A Feminist Literary Analysis of ‘Ethan Frome’: Zeena’s Problematic Portrayal

January 14, 2019 by Essay Writer

Feminism is a movement about value and respect. It is a movement that is still evolving in our modern age to be ever more inclusive and aware of the experiences of all women. According to Robert Dale Parker’s book, Interpreting Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies, Feminism “is a simple concept and it involves taking women seriously and respectfully” (149). Although Parker sees it as a “simple concept” in the past, the idea that women even needed to be taken into consideration in society didn’t enter into a larger discourse. “The word feminism, as a term for supporting women’s rights did not enter the English Language until the 1890s” (Parker 148). Meaning the idea of women having rights was not articulated in the English language until almost the nineteen-hundreds. Given such constraints women could become ill and the common diagnosis was hysteria. Whether hysteria was an illness of the mind or of the body is beside the point. Meaning it doesn’t matter if women were actually afflicted with a disease or not, but what does matter, is that this illness did result in women’s roles in the family being altered, and in certain ways gave them more agency than society usually offered them.

The book Ethan Fromeby Edith Wharton demonstrates this idea expressed in Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s essay “The Hysterical Woman: Sex Roles and Role Conflict in 19th-Century America,” that illness gave women of that period a way to escape from the pressures of their lives through her character Zeena. Although illness might appear on the surface to give Zeena some autonomy in a period where women had little control of their lives, it is still a sexist portrayal since Zeena is framed as selfish and suffocating due to her illness. Although she is framed in some ways as selfish, her lonely mediocre life is a clear cause for her hysterical symptoms. Ethan Frome confirms sexist ideas shared by many, including their very doctors, of the period about women who had hysteria.

