Problems in Life Of Ethan in The Novel Ethan Frome
Three’s a Crowd: The Conflicted Life of Ethan Frome
Ethan and Mattie believed suicide was the solution for their dark despair; instead, the failed attempt secured many years of agonizing entrapment. The years had worn Ethan down, as he “[looked] as if he was dead and in hell now!” (2). Life had always dealt him more trappings than freedoms. His father’s death short-circuited a college career and his sense of duty left him in a loveless marriage. Only Mattie could ease Ethan’s immense loneliness, but he was a man of morality and would not cheat on his spouse. In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Ethan’s appearance, actions, and others’ responses indirectly characterize him as conflicted, fated for failure, and delusional.
Frustrations plagued Ethan’s life. Due to his father’s death and mother’s poor health, Ethan was compelled to abort his pursuit of an engineering degree and felt forced to run the family farm. Ethan married Zeena, not out of love, but because she had assisted in the care of his ailing mother. Zeena soon developed illnesses, complaining that she was “a great deal sicker than you think” (58) and relative Mattie Silver was brought in for assistance with chores. Over time, Ethan developed a fondness for Mattie. She was vibrant and easygoing; a sharp contrast to Zeena’s noxious and controlling personality. Zeena, who considered herself “a poor man’s wife” (62), tolerated Mattie because it would have been difficult to afford hired help. Ethan was blind-sided when Zeena announced that Mattie was being forced out of the home in favor of a paid housekeeper. Mattie’s presence in Ethan’s home allowed him to endure Zeena. Ethan could not fathom an existence without Mattie. With death as the only apparent answer to their problems, Ethan incorrectly chose to handle his stress by agreeing to take Mattie on a suicidal sled ride. While coasting down the hill, Ethan muttered to himself, “I know we can fetch it” (96) as the large elm tree loomed ahead. He had not anticipated surviving the crash. His brief loss of concentration as he thought of Zeena handed him a fate as twisted as his post-smash up body. He became trapped in a bleak reality.
Being a married man, Ethan created a recipe for failure when he began fantasizing about another woman. Ethan and Mattie’s intimate meal together went amiss when the inquisitive cat destroyed a pickle-dish, which was Zeena’s favorite wedding gift (44). This incident made Zeena furious. Suspecting her relationship with Ethan was shattered like the pickle-dish, she scolded Mattie as a “bad girl,” claiming: “If I’d ‘a’ listened to folks, you’d ‘a’ gone before now, and this wouldn’t ‘a’ happened” (70). Ethan had committed two offenses that evening: he attempted to explore forbidden love and allowed Mattie to spend time with Zeena’s pickle-dish. The dreary truth being that, in Zeena’s mind, the infractions were comparable. His decision to take Mattie to catch the train also ended in debacle, resulting in the freak sledding “accident” that left them wounded both physically and emotionally. Ethan endured a fate worse than death. A friend echoed this notion by stating: “there’s [not] much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard” (101).
The delusion of an intimate relationship with Mattie caused Ethan to drift away from his wife. Mattie’s young and lively qualities were desirable to Ethan. One evening, Ethan concealed himself as he spied on Mattie at a church dance. Following the event, she declined another man’s offer of a sleigh ride and chose instead to walk home with Ethan. In this short time span, Ethan’s emotions changed from jealousy to harboring a feeling of affection for Mattie. He never acted on these feelings. Ethan avoided taking Zeena to the doctor the next day to arrange the meal alone with Mattie, but at the end of the night, he realized that they had not even held hands (52). When Zeena expelled Mattie from the Frome farm, Ethan visualized a perfect relationship with Mattie through the spontaneous suicide attempt; instead, he was miserably stranded with two decrepit women.
Conflict often caused Ethan’s troubles. He was forced to choose between heartfelt desires and dutiful obligations. His illusion of love for Mattie escalated to the point that he always wanted her companionship. He arranged for them to enjoy a private evening together. However, thoughts of Zeena haunted him and the night ended without any romantic pursuit. The cat’s destruction of the red pickle-dish climaxed Ethan’s problems, showed his destiny for downfall, and highlighted his streak of bad luck. Author Wharton does not offer a complete description of the feline in Ethan Frome, but for the title character it carried the superstitious characteristics of a black cat.
