Ethan Frome: the Power of Setting
Ethan Frome and Things Fall Apart are found in two dramatically different settings, with each plot relying heavily on the setting of the novel to tell its story. The setting of a story is a broad term and can contain many layers. While each story may not rely on the same elements of the setting, they each pull from different areas in order to bring their messages to the audience. The historical time period, location, and season all factor into these two stories and make them what they are.
Ethan Frome used the winter season as a major symbol throughout the novel. Without the harshness of winter, Edith Wharton would not be able to tell the same tragic story. The narrator describes Ethan Frome as a very lonely man, which he explained “was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters” (Wharton 10). The stifling cold seems to emotionally repress not only the main character, but the whole town of Starkfield. Throughout the entire novel, readers do not get a glimpse into the warmer months, as winter seems to take control of their lives and acts as a force that holds them back. The bitterness of this cold could not be explained if the novel took place in any other setting. More specifically, the month of February has a significant impact on the novel. February is the month in which Ethan and Mattie’s sledding accident occurred, a tragic end to their love story (Wharton 94). February is typically the last brutal month of winter, meaning that spring is right around the corner. This symbolizes just how tragic their suicide was. They had lost all hope in the bitterness of winter, that they could not stick around to feel that sense of hope.
The city of Starkfield itself, while imaginary, was incredibly important in conveying the lack of hope in this story. It seems that Starkfield is a place where people cannot escape, no matter how badly they want to. This place feels oppressive, with the narrator saying Ethan “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” (Wharton 10). The people in Starkfield seemed to have taken everything that used to be bright and vibrant about them and shoved it away, with only bitterness and cold remaining. They seem to live in dullness all year. Although Starkfield is not a real place, it is very important to the setting as it sets the tone for the entire story. In contrast, Springfield is where Zeena gets her medicine, which illustrates how far from spring – a symbol for vibrance and hope – the Starkfield residents are. (Wharton 63). This helps readers understand the significant difference between the two towns, with one full of despair and the other full of hope. Most can never seem to escape Starkfield in order to lift themselves of their own self-made tragedies.
Things Fall Apart, on the other hand, relies on a more general time period to convey the importance of its story. The novel takes place in Nigeria around 1900, which was around the time of European colonization. The story of Okonkwo and the Igbo people could not be told at any other time due to how westernization had such a direct impact on their lives. The Christian missionaries are what causes much of the downfall for the Igbo people. As Okonkwo stated, “He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (Achebe 112). As a tragedy, Things Fall Apart could not have shown this steady downfall without the harsh realities of the Igbo culture being destroyed during this specific time period. Okonkwo met his tragic fate when his own son converted to Christianity, which broke him as a person as he saw not only his tribe, but his family torn apart because of the missionaries (Achebe 107). If it weren’t for this historical time period, his story wouldn’t be told. Achebe gave a voice to the Nigerian people who lost their way of life due to colonization. The physical setting is also incredibly important in Things Fall Apart. From the beginning, the novel emphasized how growing yams made an impact on Okonkwo’s life, which required a specific geographic location. The rain in their climate was thought of as incredibly important, “And so nature was not interfered with in the middle of the rainy season” (Achebe 54). It was etched into their culture that rain played an important role in their survival. The tribes base much of their rules and lifestyles around the Earth goddess, which is an important part of their culture. Much of what motivates them is in fear of the Earth goddess, which was a major factor in Okonkwo’s exile after he killed a clansman. While they may not completely understand why they needed to do certain things, “if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and now just on the offender” (Achebe 102). They were obviously very in tune with the nature around them and saw it as a very powerful force. While nature is found all around the world, I believe that the connection felt in their forests could not have happened in any other landscape.
It is evident that both Ethan Frome and Things Fall Apart would not be the same stories if they were told in different settings. Whether it be the season and town of Ethan Frome or the time period and location of Things Fall Apart, different elements of the setting in each novel play a critical role in telling the individual stories. While minor elements could have changed in each novel, neither story could have told their tragic tale if it weren’t for the big picture of each setting. Each author was very strategic and intentional about how they told their stories in order to convey the strong messages that they were trying to tell.
