Ethan Frome and the fear of abandonment
When analyzing the characters in any novel, the reader seeks to understand the influences in which shape how the character lives their life and the choices in which they make and why. The psychoanalytical and biographical approach is brought forward in the text based on the experiences in which Wharton has experienced throughout her life. Wharton’s unconscious mind intertwined with her desires are shown when connecting her relationship with her mother to Ethan Frome.
Edith Wharton, the author of Ethan Frome, constructs a story of his life and presents the psychological changes Ethan has gone through over his entire life time. Although the story centers around the life of Ethan, we see the psychological changes of Wharton throughout her life, which is faded in the text. Wharton’s repressed feelings represent the way Ethan clings to the women in his life to feel love and importance. Wharton’s fear of abandonment is portrayed through Ethan’s decisions. Ethan’s attachment to Zeena and Mattie are consistent examples that Ethan believes will abandon him. Edith Wharton based her infamous novel on her own life experiences with her own mother and the abandonment she felt as she grew up. Wharton’s troubled childhood and the relationship with her mother creates evident similarities throughout her story writing, specifically in Ethan Frome. Wharton’s life was always masked with the disapproval of her mother. It is evident that she had an enormous amount of resentment for her mother because of the way she misdirected Wharton’s life. The relationship with her mother created a self-conscious young girl, who only wanted to be loved and understood. Her mother was detached and did not support her daughter the way a normal mother would typically do. But then Wharton turned to writing and created works that symbolize those difficulty times as a child. Reflecting on the article written by Susan Goodman, Wharton’s experiences throughout her childhood, gave her works a voice. Stated in the text, One speaks for the child, forever angry and competitive with the person who did the most to falsify & misdirect her life, and the other speaks for the adult, sympathetic with the woman who could never overcome the same cultural difficulties her daughter surmounted (Goodman 127). In other words, Wharton attempts to create stories gave her an outlet and allowed her to overcome the relationship she had with her mother. Due to her unconscious mind, it is impossible however for her to leave behind her experiences. Reflecting on an article written by Susan Goodman, the reader is presented the way in which Wharton describes her mother like figures in her novels. Presented in the text, Wharton’s fictional treatment of mother-daughter relationships is delicately structured throughout her texts (129).
In other words, Wharton focus’ on the specific details of how her mother treated her and it is evident in more than one of her novels. Taken from Wharton’s autobiography, Goodman recalls Wharton stating, My mother took an odd inarticulate interest in my youthful productions, & kept a blank book in which she copied many of them (Goodman 128). Wharton’s experience with her mother embodies many other nineteenth- century women writers who were isolated by their mothers. The mother-daughter relationship in Wharton’s life, has brought a different way of interpreting her novel Ethan Frome. Although her novel is far from a biography of her life, her family relationship is hidden behind faded text, which we need to uncover as we read the story. Focusing primarily on the character relationships Wharton depicted throughout the novel, the relationship between Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie. Analyzing it from a different perspective, we see a resemblance of Wharton’s own family. Specifically analyzing Zeena’s character, Wharton portrays Zeena as a dominant person in the house. This aspect goes hand and hand with the way the reader visualizes Wharton’s mother. Due to her mother’s restraints and controllable behavior, Zeena embodies those characteristics when Mattie comes along. Reflecting back to Goodman’s article, stated in her text, Zeena of Ethan Frome is perhaps the character most like Lucretia, prosaic, cold, disapproving, and distant.. (Goodman 130). In other words, Zeena in fact resembles Wharton’s own mother in those very unique ways. Along with Zeena taking on her mother’s role, we see the resemblance of Wharton in Mattie. Portrayed as a young girl, who turns to family for support, Mattie turns to family hoping for the support she needs after her parents pass away. Zeena does not show love or care for Mattie after she views her as useless, which could potentially symbolize the lack of love Wharton received from her own mother. Zeena portrayed a personal of a snobbish woman who wanted to do things the proper way. This could also be evident for Wharton’s mother as well. Diving deeper into an analysis of Wharton’s text, Ferda Asya’s article, Edith Wharton’s Dream of Incest: Ethan Frome, critically analyzes the influences behind Wharton’s plot of the story. Wharton’s troubled childhood and her relationship with her mother has directly impacted her psychologically and the way she portrays the plot in her story. Edith Wharton’s unique talents gave her the opportunity to actualize her desires, which was denied in reality (Asya 124). Her life was constricted by many decisions that were made for her. Stated in the text, In Ethan Frome, as in much of her fiction, the writer unconsciously recreated camouflaged incidents and circumstances of her life in order to express, without guilt feelings, her relationships with her parents was a conscious act(Asya 24). Wharton’s inability to express her feelings and thoughts, built up her guilty conscious that her questions and thoughts were wrong. It is evident that she has endured a large amount of restriction but disappointment and abandonment from her mother was also a huge factor.
Wharton’s realistic enactment of the relationships she desired was a conscious act. Although she was aware of her resentment created by her family life, Wharton was unaware that it was compelled in her writing. Referring to an article written by Elizabeth Ammons, Wharton’s description of Zeena concludes the idea that her mother is Zeena’s character exactly. Ethan fantasizes Zeena’s death in hope for freedom. Stated in the text, Poverty and a succession of insane, dependent women prohibit his ever having the liberty to follow his aspiration (Ammons 153). Zeena was a dependent women who constricted him from following his desires. Similar to Wharton’s conclusion on her mother, she constricted her from many experiences throughout her life. Both Ethan and Wharton were prisoners for life because of Zeena and her own mother. Lucretia’s consistent rejection and abandonment repressed her dreams and aspirations in life. According to Ammons, Wharton’s fear of maternal rejection was portrayed through each women figure in Ethan Frome. Stated in the text, First Ethan’s mother abandons his needs; then Zeena, his mother’s replacement, does the same (Ammons 155). Although Mattie is not a mother figure, her abandonment transforms Wharton’s fear to all female abandonment. Reverting back to Ammons proposal of Zeena, Wharton describes Zeena as witchlike. Ammons states, Witchlike Zenobia Frome, a terrifying and repulsive figure archetypally, is in social terms not at all mysterious: it is a commonplace of scholarship about the persecutions of witches, that many of them were ordinary women bent and twisted by the conditions of their lives as women, their isolation and powerlessness (Ammons 157). Similarly to Wharton’s mother, Zeena was an evil person who portrays her own isolation onto other people. Wharton’s characters presented clear characteristics based on her own life and the interactions she had with her mother.