Drug As a Way to Escape in Ethan Frome Novel
Alcohol, Narcotics, Hallucinogens: These drugs are all commonly known within our current society; people turn to them from their busy, stressful lifestyles as a source of relaxation or therapy. A person might have conflict in their life that they wish to forget: an abusive partner, a parent with high expectations, a lack of money, or self-consciousness. Drugs offer an easy escape from these conflicts, and can allow a sad person to have a good time. But eventually or even immediately, addiction can develop, and the drug is no longer a getaway, but a necessity. It can take over a person’s life, ultimately dominating it so that they must constantly nurture and endure their addiction. Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome provides a pre-twentieth century example of this phenomenon. The title character struggles under the silence of his town, his house, and himself, and as a result seeks escape through women that brighten his home and his spirits. Though this appears to be the main conflict of the novel, analysis of Ethan’s actions and thoughts reveals that he has a deeper inward conflict between conforming to tradition and wanting to break free from it. He uses the women as distractions from this underlying tension, only to be dominated by his obligation to them in the end.
Ethan’s inner conflict results mainly from clashes between his efforts to conform and his dreams to break free. He knows only one life: farming, logging, and caring for his family. The townspeople of Starkfield who have known him since he was born there have little to note except that “it’s always Ethan done the caring” (Wharton, 14). His parents fell ill just after he began to study in Worcester, and he had to come back to take care of them. Then, in fear of loneliness, he marries Zeena whom he discovers he also must take care of. Ethan “had always wanted to be an engineer,” exemplified by his study in Worcester; But when he tried to sell his farm after marrying Zeena, “purchasers were slow in coming, and while he waited for them Ethan learned the impossibility of transplanting her” (Wharton, 59-60). His environmental, economic, and social surroundings limit him, and bury any hope of a feasible, happy life deep in his mind. He therefore remains in Starkfield, living in his worn-down cabin, completing “his usual morning tasks about the house and barn” (Wharton, 110). The gravestones surrounding his house are a “quiet company [that mocks] his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom”; he conforms to that attitude, thinking “I shall just go on living here till I join them” (Wharton, 44). Even in the last scenes of the novel, in which Ethan has tried to escape his life altogether in a joint suicide attempt, he pays attention to the “familiar wistful call” of his sorrel and murmurs while lying on the ground, critically injured, “I ought to be getting him his feed” (Wharton, 132 and 134). In this way, Ethan’s traditional and obedient behavior constantly battles his want for change.
Since he cannot throw off his limitations and leave Starkfield, Ethan seeks escape from them through fancies and more superficial conflicts. Specifically, he looks to fill up the silence of his house and daily life with pretty, talkative women. First, he meets Zeena when she comes to help him take care of his parents; “After the mortal silence of his long imprisonment Zeena’s volubility was music in his ears” (Wharton, 59). His time spent caring for his parents and running the farm is referred to as “imprisonment,” showing his dislike for it and emphasizing Zeena as a welcomed distraction. He also states that “the mere fact of obeying her orders… restored his shaken balance,” leading to their marriage, because he did not want to be alone or have to deal with that shaken balance himself (Wharton, 59). Ethan also uses Mattie, Zeena’s cousin and their house-maid, in a similar way. He is drawn to Mattie’s excitement and color which contrasts Zeena’s ragged face and the bleak white landscape of Starkfield; he is “never so happy… as when he abandon[s] himself to… dreams” of them living together as a happy couple (Wharton, 44). He also uses her as an escape from the silent tension in his life, with Zeena now included as an additional point of conflict. He feels “confusedly that there were many things he ought to think about, but through his tingling veins and tired brain only one sensation throbbed: the warmth of Mattie’s shoulder against his” (Wharton, 50). He can ignore his own inner conflict when he is distracted by Mattie’s warmth and beauty. Ethan chooses to be distracted by the women, so that he does have to deal with the true reason behind the tension in his life.
The women, however, do not solve Ethan’s problem, and even begin to make more of one for him. They take over his life so that even if there was once a chance that he could leave Starkfield, he cannot now because he must care and provide for them. The townspeople notice that he has lost zeal, after he is living with both women; one notes that “when a man’s been setting round like a hulk for twenty years or more, seeing things that want doing, it eats inter him, and he loses his grit” (Wharton, 18). Ethan’s dreams have been lost to the every-day routine of the barn, and the heavy weight of providing for two sickly women. Ethan himself recognizes that his life has been dominated by the cold, silent tension of Starkfield when he realizes that he can no longer imagine Florida’s warmth; “I was down there once, and for a good while afterward I could call up the sight… But now it’s all snowed under” (Wharton, 19). Ethan ends up living with both women, neither one lighting up his life or enabling him to follow his dreams. He does not predict this, however, and chooses to spend his time during the novella searching for rescue from his life, instead of dealing with his true inner conflict between tradition and freedom.