Good Against Evil in Ethan Frome
Since its first publication in 1995, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien is, arguably, the greatest epic fantasy to ever be written. Encapsulating the classic theme of “good against evil,” along with its various subplots and well-developed characters; the novel’s depth and rich details make it a timeless piece of literature. However, the story’s true success lies in its exemplary balance between realism and fantasy. To achieve this dimension, Tolkien structures his novel through frame narrative– a story within a story in which the narrator provides both a context and history of the inner narrative. In the prologue of the The Lord of the Rings, a historical frame is developed when Tolkien addresses “The Red Book of Westmarch”, a theoretical and encompassing frame for all the stories of Middle Earth, including The Lord of the Rings. This putative outer frame, which is supposedly Tolkien’s source of narration, is imperative to the novel’s success and acclamation. It represents the greater realities of Middle Earth, the multilateral perspectives, and adds ample amount of depth to his already complex fantasies. Through the use of this device, readers are enabled to relate to such an imaginative universe. Likewise, in Edith Wharton’s highly acclaimed novel, Ethan Frome, a frame narrative is also utilized in order to add depth and realism. Wharton wrote the prologue and epilogue to constitute an all-encompassing frame around the tragic story of Ethan Frome. She uses this structure to relay Ethan’s complicated and plaintive life, while also influencing realism and the societal backlash from which Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena suffer from.
The frame structure, exemplified by the narrator in the prologue, is used as an intermediary to create the slightest bit of uncertainty, while also adding dimension to the storytelling technique. Both dimension and uncertainty are the building blocks of any real world and Wharton utilizes these elements in order to refrain from the utopian implications upon `her picture. Through the use of the frame story and narrator in the prologue, Wharton is able to introduce realism to her readers which not only adds to her rhetoric but also affirms a strong author-to-reader relationship. The unknown narrator first meets Ethan Frome at the local post office of Starkfield and is instantaneously intrigued by his appearance. The narrator recalls, “I saw him for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp.” (Wharton 3). The narrator’s curiosity, in this instance, is parallel to that of the reader’s. The element of uncertainty and dimension seen in the narrator’s development translates to the curiosity of the reader. Through this the tactical use of a frame narrative, Wharton is enabled to contemporize a reader into Frome’s journey.
The frame structure allows Wharton to prove her intentions of a realistic picture through the construction of, and attention to, “minor detail.” (Wharton xviii). She understands that the two most fundamental elements of her picture are “the deep-rooted reticence and inarticulateness of the people,” (Wharton xviii) and “the effect of “roundness.”’ (Wharton xviii). Like uncertainty and dimension, these elements also convey realism and are prevalent throughout the frame. Mattie Silver is a dynamic and round character, she is extremely realistic and increases in complexity alongside Ethan Frome. On the other hand, Ethan Frome being quiet by nature represents Wharton’s reticent intentions. The combination of the frame narrative, the narrator, and realistic intentions all come to a conclusion in the epilogue. Here, Wharton settles the frame story and shifts the point of view to the narrator. The narrator concludes, “They all thought Mattie couldn’t live. Well, I say it’s a pity she did.” (Wharton 157). By ending the frame structure on such unexpected yet profound terms, Wharton touches upon the roots of realism by reflecting her many intentions. The uncertainty and dimension, as mentioned earlier, play an impactful role in the deduction of realism. The uncertainty of whether Mattie would live or not, and the dimensions involving their societal backlash, all contribute to Wharton’s final frontier of realism. Not to mention, Mattie’s conclusive “roundness” as a character, where she now faces the pinnacle of complexity alongside Ethan. From the prologue to the epilogue, the frame structure encapsulated all these elements and developed a sophisticated outlook on the story for the reader.
Additional structural successes of the novel lie in the light and dark imagery, which Edith Wharton uses as a stage light for certain scenes. In literal essence, stage lighting is the craft of light applying to live performance arts. The direction and color of the stage light implicate a certain image and atmosphere. Likewise, Wharton uses light and dark imagery to highlight certain aspects of the story, while also setting a mood. Simply, Ethan’s desires for Mattie are represented by light and warmth, while Zeena and reality are represented by darker imagery. During the night of Zeena’s absence, Ethan and Mattie’s shared moments represent the warmest of colors. As they converse, Ethan notices “the lamplight sparkling on her lips and teeth” (Wharton 79), and he watches the way her face changed “like a wheat-field under a summer breeze” (Wharton 79). Juxtaposing the colorful prominence, Ethan is also faced with darkness amidst Zeena’s sudden disapproval for Mattie. At this point, Ethan faces an all-time low which is reflected in the light imagery: “There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished.” (Wharton 117). Ethan is hopeless and the light in him slowly fades into the darkness. The presence of light and darkness juxtapose various scenes, once again, adding dimension and realism. The tragic novel is pervaded with darkness, however, the occasional flashes of light add to the multi-dimensional platform of the story.
