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.
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