originally written in French.

Wharton had hired a tutor to help her improve

her command of the language. Too polite to correct

her speech, the tutor suggested that she produce

written exercises. The result was the first

version of the story, written in a small black notebook.

Not only was the original French version

much shorter than the final English one but the

main character was named Hart, not Ethan, and

the ending was completely different. With the

French version, however, Wharton had established

the framework for the novella.

This work probably surprised Wharton’s readers.

After all, she was a wealthy woman who frequently

wrote about characters who belonged to

her privileged social class. Nevertheless, she had

spent a decade living in Massachusetts, where she

had certainly passed through many small and isolated

villages similar to Starkfield, where Ethan

Frome is set. She saw the conditions in these

places and imagined what it might be like to live

in them.

THE TIME AND PLACE

As Wharton suggests in Ethan Frome, village

populations in New England were declining at

the end of the 1800s. Several reasons accounted

for this decline. First, in New England, farming

has always been difficult. The landscape is hilly

and rocky, the soil is infertile, and the growing

season is short. Many people who wanted to farm

began to move west, where conditions were more

favorable. Second, factories were springing up all

over New England, and especially in

Massachusetts. By the end of the century,

approximately one-third of the nation’s woolen

goods and one half of its shoes were produced in

that state. The geography lent itself to industrialization,

since Massachusetts had many rivers

whose energy could be harnessed to power factories.

The map below shows the six states that

make up the New England region.

 

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