All the literary and structural device used by Wharton continue to epitomize Ethan Frome as a timeless novel. She used these techniques to touch upon the roots of humanity through the incorporation of realistic perpetuation: where realism is continuously preserved to represent a truthful story. She chose to incorporate a structure that would enhance the novel’s intricacy and development of her characters. Throughout Wharton’s development and structure, one is constantly reminded of reality and the nature of life.
The Personality Of The Main Hero Of Ethan Frome By Edith Wharton
Ethan Frome is one of Edith Wharton critically acclaimed novella’s. Wharton uses the ideas of her era to influence her overall message/theme of her works. Her descriptors and use of “big picture” ideas allows for reliability and a broader outlook on Ethan’s life. Ethan Frome is a complex individual, dealing with the death of his mother and personal relationships with two women. Ethan struggles to provide for his severely ill wife Zeena, be able to achieve a steady income and maintain as well as hide his ongoing “affair” with Mattie. Throughout Ethan Frome, Wharton suggest that the theme of duty and morality vs. desire is mostly seen through Ethan as he struggles against the customs and rules of society, fighting an inner battle between what he feels and he needs in order to be happy and what he feels he must do to gratify his family and society.
Within Ethan Frome, the main protagonist Ethan knows that society would severely judge a man who abandons their wife, and because he knows that without him Zeena would suffer in poverty, he can’t bring himself to leave her. Similarly, Ethan avoids entering into an affair with Mattie because he knows that an affair would ruin Mattie’s reputation.
““Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away. ” “Why didn’t he?” “. . he had to stay”” (Wharton, 10)This passage suggest that he needed to stay because he knew what would happen to both Mattie and Zeena if he did leave. Miss. Silver would most likely follow him and Zeena would die eventually without Ethan by her side. By doing so, it would tarnish both their reputations as well as Ethan’s. When Ethan’s father suddenly passes away, he must leave college where he studied physics and by his own sense of duty to return and take over the farm. In their society it is also custom for women like Mattie who is poor, beautiful and charming to marry a good looking, wealth man like Denis Eady which Zeena makes very clear to Ethan.
“I wouldn’t ever have it said that I stood in the way of a poor girl like Mattie marrying a smart fellow like Denis Eady” (Wharton, 25)Zeena, as his wife has the exclusive right to Ethan’s love and loyalty. To protect her marriage and ensure her security, Zeena reminds slyly to Ethan that it is in Mattie’s best interest to secure her future and protection to marry a favourable young bachelor like Denis Eady. Despite his love and concern for Mattie, Ethan cannot bear to lose her to a younger and more successful rival but does realize that this is what society expects of Mattie Silver.
What Ethan want and what he must do are two very different things for him and are on opposite ends of the spectrum. He desires to be with Mattie but he knows that he must stay with Zeena.
“To Ethan, still in rosy haze of his hour with Mattie, the sight came with the intense precision of the last dream before waking. He felt as if he had never before known what his wife looked like” (Wharton, 33)
The Examples of Manipulative Behavior in Ethan Frome
In order for a successful society and government, true emotions and feelings must be expressed at the essential times. Manipulation is constantly used worldwide in areas such as advertisements to movies. They act as unfair persuaders to make a certain decision or feel a certain way. However, without manipulation, to be able to convey certain serious points would therefore be impossible. In Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton emphasizes manipulation, through the main characters, as a key form of communication necessary to express true emotions and desires.
