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.
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