Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton



If you know Starkfield, Massachusetts, you know the post office there. If you know the post office, you have probably seen Ethan Frome driving up to it in his buggy, and you have probably wondered who he was.

It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time. He was a noticeable figure. His tall, strong body was badly twisted, and much shorter on the right side than on the left. He moved slowly and painfully, pulling himself along. Just the few steps from his buggy to the post office were clearly difficult for him. His face had a sad, grim look. It was the face and body of an old man, and I was surprised to hear that he was only fifty-two.

I learnt this from Harmon Gow, a man who knew all the families around Starkfield.

'He's been like that since his bad accident, nearly twenty-four years ago,' said Harmon. 'But Fromes don't die young. Ethan'll live to a hundred, probably.'

'He looks like a dead man already,' I said.

'I guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters,' said Harmon. 'Most smart people get out of here.'

'Why didn't he get out?' I asked.

'He had to stay and take care of his family - first his father got hurt, then his mother fell sick, then his wife.'

'And then the accident?'

Harmon gave a little smile. 'That's right. He had to stay then.'

Ethan Frome used to drive in from his farm every day at about midday, and because I picked up my mail at about the same time, I often saw him. He came to the post office only for a newspaper, and sometimes for a packet from a medicine company for 'Mrs Zeena Frome'. Starkfield people understood that he did not want to stop and talk, and on most days Frome climbed slowly back into his buggy and drove away without a word to anyone.

At that time, my company had sent me on an engineering job near Starkfield, and I was staying at the home of a lady called Mrs Ruth Hale. Before she was married, her name had been Ruth Varnum, but her husband Ned Hale was now dead, and she had returned to live with her mother in the Varnum home. It was a grand house, large and white, with tall dark trees outside. Although it was clear that the Varnums no longer had much money, theirs was still the finest house in the village.