Many critics cannot seem to grasp the true meaning behind Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome. Many who read this novel seem to be mesmerized by the idea that this novel is a product of Wharton’s imagination. Stated in the Cynthia Griffin Wolff excerpt, Ethan Frome is no more than a figment of the narrator’s imagination (130). Wolff believes that her novel does not recount any experience that the narrator has gone through. Stated in the text, Ethan Frome is nothing more than a dream vision (Wolff 131). Perhaps it’s a dream vision of a better life. A better life with her mother that she longed to have. It is difficult for a reader to depict a story that ultimately is not present on paper. It is also understandable to say that her experiences are in fact portrayed in the text, but between the lines. Concluding the analysis of Ethan Frome, it is critical to understand that Wharton’s life was an important aspect in writing this novel. Edith Wharton’s novel is centered primarily around the life of her own and her unconscious mind. The unconscious mind takes over the conscious when writing her work, without even realizing it. Due to her lack of unconscious control, Ethan Frome would not allow for the reader to connect the relationship she had with her mother and the life of Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena.
About Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Set in the early twentieth century, Ethan Frome was a novella written by Edith Wharton, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Edith Wharton’s paternal family, the Joneses, were a wealthy and socially affluent family. As a result she was well educated (Wharton iv).
Her novella, Ethan Frome, was a representation of the experiences that she went through during those times. Everything in the book from Ethan and Zenobia’s marriage to the sled accident was derived from an actual experience. The fact that her writing portrayed her real life could be an outcome of the type of writer she was, or just unintentional circumstance. Because she used her environment as her inspiration, her writing portrays three dimensional characters who are influenced by multiple factors when it comes to their actions. Edith Wharton gives a snippet of what her life might have looked like through Ethan Frome. Ethan and Zenobia (Zeena) Frome had a complicated relationship. Ethan married Zeena, who was seven years his senior, to fill the hole created by the death of his mother. She soon became the bane of his existence, constantly complaining about her multiple illnesses (Wharton 41).
Similarly Edith married Edward Wharton, who was twelve years her senior, and who suffered from a mental illness (Wharton iv). The impact of her passionless marriage was strong enough that it was transferred into her writing. The book may have been her outlet to express what she was going through in her own marriage. During her times divorce was a taboo subject for women to talk about, let alone write about. This may have prompted her to switch gender roles when expressing her thoughts, using Ethan as her voice rather than Zeena. Her unhappy marriage also influenced her to base the premise of the book around an ongoing affair between Ethan and Mattie, much like her affair with Morton Fullerton. The other commonality between Edith and Ethan’s respective spouses was their illness. While Edward was actually sick, Zeena was portrayed as a hypochondriac, complaining about her supposed illnesses to a point where Ethan started believing in them. This characteristic could be Wharton’s representation of her husband’s personality. As a whole Wharton uses the book to express her inner thoughts about her own marriage. The sledding accident that injured both Mattie and Ethan was in fact not an accident at all. The incident was a real life occurrence that took place in 1904 in Massachusetts and ended up being fatal for one of the sledders (Wharton 111). The incident shaped both the setting and the climax of the play. In the book Starkfield is a snowy town in Massachusetts, very similar to the site of the accident in real life. Wharton may have used the scene to come up with one of the most important motifs in the book- winter. The season played a vital role in influencing the emotions, events and actions of the characters leading to the sledding accident in the book. Mattie and Ethan decided that since they couldn’t be together that only thing left to do was to kill themselves.
The climax of the novel showed the two lovers sledding down a hill and crashing into a tree (Wharton 92). While Wharton’s reasoning behind using the accident as a template for her book is unclear, it is obvious that the incident was supposed to shock the protagonist back to a sense of reality. Just because Ethan was unable to be with the love of his life, it didn’t mean that he could just forget his responsibilities and burdens that he needed to face. It was as if Wharton was saying that since she had to go through life so did Ethan. The biographical aspects of Ethan Frome were definitely present intentionally. Looking through the novel can help comprehend the life behind the woman who is Edith Wharton. While she may not have explicitly stated why she chose to incorporate her experiences into her writing, she did implicitly show us the what society expected back in those days. Her experiences also helped enrich the personality and behavior of the characters, making them come across as real people rather than fictional personas. Edith Wharton’s work will forever be regarded as a work that grasped the true values of twentieth century America, primarily because it contained actual happenings of the author’s life.
Ethan Frome Wharton's Response to Growing Industrialization
Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome is a sophisticated period piece which places the reader in a poignant era of American history during the turn of the 20th century. Published in 1911, Ethan Frome can be considered a historical document that reflects the growing ideologies that came about as a result of the Progressive Era, in which people demanded social change as a result of rapid industrialization and modernization (Kennedy, 453). Throughout the text, Wharton uses setting and characterization to illustrate these sentiments of the time.
Using the setting of Starkfield, Wharton generalizes farming communities as suffering as a result of rapid modernization, foreshadowing what is to become of all farming communities. In addition, Wharton shows the fate of the rural community through her characters Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena and uses the concept of disability to highlight the inability for these characters to survive in the rapidly approaching modern society.