Ethan Frome, the protagonist, struggles with being able to convey his emotions on most subjects, especially Mattie. In order to find out what Mattie is thinking, he approaches the situation with guile and somewhat sinister intentions. After coming from the nighttime dance, he states “you’d have found me right off if you hadn’t gone back to have that last reel with Denis,’ he brought out awkwardly” (Wharton 23). Ethan is attempting to uncover Mattie’s true emotions by appealing to her feelings towards him. Although he is in love with her, he plays it off as innocent as possible, acting indifferent towards the situation, in an effort to draw out her inner sentiments towards him. Wharton emphasizes that without the ability to manipulate emotions would be much more secretive due to an inability for people to articulate inner desires to others. Although generally level-headed, Ethan is also a victim of manipulation. However, it is a result of his own doing and pessimistic thoughts. As he was walking through the graveyard, “we never got away – how should you?’ seemed to be written on every headstone” (Wharton 10). Ethan is so caught up in the negativity of Starkfield that he has convinced himself these gravestones are condemning him to stay with them until his death day. Although unrealistic, these gravestones provide insight into the true feelings of Ethan and how little he believes in his ability to escape this environment. In addition, Wharton conveys to the readers the harsh reality of self-manipulation and how latent emotions can emerge and greatly influence outlook and perceptions in various manifestations.
Another major manipulator comes from the wife of Ethan. Although Ethan is an expert manipulator, Zeena is the embodiment of manipulation. She constantly lives her life-manipulating people into getting the reactions and results that benefit her most. As she was talking to Ethan she 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 75) Zeena is constantly attempting to use her health as a tool to shape Ethan’s actions. Although she does minimal work, she talks as if she carries most of the workload when in fact Ethan does all the work. Wharton shows how one can be easily manipulated into feeling guilty by stating a fact, even though the logic behind it isn’t completely truthful. Zeena also uses her manipulation to convey her opinions in an indirect yet effective way. Although she generally quiet, Zeena is quite observant of her surroundings and things occurring. While Ethan was getting ready she says, “I guess you’re always late, now you shave every morning” (Wharton 26). In order to convey the necessary emotions to Ethan, Zeena manipulates him by hinting at the fact that even though he is late, he still has time to shave. Wharton uses this to show the effect of a well-phrased sentence on the emotions of the receiver. Although not direct, these manipulations are constantly used to invoke various feelings. Manipulation can also come from the unlikeliest of people. One of the more innocent characters, Mattie, is also one of the most manipulative characters. She mainly does the duties assigned to her and with the exception of Ethan, sticks mostly to herself. When they were sledding, she “put her lips close against his ear to say: ‘Right into the big elm. You said you could. So ‘t we’d never have to leave each other any more.” (Wharton 110). There is a clear and powerful use of manipulation by Mattie to Ethan to appeal to his deepest emotions of love in order to convince him to stay true to their plan. This exchange of words emphasizes the extreme power that manipulation has on decision-making. Wharton constantly shows the importance of manipulation in the daily lives of people, ending with skewed conclusions.
Mattie is also extremely sly when she is manipulating other characters. She uses the concept of indirect interaction to create the same effect. Mattie left for Ethan “a scrap of paper torn from the back of a seedsman’s catalogue, on which three words were written: “Don’t trouble, Ethan.” (Wharton 86). This note shows the depths of manipulation expressed by Mattie. She is manipulating Ethan into doing more than he planned to by elevating their level of communication and emotions, as this was the first time she had ever written him a note. This shows how simpler messages can have astounding effects on whoever is receiving it. Wharton especially shows how people can even be manipulated through external locations instead of just from direct speech. Throughout, Wharton stresses the key value on manipulation on the environment to be able to reveal the true emotions and desires. Although seemingly mediocre, manipulation is necessary to invoke certain feelings about any particular topic. However, manipulation can occur in various forms such as movies and advertisements. These constant manipulations of our mind and emotions are key for the shaping of the society. Without them, society would not be the same as it is today but instead a wasteland of inexpressible emotions and desires.
Who Is the Victim in Ethan Frome
It is under the most repressive limitations that the strength of one’s character and one’s ability to defy and transcend such limits can truly be measured. This idea is confirmed in Edith Wharton’s novel, Ethan Frome, the story of a young man trapped in an unfulfilling marriage to a sickly older woman. Ethan and Mattie Silver, a second main character and the object of Ethan’s affection, both react to the oppressive setting and power of local convention quite differently in their never-ending battle to be together. Ethan falls victim to the power of local convention while Mattie displays her untiring spirit and defies the social norm.
Ethan Frome, the novel’s protagonist, is an unhappy young man who is caught in a quandary over whether to remain loyal to his wife and prolong his misery, or to pursue his passion for Mattie. His dilemma occurs because of the struggle between his passions and the constraints placed on him by the public. In the end, Ethan lacks the inner strength necessary to escape the oppressive forces of the setting, his wife, and convention.
