Is the cause of fate an attitude toward life, or is it the people or places one has known? Edith Wharton shows within her book, Ethan Frome, how choices determine one’s fate. Ethan Frome is a story about a man who marries a woman whom he does not love, and he soon falls in love with his wife’s cousin. As the plot unfolds, Ethan is forced to make decisions that will either bring him to the life of love he is looking for, or it will lead him down the path of defeat and failure. The choices he makes will affect the way his future is revealed, and the author, Edith Wharton, examines and explains this through her plot, the conflicts that occur, and the use of irony within the story in order to provide understanding to why this theme is true.
The choices that Ethan makes are main steps in the plot that allow an opening for the next step further in the book. When “He asked [Zeena] to stay with him” (Wharton 29), Ethan creates his first choice that leads to the next. This indicates how marrying Zeena, turns his life around as he takes a different path. In addition to that, instead of falling in love with the girl he did marry, Ethan starts loving Mattie, causing the plot to move even further on. “Oh Matt I can’t let you go!” (Wharton 70) He says as he confesses his love for her. He can’t love his wife, and when he falls for Mattie it changes his whole life. These choices bring the plot further along and cause the rest of the story to rest on them. The author also defines Ethan’s character in the beginning and end of the book to show that his choices lead to his sad life within the plot.
In the very beginning of the book, Ethan is portrayed as a man who has been through devastating events that cause him to have “something bleak and unapproachable in his face…” (Wharton 1). This displays how the reader knows that Ethan’s life is full of tragedy and how his choices lead to it. Ethan’s life is not just defined in the beginning of the book; his life is also wrapped up in the end saying “…It’s him that suffers the most” (Wharton 77). This indicates the effect of all his bad choices: sad and full of suffering. With this in mind, the plot explains Ethan’s life in the prologue and epilogue to begin and end the tough life of Ethan Frome. Ethan’s conflicts within himself cause him to make swift and unsure decisions that end in poor outcomes. His poor choice when he asked Zeena to stay was based on the conflict with himself. “He was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone… [And] before he knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay there with him” (Wharton 29). Ethan is fighting with himself because he does not want to be alone and forgotten, so he tries to end that conflict by making the easy choice: he asks her to stay. In addition to that, Ethan has conflict not only with himself but with his life in general. He felt that “The sweetness of Mattie’s avowal… made other vision more abhorrent, the other life more intolerable to return to” (Wharton 71). This caused him to make the wrong choice of killing himself rather than facing his life and ruining what he had in the long run.
The conflict with Ethan’s wife is also the effect of poor decision making in the story. Ethan’s poor choice to hide the broken dish rather than to confront his wife causes conflict with her. When he “…Laid the pieces together… [so] that a close inspection convinced him of the impossibility of detecting…that the dish was broken” (Wharton 36) he opened up a new form of deceit that caused the argument. If he had only told her that the dish broke when she came home, he could have avoided the worst of the conflict with her. Even more so, Ethan falls in love with Mattie which causes conflict with his wife. He has an argument for the first time with Zeena, which is caused by his choice to love Mattie. Zeena jealously states, “’I’ve kep’ her here a whole year: it’s somebody else’s turn now’” (Wharton 49) when she announces that she is sending Mattie away. If Ethan didn’t fall in love with Mattie then Zeena may not have wished to send her away resulting in an argument between the couple. If Ethan hadn’t chosen to commit adultery, then he may have not caused the conflict between him and his wife. The conflict with Ethan’s poverty and bondage leads to poor decisions based on feelings of petulance. Ethan’s choice not to strengthen his relationship with his wife causes the story to grow when they have their first fight. When it is revealed that “it was the first scene of open anger between the couple in their sad seven years” (Wharton 48) the reader finally understands how they were not the best couple. They had never fought before, but they still don’t try to act like spouses when they could have gotten to know one another and fallen in love.
