Ethan Frome was published in 1911, when Wharton was already an established and successful writer. She lived primarily in Paris between 1905 and the outbreak of World War II, and these years were productive. She was growing more self-assured in her art, and during the writing of Ethan Frome she felt control and confidence than she had never known before.
Although she was in control of her art, emotionally she was facing difficult times. Ethan Frome is more clearly understood in the context of Wharton's personal life. In 1908, she began a passionate adulterous affair with Morton Fullerton. Her marriage to Edward Wharton had been difficult from the beginning, and sexual dissatisfaction with her husband had been one of the central problems. The affair with Fullerton was passionate but doomed; he was a married man, and Edith Wharton was not his only extramarital partner. The relationship ended in 1910. Wharton's marriage was also heading to an end: the two divorced in 1913, although Edith retained her husband's name until she died.
The force of (doomed) passion is a central theme of the novel, and Wharton's own life makes clear why she was so preoccupied with this theme during these years of her life. Readers familiar with Wharton's other works may be surprised by Ethan Frome's rural setting; perhaps setting the tale of adulterous passion in Wharton's own social world would have been making the story too close to home.
The novel can also be understood in the context of other early twentieth century novels exploring the harsh conditions of rural life. Like Sherwin Anderson's Winesberg, Ohio, Ethan Frome reacts strongly against a strain of literature romanticizing poverty and rural living. The novel depicts Starkfield, Massachusetts as a harsh, unforgiving world. There are passages that describe the country's natural beauty with great feeling, but this beauty is not soft or nurturing. In Wharton, nature may be beautiful, but it is also unforgiving and hostile to human life, and still more hostile to human desires.
Wharton was deeply interested in the philosophical/literary movement of Naturalism, which explored the power of the environment over man. In many of her novels, human beings seem to have very little control over their own lives. They are always the victims of circumstance, chance, or heredity: Lily Bart and Ethan Frome are worlds apart socially, but both are the victims of tremendous impersonal forces. Both meet tragic ends, and in both cases the protagonist seems to have been defeated through no fault of their own. The fault is only being in the wrong place with the wrong set of skills; the naturalists took from Darwin that the world is selective, unforgiving, and unconcerned by human morality.
The novel is very different in style from The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence. It is also very short, and the plot is uncomplicated. Wharton's strengths preserve the novel from insubstantiality: she is a great observer of human nature, and in Ethan Frome she skillfully develops characters with a minimal number of strokes. The novel is also filled with evocative passages that describe the harsh splendor of winter in rural New England. Although Wharton's contact with farmers and rural towns was limited, her sensitivity to natural beauty and human psychology make the novel a convincing and powerful portrait of rural life. It remains one of Wharton's most popular novels. Despite its slim size, Ethan Frome holds a firm place as one of American literature's great tragic love stories.