One of the first examples of Ethan’s moral cowardice is seen on the night when Zeena departs for Bettsbridge, leaving Ethan and Mattie alone. They go about their usual domestic duties somewhat gingerly, avoiding the topic that is really on both of their minds, their relationship. “Now, in the warm lamp lit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable” (Wharton 81). That night, Ethan is also restrained by the apparent presence of his wife in the room, even though she really isn’t there. “Ethan, a moment earlier, had felt himself on the brink of eloquence; but the mention of Zeena had paralysed him” (Wharton 73). Although Ethan is tempted to act on his feelings, especially now that he and Mattie are alone, he allows himself to be mastered by the setting and his wife, and is unable to go beyond a timid kiss of Mattie’s sewing fabric. His passivity is demonstrated again later in the novel when he plans to run west upon hearing of Zeena’s dismissal of Mattie, but is unable to muster the courage to bring himself to lie to his neighbors, the Hales, to get the money he would need to do so. He convinces himself that “There was no way out – none. He was a prisoner for life” (Wharton 117). Ethan is so concerned that the rest of the town might shun such a bold, rebellious action and think less of him, that he is held back, once again, by his obedience to accepted social customs.
Mattie Silver is a lively, attractive young woman who, at the age of twenty, has become a penniless orphan. Having had no success with various jobs because of her health, Mattie comes to live with her cousin, Zeena, to help with household tasks. With her beauty, charm, and sweet disposition, Mattie brings life back into the Frome house, and proves that she is of a strong enough mind to stand against social convention.
In the first scene of the novel, Mattie is pressured by Dennis Eady to allow him to give her a ride home. She coolly states, “Goodnight! I’m not getting in” (Wharton 39). Refusing to let anyone disrupt her cheerful temperament, Mattie immediately establishes the idea that she does what she wants to do; she has a mind of her own. Also in the opening scene, particular attention is paid to the “cherry-coloured” scarf she wears on her head and twirls about herself while dancing. The association between Mattie and the color red proves to be appropriate because she falls in love with Ethan, a married man, and red is the color that is most often used to symbolize sin and passion. When Zeena deliberately hires a new girl to care for herself, Mattie is forced to leave, but cannot bear the thought of letting go of Ethan. At the climax of the novel, her true, passionate, reckless, and somewhat immature self shines through. While sledding during their last hour to be spent together, Mattie rashly asks Ethan to steer their sled into a large elm tree at the bottom of the hill so they can die together. She convinces him to obey her request by pleading with him, “Ethan, where’ll I go if I leave you? I don’t know how to get along alone” (Wharton 143). This statement unveils her impulsive, adolescent nature; such qualities might have made Ethan think otherwise of attempting to take his own life at her mere request, had he not been so blinded by the beautiful source of escape she had seemed to provide throughout the novel. However, her words also reveal her disregard for local convention in that she is ready to give in to any thought, no matter how foolish, that enters her mind. Mattie fell in love with Ethan, openly expressed her feelings for him, and was not afraid to follow her heart.
Both Ethan and Mattie struggle to keep their passions from being overtaken by the power of local convention. Battling both the long, oppressive winters of Starkfield and a rough adolescence, Mattie Silver is still able to be herself and grow as an individual while providing a breath of fresh air on the Frome farm. On the other hand, Ethan allows the climate, his ailing wife, and most of all, his strict adherence to local convention, to prevent him from acting upon his love for Mattie. In novella form, Wharton provides the reader with both a victim and victor of society’s conventions in the late part of the nineteenth century.
The Concept of Human Suffering depicted by Edith Wharton in Ethan Frome
Within Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome there is one consistent ideal that stands out, the ideal of human suffering. Ethan Frome is chained to his horrible, nagging wife Zeena and has to take care of her constantly. Frome had suffered the same treatment at the hands of his mother as well and the transition of suffering from his mother to Zeena is almost seamless. When it seems that he may escape his sufferings with the temptress, Mattie Silver, he is humbled back down to his lowly position. Zeena herself suffers as she is constantly ill and cannot care for herself. Mattie as well suffers abysmally and she is almost completely crippled and forced to be taken care of by Zeena and Ethan. However as one can see, out of the three circumstances they all suffer badly, Ethan suffers the worst. Ethan Frome, throughout the titular novel, suffers horribly and is only responsible for very little; he is a simply victim of circumstance.