Wharton greatly contrast the growing industrialization of the time through her representation of Starkfield in the text. In general, Wharton illustrates the setting of the story as cold and dead to generalize the dying farming community. Particularly in the first couple pages, Starkfield is introduced as [being] under two feet of snow, consisting of deserted streets, being complete absence of atmosphere, as well as being a frosty darkness (Wharton, 1-2). With this imagery, Wharton effectively characterizes Starfield as almost an abandoned, winter ghost town. Kenneth Bernard in his article Imagery and Symbolism in Ethan Frome, provides additional evidence to support this claim. In his introduction, Bernard looks specifically at the name Starkfield, equating it to a literal stark field and pointing out Wharton’s characterization of the town ad gray, mute and cold as a grave stone (Bernard, 179) All in all, the significance of Wharton’s use of morbid and cold imagery becomes rather obvious that it is supposed to show Starkfield as a dying town that greatly contrasts the growing, industrial metropolitan communities of the time. This stark contrast serve to characterize Starkfield, and farming communities in general, to be completely lost in the past and left to die as a result of the imminent modernization.
As a resident of Starkfield, Ethan’s demise throughout the story reflect the demise of every farmer as a result of industrialization. One rather intriguing characteristic of Ethan is how he has experience in both the fields of agriculture and industrialization. In the text, Ethan had always wanted to be an engineer, and [live] in towns where there were lecture and libraries , and he even had a slight engineering job which he got after studying at Worcester (Wharton, 71). Having this experience, Ethan is left feeling this dumb melancholy inside his heart for he realizes there in no future for him in Starkfield (Wharton, 152). Because of this, he has accepted death, which can be further seen in his interactions with the gravestones at his home. Before he used to look at the gravestone and wonder why he has not left Starkfield yet but now the grave gives him a warm sense of continuance and stability (Wharton, 51). Through this quote, it seems as though Ethan understands that the time for him to leave Starkfield is gone and that death here at the farm is imminent. Through Ethan, Wharton can show the rapidly approaching end of the farmer, and with Ethan’s unique understanding of both the farming and industrial world, she shows how the farming community is not in favor overall. Furthermore, Ethan constant struggles financially help generalize the financial state of all farmer at the time. This constant reference to poverty, struggle, and separation from the modern prosperous world suggests Wharton is categorizing Ethan as Karl Marx’s definition of a proletariat. Using Ethan, Wharton is showing how all farmers represent this suffering laboring class that is coming to a demise by the hands of the growing bourgeoisie, which in this case is the modernizing, industrial metropolitan society. This type of sentiment is perfectly in line with the sentiments of the Progressive Era in which farming and rural communities formed the Populist parties to fight the growing industrial revolution. In the end, Ethan serves as the perfect vessel to characterize the struggle of all farmers and the imminent demise by the hands of modernization.
Ethan’s dying and delipidated farm acts as an extension of Ethan’s demise. Through constant morbid description, Ethan’s farm like the rest of Starkfield, is succumbing to the effects of being behind in a modernizing society. Ethan home is characterized as having leafless trees, mute and cold fields of rigid gooseberry bushes, which all providing an eerie and almost death like character to his home (Wharton, 50). With all this imagery as well as the gravestones at the entrance of the residence, Ethan’s home almost acts like the tombstone for the dying farming community. Kate Gschwend in The Significance of the Sawmill: Technological Determinism in “Ethan Frome”, looks at similar imagery of the Frome household. Particularly, Gschwend looks at the old sawmill at Ethan’s house and compares it to technology at the time. In comparison, Ethan’s water powered sawmill represent ancient or even barbaric technology that is being forgotten in time. Gschwend concludes that the mill symbolizes the antithesis of modernity and progress at the turn of the century and the rural communities that are built around the sawmill are passed over by civilization (Gschwend, 12). With this further illustration of Ethan’s farm, it becomes clear that Wharton is characterizing Ethan’s home, and all Starkfield, as ancient or even dead, which in the end causes them to be lost in the past as a result of the everchanging world.
Unlike the death of farming communities, the role of women during the progressive seemed to enter a completely new evolution. The concept of women simply being at home and caring for the family was slowly dwindling as women were more educated, part of the working force, and were even fighting for the right to vote. Understanding this, Wharton uses the woman in the text, particularly Zeena and Mattie, to show this evolution and deviation from the previous role of women. Zeena in the text represent the homemaker which is shown in her initial encounters with Ethan where she cares for his mother and him (Wharton, 70). Since then, Zeena undergoes this transformation from being a new spark of light in Ethan’s life to her falling silent and ultimately being portrayed as sickly (Wharton, 70). This evolution indicates death of the homemaker at the turn of the 20th century, who previously was considered the ideal woman. Zeena’s worsening symptoms throughout the story, emphasize this change in women’s role at the time where being an active, educated member of society is more important than providing for one’s family. While Mattie at first is Zeena’s opposite, she as well represents the antithesis of the modern woman. While on the surface Mattie is characterized as beautify, naive, and innocent, a more in-depth analysis shows Mattie representing the stereotypic damsel who has no place in modern society where women are independent and a member of the working class. In the article, Edith Wharton’s sick role, Lagerwey et al. address this characterization of Mattie in the text. While for the majority their focus is on Zeena and her role as the hysterical woman, they momentarily look at Mattie’s inability to find other work prior to working at the Frome household. They particularly look at the quote, When[Mattie] tried to extend the field of her activities in the direction of stenography and book-keeping her health broke down, and six months on her feet behind the counter of a department store did not tend to restore it (Warton, 60). This view of Mattie as ill symbolizes her inability to conform to the new modern role of women that are educated and hardworking. Later events in the story such as her hysterical moment after breaking the pickle dish, and even her accepts of suicide with Ethan show her understanding that she has no future in this world that demands woman to be independent, strong, and intelligent. Her ultimate disabilities as a result of the accident symbolizes how she is disabled in the world which favors the more abled modern woman.