Just like a drug takes over a person’s life in modern society, the women took over Ethan’s life. By the end of the novella, he became “a part of the mute melancholy landscape… with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface” (Wharton, 19). This novella can show people who read it currently, the dangers of relying on superficial conflict to distract you from what really matters. Although Wharton might not have intended this message, Ethan’s inner conflict contributes to revealing it within the novella. It is always better to deal with true conflict, than to escape from it with artificial fancies.
Life in Permanent Isolation in Ethan From Novel
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 below the surface…
The image is gloomy: for countless years, Ethan Frome has been trapped in the cold winters of Starkfield and his life mirrors the frost-covered earth. Bound to Starkfield by his marriage, Ethan faces physical and emotional torment from the icy weather. The loving relationship that Ethan desires resides deep under layers of ice. Throughout the novel, Mattie, Ethan’s escape from the cold, is unable to free him. Author Edith Wharton establishes a perpetual coldness in Starkfield throughout the novel Ethan Frome, connecting it to the force that prevents Ethan from escaping with Mattie, and the eternal pain that he must face if his pursuit for her fails. By doing this, the author conveys the idea that a life changing opportunity is often ephemeral and it should be taken before it fades.
In the beginning of the novel, Wharton focuses on the cold that surrounds Ethan as he approaches the church to wait for Mattie. Instead of going into the warm church, Ethan chooses to watch “from the pure and frosty darkness” on the outside (Wharton 25). The author situates Ethan out in the cold to demonstrate his inability to access the warmth within. Ethan, bound by his marriage and afflicted by the cold, cannot enter to dance with other women. Wharton also places Ethan in the dark to imply that he has no hope escaping Zeena if he stays out in the cold. However, Wharton contrasts the frozen outside with the inside that “seemed to be seething in a mist of heat” (Wharton 25). Mattie, lacking a husband and representing warmth, has no restrictions to who she could dance with. The author exemplifies this vital contrast throughout the novel to symbolize Mattie’s heat as the main component to the thawing of Ethan’s cold.
After the dance, Mattie and Ethan travel back home where Wharton adds more images of cold to interfere with their relationship. Once the two get to the door, they realize that the key is missing. After frantically looking around for the key, Mattie suggests that it “might have fallen off into the snow” (Wharton 47). In this scene, the author employs the snow to interrupt Ethan and Mattie’s handholding, demonstrating the force of winter. As the two enter the house, Wharton continues to utilize the cold to separate them. When Ethan can either go up with Zeena or stay down with Mattie, he chooses to stay down despite his wife’s warning about the cold. However, as Ethan tries to have a moment with Mattie, she decides to go up. By removing Mattie, Wharton takes the warmth out of the room, leaving Ethan in the powerful cold, rendering his attempt to escape his wife useless.
Much later in the book, when Zeena returns from her trip, the author reinstates the cold setting that earlier vanished as Zeena left. The author describes the kitchen as “cold and squalid,” just like it was when Ethan and Mattie had returned from the dance (Wharton 91). Wharton does this to remind the reader that Zeena is the main reason why Ethan cannot have a relationship with Mattie. Zeena, after returning from the doctor, wants to deprive Ethan of his source of warmth so he cannot escaper her. As Ethan is in his study after Zeena decides to get rid of Mattie, the author illustrates that his relationship is now just “cold paper and dead words” (Wharton 113). Little hope remains as Mattie’s days on the farm shorten. However, with the limited warmth that Mattie still has, the two decide to make one last attempt to break free from the frozen Starkfield by crashing into the oak tree and committing suicide. However, Wharton emphasizes the cold that surrounds the sled such as Mattie’s cheek “full of cold and weeping;” to demonstrate that their attempt will ultimately fail to achieve the warmth needed to melt Ethan. As a result of the crash, Ethan is lives a life in permanent isolation, far from any source of warmth.
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.