One of the major ways in which Ethan Frome himself suffers is the fact that he constantly slaves over his wife and mother. Ethan had an assumably normal childhood, however, when he tries to escape Starkfield for good, he is brought back from college to care for his ailing mother who treats him badly. As said by Harmon Gow, “Somebody had to stay and care for the folks. There warn’t ever anybody but Ethan”(Wharton 6). It is during this time he meets Zeena, who eventually becomes his wife. Soon after his mother dies, Zeena takes the same place of Ethan’s mother adding to his misery and suffering . Ethan cannot control the events that happen to him. He is a victim of a horrible circumstance and is completely trapped by his morals of decency. The fact that Ethan is a decent man is the only thing that can be controlled by him, and by making the moral choice to stick by his morals he is put in a position of agony. The reader can see his apprehension to leave Zeena because of his morals, and even after his near death experience Ethan says that he “ought to be getting him his feed” showing his compassion towards a simple horse and if we delve deeper his compassion to the awful Zeena. This continuous prolonging of Ethan’s horrible human condition and the abusive treatment from both his mother and Zeena lead Ethan to dream and hope of escape from Starkfield which leads to more pain and suffering.
The suffering of Ethan Frome continues and even still is caused not by Ethan but by the temptress, albeit unintentional at that, Mattie Silver. Mattie is everything Ethan dreams of and lusts after, however he cannot escape the horrible tyrant Zeena who keeps him under her thumb. Ethan dreams of escape, as any natural person in his situation would, and sees Mattie as his true love and his chance to escape. This is not the fault of Ethan because he has been supressed and tortured so long that all he has is hope and Mattie personifies hope herself. Ethan sees her as “taller, fuller and more womanly in shape and in motion”(Wharton 71), and she is everything his life lacks. This causes massive suffering to Ethan because his hope and love for Mattie grow, only to be horribly snatched away as the fruit from Tantalus. This creates a suffering so horrible and none of it is directly the result of Ethan.
Another major way that Ethan suffers as a victim of circumstance is in the abysmal results of the great starkfield smash up. Ethan himself is physically crippled and maimed for life adding great pain to his daily sufferings, and he no longer has the ability to walk unhindered by great pain. In addition to that his dreams of escape are completely quashed and the woman who symbolizes his hope is so physically maimed that he almost doesn’t recognize her anymore. She is described post smash up as “bloodless and shriveled” and “under her shapeless dress her body kept its limp immobility, and her eyes had the bright witch-like stare that the disease of the spine sometimes brings” (Wharton 151), a large fall from her previous beauty. Now one might say, that Ethan had a choice to go down that hill, however, in honesty he does not. Ethan literally has not known happiness in a long time and has only hope left. At this point he is completely unable, as would anyone in his position, to think rationally and wants to follow hope to wherever it will lead him. It is in this way that he is completely a victim of circumstance in his sufferings.
Obviously, any reader of Ethan Frome can see and understand the massive sufferings that constantly burden Ethan Frome throughout Wharton’s novel. Ethan himself suffers physically, as his body is destroyed, and he suffers mentally as his hope is crushed. In addition his love, Mattie Silver, maimed physically, and he ends up back at the abysmal beginning, living essentially as an ant under the boot of the dominating Zeena. Ethan also is a horrible victim of circumstance and none of these things really are his fault, he has just been so destroyed after years of abuse he cannot fight back. It is in these ways that Ethan Frome suffers throughout the novel and to the highest degree he is a victim of circumstance. As Mrs. Hale said when referring to who suffers the most of the three, “When I see that I think it’s him that suffers the most”(Wharton 156). However, one must ask, does Mattie suffer worse? She had the death of her parents and became physically maimed for life…..
A Detailed Analysis of Ethan
Although by definition, a classic tragedy takes place when a character’s downfall is the direct consequence of a personality flaw, Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome rejects this concept. As a story written by an author schooled in naturalistic and deterministic philosophies, the tragic life of Ethan Frome is an embodiment of both theories. While Wharton tells the story of Ethan’s desperate hopes and attempts to leave his dreary life, she employs symbolism and foreshadowing to convince the reader that his doomed fate was sealed from the start.