Through use of her use of characterization and setting, Wharton highlights the demise of the farming lifestyle as a result of the industrialization and modernization that took place during the Progressive Era. The illustration as Starkfield and its inhabitants as cold, dark, and near death further emphasizes this claim. On the other hand, while the dying farming community takes places, new opportunities for women also occurred in the Progressive era which was shown through the downfall of characters such as Mattie and Zeena. Wharton overall characterize Ethan, Mattie and Zeena as being disabled in terms of the modern world, where they most likely would be survive or be able to exist. Wharton’s description of farming communities foreshadows the civil unrest of these rural communities who attempt to fight modernization and industrialization in the years following the novella’s publication.
Ethan Frome a Modern Tragic Hero
Deserts can be either hot or cold, but all are barren and hostile, much like society can be and much like Edith Wharton’s fictional town of Starkfield, the setting of her novel, Ethan Frome. Wharton’s iconic novel, Ethan Frome follows a tragic hero caught between the conventions of society and his own happiness. The tragedy of Ethan Frome revolves around him, his sickly wife Zeena, and his mistress Miss Mattie Silver.
As a child, Frome was expected to care for his sickly mother and later in life had to stay and care for his sickly wife despite his passions for Miss Mattie Silver. In a desperate attempt to escape from his societal obligations, Frome and Silver enter in a suicide pact that leaves Silver paralyzed and Frome disfigured. After Frome recovers, he stays to dutifully care for his mistress and his ungrateful wife. Frome is a modern tragic hero who could not achieve happiness with his love due to the judgemental eye of society and his own moral code. Frome’s position as a tragic hero helps readers to understand Wharton’s point that societal conventions and an individual’s morals often act as an impediment to the fulfilment of their desire.
Modern tragic heroes, unlike their classical counterparts, are usually average people with average traits – people the audience can relate to and are not deeply flawed like classical tragic heroes. Modern tragic heroes like Ethan Frome are good people who are barred from their goals by society or, as in the present case, the conventions of society. Frome’s only conceivable flaw is that he can’t decide between his own happiness and that of those are around him. Societal conventions won’t allow him to be with both Mattie and Zeena, but his own moral integrity won’t allow him to leave Zeena alone being as sick as she is.
“With the sudden perception of the point to which his madness had carried him, the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had the heart to desert her he could have done so only by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him.” (124)
At the climax of the story, when Zeena is about to send Mattie away and Ethan is rushing to get an advance from one of his customers so that the two can elope, he realizes that his plan violates his moral code in too many ways for him to truly be happy. He cannot lie to his friends. He cannot leave Zeena without a caretaker. He cannot elope with Mattie. Because Frome is a tragic hero, the audience understands all of his motivations and understands that without such rigid social conventions, such as that of marriage, Frome could be happy.
“Mattie is all that Zeena is not – vivacious, warm, and beautiful… Mattie brings out the best in Frome, and he is filled with both love and gratitude.” (x)
The author doesn’t attribute a single positive trait to Zeena. Zeena doesn’t love Frome and isn’t kind to him, but Frome nurses her in her sickness because his moral code won’t allow him to do otherwise. By creating Zeena as a cold character, Wharton emphasizes the goodness of Ethan Frome so that the audience isn’t critical of him for desiring Miss Mattie Silver and instead focuses on how societal conventions and Ethan’s upright moral carriage prevent him from fulfilling his desires.
As is characteristic of tragic tales, Wharton’s story is set in the solemn, dreary town. In her story, the icy, outdated town of Starkfield represents society and it’s draining influence on the will of individuals like Ethan Frome.
“He never turned his face to mine, or answered, except in monosyllables, the questions I put, or such pleasantries as I ventured. He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence.” (13)
By directly showing the parallels between Ethan Frome and wasteland that is Starkfield, Wharton is emphasizing her point that society has a negative impact on the will of individuals. After giving a description of Frome’s cold, melancholy nature Wharton reiterates that Frome isn’t unfriendly or remotely a bad person, but after years of being subjected to the desolate, harsh society of Starkfield he has adopted some of its cold attributes, though he remains an unrecognized hero below the surface of his plaintive exterior.
Frome is a character devoted to others and suppressed by society. He follows his moral code even though it means he will never get to marry his true love and will instead live life tending to his ungrateful wife. Frome is unable to marry Miss Mattie Silver because he is Married to Zeena and society will neither allow him to leave his sickly wife without a caretaker nor marry Mattie. In conclusion, Edith Wharton’s choice to create Ethan Frome as a tragic hero helps the reader to understand her novel as a criticism of society.
Ethan Frome's Limitations
Throughout Ethan Frome, there is a consistent feel of limitation on Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie. The author, Edith Wharton, creates many restrictions that limits how much the characters do. There are many different scenarios of limitations such as the shortness of money that the Frome’s have, Zeena’s sickness and depression, the marriage of Ethan and Zeena, and Ethan and Mattie’s love that they share.
In all of these scenarios, there isn’t much interaction with each other which proves the limitation that happens in the book. Limitation is important in the book because it shows how little is done between the characters and how controlling they are of one another.
Shortness of money is the first example of limitation. With the shortness of money that the Fromes have, Ethan has to work a lot, such as hauling wood for Andrew Hale. They have a trouble making a living out of their family farm. Zeena could be healthier if they had enough money for the doctor. If they leave Starkfield for another town, the climate would be better because Starkfield is cold and snowy. Unfortunately, Zeena didn’t want to move to the city because she didn’t want people looking down on her. It would also be good because there may be better job opportunities to make a living out of. Another reason why the Frome’s money is limited is because Ethan wants to run away with Mattie, but they don’t have enough money. If Ethan and Mattie do run away together, then they wouldn’t have a house or food because of the lack of money they have. Final reason is Zeena sends Mattie away to make room for the new house girl because Mattie isn’t doing a good job.