Although Zeena does appear to have some autonomy in her life, ultimately her autonomy is the result of an illness that stems from the patriarchal society in which she lives which proves to be no autonomy at all. In the nineteenth century, women had very little autonomy in their lives, which may have led them to extremes to find some outlet to compensating for the rigidity they experienced in their roles in everyday life whether consciously or unconsciously. In her paper “The Hysterical Woman: Sex Roles and Role Conflict in 19th-Century America” Carroll Smith-Rosenberg explained that hysteria “was a protean ailment characterized by such varied symptoms as paraplegia, aphonia, hemi-anesthesia, and violent epileptoid seizures” (652). This is all to say hysteria had many symptoms that seemed unrelated as well as random. In Ethan Frome, Zeena’s illness is never actually diagnosed, and seems to stem from her own misery, reflecting the pattern of many women in the 19thcentury. Was it misery in all cases that was the root cause of hysteria? What was the reason for such a disease to afflict so many? One major reason, according to Smith-Rosenberg could be the limited roles women were allowed to play in society. She explains that the “ideal female in nineteenth-century America was expected to be gentle and refined, sensitive and loving. She was the guardian of religion and spokeswoman for morality” (655). Women were locked into these roles without their permission. They had the pressures acting a certain way in order be considered proper in society. This was an enormous emotional load.On top of that, women were expected to marry, take care of a household, have children, take care of their children, as well as the needs of their husbands. Outside of these roles, women were not given an outlet to express themselves and had little power to change these circumstances, which, according to Smith-Rosenberg, may have been why an illness like hysteria manifested itself: “hysteria can be seen as an alternate role option for particular women incapable of accepting their life situation… Hysteria thus serves as a valuable indicator both of domestic stress and of the tactics through which some individuals sought to resolve that stress” (655). Hysteria was a way for women to change their circumstances, to attain things they would not have been able to otherwise. This very “stress” is exhibited by Zeena in Wharton’s book Ethan Frome. When Zeena comes home from her most recent doctors visit the audience discovers that she feels that she became ill while nursing Ethan’s sick mother before they were married. Zeena rages at Ethan for his questing the financial situation that her illness has put the two in: “For I’d have been ashamed to tell him[the doctor] that you grudged me the money to get back my heath when I lost it nursing your own mother!” (111). Zeena’s hysteria may have resulted from the stresses of taking care of Ethan’s sick mother, a time when she would have had to put aside all of her own needs to devote them to not only the mother, but most likely the son as well. This may be why her illness manifested itself. Doctors during the time seemed to notice this pattern of stress and labeled hysteria a woman’s disease which makes sense since it was the women who lacked independence, it was Zeena who was put into the position to do nothing but serve Ethan and his mother. “Physicians reported a high incidence of nervous disease and hysteria among women who felt overwhelmed by the burdens of frequent pregnancies, the demands of children, the daily exertions of housekeeping and family management” (Smith-Rosenberg 657). Since they were so boxed into their roles in life, unconsciously these women may have seen hysteria as the only way to, in simple terms, get their way. But, instead of looking at hysteria as a disease that afflicted individuals because of their lack of autonomy, and trying to help women change their circumstances, women with hysteria were framed as something other, lacking all of the admirable qualities of a wife and mother. Zeena in Wharton’s book, confirms these thoughts about women with a chronic illnesses like hysteria. Wharton’s character Zeena has an unknown illness that although is not named could be interpreted as hysteria or something like hysteria, which may have given her some power in her life during a period when most women had little. “Hysteria thus became one way in which conventional women could express—in most cases unconsciously—dissatisfaction with one or several aspects of their lives” (Smith-Rosenberg 672). Therefore, hysteria gave women a way to have autonomy. It gave them away to make decisions in their lives outside of the standard social norms of which they were expected to uphold. Wharton’s character Zeena in Ethan Fromeseems to demonstrate this very idea. In chapter seven Zeena comes home from seeing a doctor in another town. This doctor told her that she had “complications” (108) which Ethan, her husband, tells us is a grave diagnosis that most people don’t survive. However, Zeena says that she might overcome her illness if she “should have a hired girl. He says I oughtn’t to have to do a single thing around the house” (110). For Zeena to overcome her illness, she must put aside her usual duties and have some help around the house. Zeena, after so many years of taking care of both Ethan and his mother on her own might have succumbed to the stress, which would allow her to change her circumstances. This proposal by Zeena to have a girl conforms what Smith-Rosenberg’s conclusion that hysteria meant a dramatic shift in the family dynamic. It meant that a woman could not behave as they normally would have in the period, as a mother, caretaker, wife. It meant that others in a family would have to step in to take over these roles. “Household activities were reoriented to answer the hysterical woman’s importunate needs. Children were hushed, rooms darkened entertaining suspended, a devoted nurse recruited” (Smith-Rosenberg 672). Zeena’s need for a girl (devoted nurse) is in line with what most women in the period expected to receive after the diagnosis. However, these requirements are not merely seen as the cure for the ailment but put the woman in the position to be seen as selfish and a target for ridicule. Instead of trying to be compassionate towards an illness that seemed to be about gaining the smallest amount of control in their lives, women of the time could be treated as a burden as Zeena is treated in Ethan Frome. Zeena is portrayed as a villain by Ethan for needing a girl to help her around the house because of the constraints such a requirement would put on their already precarious financial situation. “Wrath and dismay contended in Ethan. He had foreseen an immediate demand for money, but not a permanent drain on his scant resources. He no longer believed what Zeena had told him of the supposed seriousness of her state” (Wharton 110). Ethan sees Zeena as a drain on his income and doesn’t believe that she is ill. Wharton, instead of writing a character sympathetic to his sick wife’s state, instead of perhaps finding a reason for why she is so ill, Wharton uses Ethan to characterize Zeena as selfish, unconcerned with her husband’s worries. This is in line with what Smith-Rosenberg writes about people’s attitudes towards the illness during the period: “conscious anger and hostility marked the response of a good many doctors to their hysterical patients. One… neurologist called the female hysteric a willful, self-indulgent and narcissistic person who cynically manipulated her symptoms” (670). Even by their doctors, women who were suffering, whether from actual illness or their difficult circumstances, were treated as something contemptuous. Wharton writing Zeena this way, perpetuates this feeling as well as creates a justification for feeling these women were disgraceful. Wharton writes Zenna in diametric opposition to Ethan. Zeena is framed as self-serving, and this selfishness destroys any happiness Ethan is seeking. Whereas Ethan is framed as only trying to do all he can for his household, “there’s a whole lot more I can do for you, and Mattie—” (Wharton 114) says Ethan trying to show his devotion to his wife as well as their maid. Even in while he is trying to be happy he still looks to satisfy his wife, who appears to never be satisfiable. While at the same time he shows his devotion to his potential mistress. However, because of the way Zeena is portrayed readers are encouraged to feel sorry for Ethan and even root for his infidelity. Wharton enforces a negative stereotype about women who suffered from hysteria instead of blatantly justifying Zeena’s actions.Wharton enforces the stereotype that women who suffered from hysteria were selfish, uncaring about whether or not their needs would hurt their families or not. Further, while Ethan is characterized as just trying to do the best he can for a his wife, she writes Zeena as a dark figure in the room with him: “Zeena’s face stood grimly out against the uncurtained pane, which had turned from grey to black” (Wharton 111-112). Zeena, because of her illness, is the darkness in Ethan’s life that envelopes his happiness. Wharton takes an even more negative step because the audience is only allowed to see Zeena through Ethan’s male lens.The audience is not allowed to peer into Zeena’s inner thoughts, so they are never really sure what her motives are for how she is behaving. Ethan is the only person given perspective in the book which means it is easier to sympathize with him. So, when he continues to express his dismay over the new demands Zeena brings home to him related to her illness, the audience continues to see her as a villain. Zeena’s portrayal as a villain is only compounded when Zeena suggests that Ethan throw out their ward and servant, Mattie, who Ethan has fallen in love with so that Ethan could better afford another hired hand. “She had taken everything else from him; and now she meant to take the one thing that made up for all the others” (Wharton 118). Wharton writes Zeena not as a woman who is being wronged by her husband, who plans to have an extramarital relationship with her relative, Mattie, but as an advisory whose illness is the cause for her poor husband’s misery.

Edith Wharton, instead of taking the opportunity to write a character that breaks stereotypes about women with illness in the nineteenth century, wrote a character who conforms to the sexist and limited views people have of them. Although the disease did give Zeena the chance to have some control over her life by requiring help or housework, the fact that the audience can only read her through Ethan, and his negative lens, Zeena is never thought of as anything other than a failed, and suffocating woman, who takes away Ethan’s joy. Zeena is never given a chance to have a voice in this story, mirroring the plight of many women in the period.


Parker, Robert Dale. How to interpret literature: Critical theory for literary and cultural studies. Nueva York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp.149-155 Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The Hysterical Woman: Sex Roles and Role Conflict in 19th-Century America.” Social Research, vol. 29, no. 4, 1972. Pp. 652-678Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922. Pp. 107-127

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