The symbols of Zeena’s cat and the scarlet pickle dish are used throughout the story to give insight to the fact that Ethan’s future has been predetermined. Throughout the story, Zeena’s cat is used to symbolize Zeena herself. This is especially prevalent when Zeena goes away, and Ethan is left alone with Mattie. While eating dinner with Mattie on the night of Zeena’s departure, Ethan observes that “The cat- who had been a troubled observer of these unusual movements- jumped into Zeena’s chair…and lay watching them with narrow eyes”(37). Ethan believes that the time with Zeena away is his chance to connect with Mattie. But the cat, symbolizing Zeena’s ever-watching eyes, disrupts their dinner by jumping up and watching them closely. This action is Wharton’s way of telling readers that Mattie and Ethan will never get their time alone, that Zeena will always be in the way. Zeena’s red pickle dish sits upon a high shelf, and is not disturbed until Mattie takes it down and is broken by the cat. When Zeena discovers this, she confronts Mattie and Ethan, who blame the cat until Mattie blurts out that “The cat did break the dish; but I got it down from the China-closet, and I’m the one to blame for its getting broken”(54). Mattie is not only taking blame for the dish itself, but for the destruction of Ethan and Zeena’s marriage that the pickle dish represents. On the other hand, here Wharton tells readers that while the cat- Zeena- is responsible for the initial destruction, Mattie was the final straw for both the pickle dish- a wedding gift to Zeena and Mattie- and the marriage itself. When Zeena finally leaves the room, Wharton describes her as “…gathering up the bits of broken glass as she went out of the room as if she carried a dead body”(54). Here, the pickle dish is symbolic of the marriage once again, but Wharton shows Zeena as mourning, almost as if something has died. After reading the book one knows that Zeena and Ethan never separate, but Zeena’s actions give readers a strange sense of foreboding to their future as a couple that contributes to their knowledge of Ethan’s ever-darkening future.
Through foreshadowed events such as Mattie and Ethan’s accident, Ethan’s fate of never leaving Starkville, and Mattie’s growing similarity to Zeena, Wharton further convinces the reader that Ethan was doomed from the start. The elm tree- often describes as ‘hemlock’- is referenced throughout the novella as a place of both love and danger. While walking with Mattie, Ethan states that “The elm is dangerous. It ought to be cut down”(19). In having Ethan warn Mattie about the tree, Wharton foreshadows that this place will eventually cause irreversible damage to both Ethan and Mattie. This also creates an air of doom, while clues the reader into the idea that Ethan will not have a happy ending. Ethan dreams of leaving Starkville very often in the story, but the fate of his ancestors often predicts that this will be impossible. When walking through the tombstones of his deceased family in the yard, Ethan “…looked at them curiously. For years that quiet company had mocked his recklessness, his desire for change and freedom. ‘we never got away- how should you?’, seemed to be written on every headstone…”(21). The fact that even Ethan’s dead family hints at him never leaving alerts readers that Ethan’s chances of escape are slim, and that he is doomed to a life in Starkville.
When the narrator notes a discontented, whiny voice in the Frome house before readers know of Ethan’s end, it is assumed that the voice is Zeena. But by the end of the story it is revealed that as time passed, Mattie took on Zeena’s harsh traits as Zeena was forced to care for her. This is hinted at when Ethan notices that Mattie “…stood just as Zeena had stood, a lifted lamp in her hand, against the black background of the kitchen”(33). The similarities between the two women are slim. So, this revelation of Mattie following in Zeena’s footsteps is foreshadowing of how Mattie will transform from the woman Ethan fell in love with to a woman who is a factor of what makes his fate so horrible.
Ethan Frome can be seen as a story of hope; as a story of a man’s dream to escape with the one he loves. On the other hand, it displays the deterministic philosophy that nothing one does can change his or her fate. Edith Wharton uses symbolism and foreshadowing of events to come to display the latter, and to persuade readers of the idea that Ethan had no chance of escape from his doomed future. Some may argue that Ethan’s own flaws caused his bleak future. But as is true of most stories with deterministic and naturalistic views, fate is a powerful force that cannot be swayed by something as small as a character trait. Wharton uses devices to convince readers of this, and in doing so creates Ethan as a character of hero status, someone who, despite his best efforts, cannot escape the tragic fate that his been predetermined.
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.