Zeena’s sickness is a limitation because she can’t move or work that much. When Zeena goes to see her doctor, he explains to Zeena that she should get a housekeeper because Mattie isn’t good at cleaning the house, and Zeena can rest as her doctor tells her to. Ethan usually wakes up early to clean the house so Mattie doesn’t get in trouble with Zeena. Zeena also doesn’t leave the house much and she’s controlling of Ethan. She tells Ethan what he can and can’t do which prevents him from doing what he wants to do.
The final limitation is Ethan’s marriage. In chapter 3, Zeena says, The doctor says it’ll be my death if I go on slaving the way I’ve had to. He doesn’t understand how I’ve stood it as long as I have, (Wharton 98). This happens after Zeena comes back from seeing her doctor and explains that Zeena is controlling in their marriage and Ethan doesn’t have much of a say. Ethan and Mattie’s relationship is unnoticeable to Zeena because they’re afraid of how she’ll react and what she’ll do to them. This shows that Ethan and Zeena don’t have a secure marriage and they don’t interact with each other much.
In conclusion, limits are consistent throughout the book; the Frome’s shortness on money, Zeena’s sickness in health, Starkfields climate, Ethan’s marriage with Zeena, and Ethan’s love for Mattie. All of these limits are pressurized onto Ethan because he has a relationship with Zeena and Mattie which puts him in the center of all of the chaos.
About Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome
Starkfield, Massachusetts during the early eighteen-hundreds is a dull and uneventful place. The winter season in general has been known to be very depressing with a lack of vitamin D and being more restricted to indoor activities. In the novel, Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton, Ethan is affected greatly by the impacts of the long, brutal winter in terms of his well being, his relationships, and his fate.
Throughout the novel, it is easy for us to see how the dull and sorrowful winters affect Ethan Frome’s well being. First, in the prologue, the Narrator is showing sympathy for Ethan being almost stuck in Starkfield for too much time. …one phrase stuck in my memory ‘Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters, says the Narrator, referring to something Harmon Gow said (Wharton 4). Later, in that same section, the Narrator continues talking of this phrase he heard and writes, But when winter shut down on Starkfield and the village lay under a sheet of snow perpetually renewed from the pale skies, I began to see what life thereor rather its negationmust have been in Ethan Frome’s young manhood, (Wharton 5). This example shows how the Narrator who had not been in the town long, could see how the winters of Starkfield could have affected anyone’s well being, but specifically proving it affected Ethan’s because of the negation he mentions. Therefore, the Narrator was able to see and show the reader how the brutal winters, made it easy for Ethan’s well being and emotions to turn negative.
Since Ethan’s emotions are now triggered towards negativity due to the winter, he now begins to look at everything in his life as depressing, except for Mattie, of course. For example, Ethan and Zeena’s marriage is anything but happy. So, in all truth, he does have a right to be upset about that anyway, but it really controls his whole life. The author even wrote that, He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter , referring to Ethan and his marriage ( (4) 42). He clearly does not want to be in this marriage, but also states how he knew it would not have happened in the first place in the Spring, because the Winter is proven to be such a depressing season in Starkfield. Thus, implying he was lonely and stuck inside when his father died, leading to him being vulnerable enough to get married in that time. This is unbelievable evidence, proving the winter had an extreme effect on both Ethan’s actions and his relationship.
Ethan’s terrible fate was caused by these torrential winters in Starkfield, Massachusetts as well. His sledding with Mattie on that beautiful day in winter seemed so great to the two of them, but of course, no Starkfield winter is looked at as a good winter. When they were kissing on Mattie’s moving day, the author writes, Her hat had slipped back and he was stroking her hair. He wanted to get the feeling of it into his hand, so that it would sleep there like a seed in winter. Once he found her mouth again, and they seemed to be by the pond together in the burning August sun, (103). This quote can show both that his relationship with Mattie was the only bright and happy part of his life at the time, and that the winter really made things more dull. Then shortly after, Ethan begins thinking of suicide as Mattie brings it up. He said to himself: “Perhaps it’ll feel like this…” and then again: “After this I sha’n’t feel anything , Wharton writes (104). This is certainly solid proof that Ethan and even Mattie believe their lives are so horrible in the winter,and it’s due to the marriage of the winterthat they would think about ending life just to be together. The two were on their way down the hill, ready to just die to be together, but instead they are just severely injured and have to continue their lives with their terrible new conditions. Thus, again proving that the winter has led to the overall fate of Ethan being negative and hard to get through.
Therefore, Edith Wharton used the setting of the torrential winters in Starkfield, Massachusetts to emit a negative aspect on how Ethan’s life is in terms of his well being, relationships, and eventually, his fate. When someone says the winter is depressing, I’m sure it hasn’t been as depressing as Ethan Frome’s has.
Analysis of the book Ethan Frome
In the book Ethan Frome, the narrator follows the story of an old, crippled man in town named Ethan Frome. He lives on the outskirts of the city with his wife, Zeena, and her paralyzed cousin, Mattie. The story then flashes back to 24 years ago, when Ethan was taking care of sick, grumpy Zeena with the help of her cousin.
Shortly after, Ethan falls in love with Mattie, but tries to suppress his feelings to protect his reputation. However, when Zeena decides it is time to dismiss Mattie and find better help, Ethan cannot let her leave without her knowing his true feelings. So on her last night in town, he sends her off with a special night and a sled ride. After a couple rides down the snowy slope, the two realized they would rather die than be apart, so they decide to crash into a large elm tree. However, the crash ends up leaving both of them crippled, and Zeena as their caretaker. This story showcases the tragic reality of the fight between doing what makes oneself happy or pleasing one’s society. Ethan wanted to be with Mattie, but was afraid of what others would think if he left his sick wife. This left him crippled, living with both Mattie and Zeena, who constantly bickered.