Not only the miscommunication between the couple, but also Ethan’s choice to stay and take care of Zeena rather than going back to college, causes the intensity to rise. Ethan decides to stay and take on the burden of his family members and the farm. “’Somebody had to stay and take care of the folks. There warn’t ever anybody but Ethan.’” (Wharton 2) True, he had to care for them, but he was not obliged to marry Zeena and he could have gone back to college. Sadly, because he decided to bring her into the family, he was taken prisoner and had to live the rest of his days with her at the house. Both his choices to marry Zeena and not to love her cause Ethan to have conflict with her and problems with the rest of his life. The irony of Ethan Frome expands the reader’s mind, causing him or her to have a deeper understanding on decision-making. It shows how decisions may not all be the best even when they seem like it and how the dramatic irony in the end causes the reader to know that Ethan ruins his life by going down that hill. The irony also shows how Ethan himself is ironic as a character. The decisions that he makes seem good at the time, but, ironically, they all turn out for the worst. It seems good for him to fall in love with Mattie because she was a good person, and when they were alone together, “he would have liked to stand… with her all night in the blackness” (Wharton 19) for it seemed right that they should be together. Since he is enamored with Mattie, Zeena’s jealousy grows, causing the couple to plummet into a tragic future.
Mattie is not just another person; she was also lively and that’s just what Ethan needed in his life. Ethan was captivated with Mattie because she was like the bright summer when compared to the wintery cold of Zeena. When “[Ethan] kept his eyes fixed on [Mattie], marveling at the way her face changed with each turn of their talk, like a wheat field under a summer breeze,” (Wharton 38) he knew that he needed the life in her that his wife didn’t have. If he had only tried to make Zeena this way then they could have been happy. Since he fell for Mattie instead, Ethan’s life fell down hill. In the last choice of the book, the reader knows principally how it will turn out, so the dramatic irony reveals Ethan’s true fate rather than the one he was looking for through the choice that he makes. If he had only left Zeena when he had the chance, he would have had a better life. Ethan wrote, “Zeena, I’ve done all I could for you, and I don’t see as it’s been any use…Maybe both of us will do better separate” (Wharton 56). The reader, here, wishes he would leave because they know how his life turns out when Ethan doesn’t. Instead of leaving, though, Ethan makes a different decision that leads him to the next one: committing suicide.
Ethan doesn’t think deeply about the outcome of this choice; he just listens to the girl that he wished he could spend the rest of his life with. When Mattie suggests, “’the coast right off… So’t we’ll never come up any more’” (Wharton 70) Ethan thinks her crazy first, but then realizes that it may not be such a dreadful idea, for he had nothing that he loved back home. He decides that he would be better dead, but the reader is telling him not to attempt suicide because they know that he won’t die. Once he chooses to die rather than running away, he ruins his life because he doesn’t die. Ethan as a character is perceived as a strong-willed, lively man with a dream, but, because of his choices, he ironically turns out to actually be a pushover who allows his sympathy, compassion, and thoughtfulness to cause him suffering. Ethan thinks too much about what will happen to Zeena if he leaves. “But what of Zeena?” (Wharton 56), Ethan asks himself when he debates to leave or not. He should have just left rather than think about the outcome. Ethan also thinks too much about Mattie in the beginning of the book. He helps her because he is too sympathetic and that makes Zeena jealous. When “He did his best to supplement her unskilled efforts” (Wharton 15), he brought upon him the anger of Zeena when he didn’t have to have it. If Ethan hadn’t helped Mattie then he may not have caused his wife to be jealous.
If Ethan hadn’t been a push-over, he could have saved himself from the defeat that binds him in the end. Edith Wharton reveals the theme; choices determine fate, through the plot structure, the conflict, and the irony to give valuable understanding on making choices and to go in depth on how it happens in Ethan Frome. If choices are the thing that determines fate, then decisions should be made wisely, for one may not wish for the fate that the choice provided.
Works Cited Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Dover Publications, 1911. Print