Throughout the story, Ethan struggles with making decisions concerning his happiness, and often only considers the short term effects and others opinions. For example, Ethan married Zeena because he was afraid to be alone any longer. After his mother passed away, Zeena’s volubility was like music to his ears. He felt that he might have gone like his mother’ if the sound of a new voice had not come steady with him (Wharton 40). Ethan married Zeena so he would have company, however he did not consider the long term effects of promising to be with someone who he did not love. As time went by, he soon felt like a prisoner for life with no way out (Wharton 73). Ethan felt trapped. He could not leave Zeena to start a new life with Mattie because he was afraid of what would become of Zeena and his reputation around town. Ethan constantly struggled with problems he had made for himself, which often stopped himself from pursuing what he truly wanted.
Instead of acting on his feelings for Mattie, Ethan tells her what he wishes they could be, but decides it will never come true. He tells Mattie he [wants] to put [his] hand out and touch [her] (Wharton 88), but he stops himself from being with her because he worries about all that could go wrong. Ethan’s overthinking prevents him from finding his happiness, however, if he had followed his intuition, Ethan might ha’ lived, (Wharton 100). If he stopped focusing on the negatives, he might have lived the life he hoped for.
Moral Inconsistencies in Ethan Frome
Moral Ambiguity is defined as a lack of clarity about whether something is right or wrong, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, this is often attractive to readers as they find them easier to relate to because a morally ambiguous person shows inconsistency in their morals. It is uncommon that someone would have consistent morals in real life because people experience frequent changes in emotion and point of view; Therefore, as they go through life, they change their definition of right and wrong countless times. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is a perfect example of moral ambiguity because the main character, Ethan, is extremely inconsistent in his morals.
His constant shift between wanting to be loyal to his wife, Zeena, and the desire to be with Zeena’s young and beautiful cousin, Mattie Silver, show how inconsistent his thoughts are. Ethan’s moral ambiguity is important to the plot because it adds depth to the conflict and lengthens the plot, while making his character more believable.
Ethan is extremely concerned with his own morals, and often second guesses his own desires. One interpretation of his uncertainty would be that he is aware of how selfish it is to leave Zeena and be with Mattie. He chooses to avoid thinking about the situation as often as possible, but only when he is alone after rather tempting moments with Mattie does he let himself think of it, as a few hours earlier he would not have asked himself the question (page 37). Ethan knows it wouldn’t be right to leave Zeena to be with Mattie which is why he refrains from fully acting on his desires, showing that he doesn’t have the intent of hurting Zeena. This proves that he has good qualities because he is prioritizing protecting other’s feelings before making himself happy; therefore, showing his moral ambiguity because he is not openly acting badly, but he is aware that he wishes to do something bad.
Ethan struggles to maintain his morals; however, as he is so unhappy in his marriage, that he has practically stopped seeing his wife as a living person. Zeena has become background noise to him, and had faded into an insubstantial shade (page 26). His lack of attention towards his wife, Zeena, is especially shown when he expects her not to notice his new habit of shaving, and the constant attention and help he is giving to Mattie. He is so consumed with his feelings for Mattie, that he forgets that he should be attempting to fix his marriage. He is now infatuated with Mattie, and all his life was lived in the sight and sound of Mattie Silver, and he could no longer conceive of its being otherwise (page 26). Ethan is blinded by his obsession with Mattie, and he is now neglecting his marriage; therefore, his actions are not entirely good either. Ethan’s lack of consistency in his morals proves that he is a strong example of a morally ambiguous character.
The final part of Ethan’s story that proves his moral ambiguity, was his and Mattie’s attempted suicide. The suicide was provoked by their desire to be together without embarrassing Zeena, So t we’d never have to leave each other anymore (page 107). This proves that Ethan wanted to be good, but still wanted to be with Mattie. That is why he and Mattie chose a solution that would help them escape their problem, without such a large moral conflict. Ethan thinks of, the hated vision of the house he was going back toof the stairs he would have to go up every night, of the woman who would wait for him there (page 108). This is the moment when he realizes he can never be content with Zeena, and Mattie’s pleas push him over the edge. He goes along with Mattie’s idea to sled down the hill into the tree, but this plan doesn’t work, and the couple ends up surviving, and being forced to face their problem anyway, making the suicide a pointless attempt on their part. Ethan’s refusal to confront his problems shows that his morals are inconsistent, and that he is a morally ambiguous character.
Moral Ambiguity allows the conflict in the story to last longer, because Ethan doesn’t make a definite decision. He continues to long for Mattie, and stay with his wife, Zeena, because of his moral inconsitency. He makes note of a tomb stone sharing his name and how, he used to think that fifty years sounded like a long time, but now it seemed to him that they might pass in a flash (Page 52). But when Zeena intends to kick Mattie out, he quickly plans to move west with Mattie, forgetting his intentions to be loyal, now that his relationship with Mattie has been threatened. Without this aspect of the story, the plot line would be vastly shortened and less interesting for the reader. The conflict moral ambiguity provides is the main focus of the novel and removing this would remove the purpose of the book, and most of the depth in the plot. Ethan’s moral ambiguity also makes him a more realistic character because most people naturally have ambiguous morals. This way readers can relate more to Ethan’s struggle with what is right and wrong.
In Conclusion, a morally ambiguous person is someone who has inconsistent moral views or actions. Ethan Frome is a morally ambiguous character due to his inconsistent morals, in which he switches frequently from wanting to be loyal to his wife, Zeena, and wanting to leave her to be with Zeena’s cousin, Mattie Silver. He avoids this issue and refuses to think about the consequences of his feelings for Mattie for most of the book, and eventually attempts suicide in order to escape this problem. This provides a stronger conflict and lengthens the plot of the novel and creates a believable and more relatable character for the readers.
- Moral Ambiguity. Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/moral%20ambiguity.
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. Print.
The character of Ethan Frome through Symbolism
William Hurt Ms. McIntosh American Literature Honors 18 December 2018 , the main character in Edith Wharton’s most well-known work, Ethan Frome, is an incredibly complex and emotional character that we are able to unravel throughout the novella through the use of symbolism by the author. Wharton incorporates aspects of forbidden love, isolation, and even attempted suicide into the novel.
Wharton not only tells an emotional story of tragic love, she brilliantly incorporates complex symbolism throughout the novella. This novella gives the reader and critic insight into the relationships between the three main characters; Ethan Frome, his wife, Zeena Frome, and their maid, Mattie Silver. The symbolism in the story, gives the reader an incentive for reading and provides more of an examination into the character of Ethan. The story, So overwhelming that the modern mind rebels against it as a typical specimen of human experience (Bjorkman), gives a very realistic and emotional feeling to the reader. Ethan feels trapped and unhappy in the dismal relationship with his wife INSERT. When Zeena’s cousin, a young energetic girl, named Mattie Silver, comes to live with the couple, Ethan finds himself falling in love with the girl and eventually considers running off with her to begin a new life. Ethan is an emotional wreck inside, although he does not show it as much through his physical actions INSERT. While some critics have stated that Ethan Frome is simply a depressing story about a love affair, even going so far as to call it a dead book (trilling) according to Lionel Trilling, a popular critic in the early twentieth century. In reality, through the use of symbolism, the novel gives true insight into the mental condition of Ethan, and how the events and setting of the story affect this incredibly complex character.
The setting of the novella, much like Ethan, is a Hard and Frozen (173) landscape in a town in New England, called Starkville. Ethan lives with his wife on a failing farm in a seemingly bleak area. The narrator describes Ethan, saying, Ethan Frome drove in silence, the reins loosely held in his left hand… He never turned his face to mine, or answered, except in monosyllables, the questions I put, or such slight pleasantries as I ventured. He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe (Wharton 14). The part about him holding the reign loosely in his left hand, symbolizes the lack of control that Ethan has over his life. The setting gives obvious examples of Symbolism throughout the novel. The most obvious of which, is simply the condition of the setting, cold, empty, gloomy, even depressing. Ethan, introduced by the narrator as, bleak and unapproachable (3-4), is similar to the winter scene. The setting is dismal in the dead of winter in the small town. The parallel between Ethan’s personality and the setting is uncanny. The uses of symbolism that are alluding Ethan to the setting, gives insight into the character of Ethan. Ethan’s relationship with Mattie, the couples’ maid, begins as almost non-existent, but develops into love after watching her dance with another man and realizing that he is jealous. Mattie is much younger than fifty-two-year-old Ethan, and Zeena. She is much more energetic and lively, and she awakens Ethan to what he has been missing in his relationship with his wife. Ethan begins to wonder if the affectious feelings are mutual, and fanaticizes about perusing an either extra-marital, or post-divorce (with Zeena) marriage with her. Ethan is madly in love with her, but he does not act on his feelings Ethan’s relationship with his wife, Zeena, is unhealthy and miserable for both of them. Zeena is physically described as, Zeena is a Hypochondriac, meaning that she exaggerates her health problems dramatically. The situation leads them to hire a maid of sorts to help Zeena with her condition. The maid they hire is a cousin of Zeena, her name is Mattie. Ethan does not realize how unhappy he is in their marriage until he begins to have affections for Maddie. Ethan knows that he needs to continue to care for his sick wife, but he dreams about running off with Maddie, which he seriously considers doing. The marriage is broken. When Zeena was gone for an examination by another doctor, she warns Mattie not to use the red pickle dish, because it is her favorite wedding present. Mattie is setting the dinner table fancily for Ethan and her, and decides to go against what Zeena said. The dish gets broken, gathering up the bits of broken glass she went out of the room as if she carried a dead body (Wharton 70). The red pickle dish breaking symbolizes the marriage, and how, although it is broken, it is hidden away by Ethan to deal with later. The color of the dish is also important as it is a significant symbol throughout the book symbolizing passion, in this case the lack of passion between the couple.
When Zeena finds out about the broken pickle dish, she is furious. Ethan tells her that the cat knocked it off of the shelf and he or Mattie had no part in it. Zeena sees right through the lie, stating, I knew the cat was a smart cat, she said in a high voice, but I didn’t know he was smart enough to pick up the pieces of my pickle dish and lay em edge to edge on the shelf he knocked em off of. The cat serves the symbolic purpose of reminding Ethan that he is married to Zeena, and not to try to peruse a relationship with Mattie. The cat is like the angel on the shoulder of Ethan, reminding him not to act upon his feelings for her. This is important, because it shows that Ethan needs the reminder. He has lost interest in his wife and at this point, she is in his way. Throughout the novella, there is an ongoing dialogue between Ethan and Mattie about sledding. When Ethan is taking Mattie to the train station, to leave the Frome’s house, Ethan tells Mattie how he feels about her. On the journey, they see a sled under a tree and decide to finally go sledding like they had been talking about for so long. On their second run, they decide to try to commit double-suicide, by hitting a tree at full speed. Just before the pair hits the tree, that would have no doubt killed them, Ethan pulls the sled off of its course and so it did not make a direct impact. The event left Ethan crippled, and Mattie paralyzed. The failed suicide attempt is also a symbol, Ethan does not know how to escape or deal with conflicts. His marital conflict, his nearly adulterous actions, his problems communicating with his wife. These things demonstrate how Ethan handles conflict; he doesn’t. Ethan is submissive, he lets whatever is going on around him continue. The only time in the novella that he decides to step in and try to resolve a conflict, is when Zeena is making Mattie leave, and he is unsuccessful.
The story of Ethan Frome's life
In Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, the story of Ethan Frome’s life leading to his present circumstances is evaluated by the narrator, a man trapped in Starkfield, Massachusetts due to one of the area’s infamous storms. When discussing Ethan, the narrator proclaims, Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away (Wharton 4).
As the narrator explains, the winters in Starkfield are extremely rough and seemingly never-ending, having an extremely detrimental impact on its inhabitants. Throughout the novel, Ethan expresses the desire to leave Starkfield and start a new life, yet he is trapped in his life of unhappiness, similar to how the winter storms trap the residents of Starkfield in their homes. In Edith Wharton’s novel, Ethan Frome, the harsh winters of Starkfield symbolize the depression and imprisonment that Ethan experiences through his marriage, revealing the isolation that the physical environment of Starkfield has caused for Ethan and its detrimental effects on his life.
The main impairment in Ethan’s life is his wife, Zeena, and her illness. Due to the fact that the story is mostly told in Ethan’s point of view, the reader vividly sees Ethan’s opinion on his wife. He seems to despise her, describing her as harsh and cold. The winter has once again forced him to be trapped in a life he does not want due to the fact that he married Zeena after his mother died to avoid being alone during the cold winter months. Taking care of her is a chore to him, and disables him from leaving Starkfield and living the life he dreams of. Wharton says, His wife’s retort was like a knife-cut across the sinews and he felt suddenly weak and powerless (48). The simile used by Wharton to describe the relationship between Ethan and Zeena exemplifies the theme of the impact that the winter has had on Ethan. Zeena, like the winters in Starkfield, has imprisoned Ethan. He is unable to leave Starkfield and pursue a career in engineering which was the dream of his youth. Ethan’s relationship with Mattie and his yearn to commit adultery with her deepens his resentment towards Zeena. When Zeena kicks Mattie out of their house, Ethan truly realizes how trapped he is by his wife; Ethan looked at her with loathing. She was no longer the listless creature who had lived at his side in a state of sullen self-absorption, but a mysterious alien presence, an evil energy secreted from the long years of silent brooding (Wharton 48). Zeena exemplifies winter in Ethan’s life, a cold and unloving state that imprisons him in his house and misery. Ethan’s descriptions of Zeena portray the idea that she is an impediment on the improvement of his life, disabling him from happiness.
In stark contrast to Zeena is Mattie, the warmth and light of Ethan’s life. When Mattie enters Ethan’s life in order to take care of Zeena, there is a revolution in Ethan’s world. His life has seemed to gain meaning, and he idolizes Mattie due to the fact that she is the polar opposite of Zeena. Wharton says, It was a fact that since Mattie Silver’s coming he had taken to shaving every day; but his wife always seemed to be asleep when he left her side in the winter darkness (18). Once again, Zeena represents the winter to Ethan whereas Mattie is like summer through her warmth and appeal. When he is with Mattie, Ethan takes care of himself and enjoys living, yet he cannot escape the coldness of Zeena. This is reflects the idea that the residents of Starkfield cannot escape the cold, ongoing winter months. Opposing the negative descriptions that Ethan gives Zeena such as her being old and unfeminine Mattie is presented to be young and endearing. Her wardrobe exudes warmth, including a red decoration symbolizing the passion that Ethan feels for her. Wharton explains, He kept his eyes fixed on her, marveling at the way her face changed with every turn of their talk, like a wheat field under a summer breeze (38). Similar to how the plants thrive and grow during the summer months, Ethan is growing as a person when he is with Mattie. Through Mattie, Ethan sees the opportunity to leave this imprisonment and truly be happy, something that was never a possibility to him in the past.
The emotions that Ethan has been feeling towards Mattie as well as his increasing distaste for his wife come to a climax when he goes sledding with Mattie. After Zeena has proclaimed that Mattie must leave, Ethan is left heartbroken and furious. He decides that he will bring Mattie home, and when they leave they decide to go on a sleigh ride. This is extremely ironic due to the fact that the cold environment caused by the winter in Starkfield up until this point has been a burden on Ethan. When he is with Mattie, however, he is able to enjoy his life despite the cold and the snow through this sleigh ride. The confirmation of Mattie and Ethan’s feelings for one another enables Ethan to be truly happy, and he does not want to return to the coldness of his marriage with Zeena. Ethan’s attempted suicide with Mattie exemplifies the severity of his dissatisfaction for his life before her. Ethan’s decision to steer the sled away from the tree, however, shows that like the people of Starkfield, no matter how hard Ethan tries he cannot escape the detriments of winter. When he begins to lead the sled into the tree, he sees a vision of Zeena; but suddenly his wife’s face, with twisted monstrous lineaments, thrust itself between him and his goal, and he made an instinctive movement to brush it aside (Wharton 69). Ethan’s decision to not commit suicide was fueled by his imprisonment to Zeena, and once again shows that like winter snow on a house Zeena has left him emotionally buried and unable to escape.
The isolation of Ethan portrayed through the brutal winter of Starkfield is an extremely important theme throughout Ethan Frome. Ethan’s current life with Zeena is representative of the coldness and severity of the winter months in Starkfield. Ethan desperately wants to escape the winter that has imprisoned him into an unhappy life in Starkfield, and the opportunity to do so is presented to him through Mattie. Mattie embodies the exact opposite of Ethan’s current life; she is warm and inviting and encourages Ethan’s happiness. Like the people in Starkfield undergoing the seemingly constant winter weather, however, Ethan is unable to escape the reality of his life. This is shown in the fact that he does not follow through with his suicide attempt and is forced to live a life where he is trapped with Zeena taking care of him and a paralyzed Mattie. The cold, bitter winter symbolizes Ethan’s dissatisfaction in his current marriage and life, and the harsh truth presented at the end of the novel is that he is unable to escape it.