Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, part 1

George Henry Durrie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
George Henry Durrie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In modern times, human beings are accustomed to having free will. If they do not like their job, they can quit. If they despise their spouse, they can get divorced. If they hate where they live, they can move. With the cold, unforgiving winters of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, her characters do not share this luxury. Holds are placed on Ethan’s life, so much so that they influence or dictate everything he does. Starkfield is a cold binding place, unable to release all those who feel they must leave. The past always shapes the future, and Ethan has had a very unfortunate past. His wife’s implacable command places Ethan at her mercy. The only chance of freedom, Mattie Silver, turns out to be a farce. Ethan’s “passion of rebellion” is present but is unable to manifest itself due to the confining conditions of his predicament. The suicide attempt represents a last ditch effort to escape and fails. Sickness plays a vital role in Wharton’s work. Ethan’s illness, in a sense, is not cause by any shortcomings of character, but rather, is the sorrowful consequences of a life devoid of free will, where society and circumstances bring about his grim fate.

Starkfield is not so much a place where people live but more a place where people kill time.It is always gray, cold, and desolate.During the prologue, the narrator receives rides to the Corbury Flats from Ethan.He notices in his quiet conveyor that, “his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight…but had in it…the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters” (Wharton 184).By the time the narrator meets him, Ethan has been fully deluged by his environment.It is an environment with perpetual inclement weather that promotes nothing but isolation and despair.This setting serves the purposes of characterizing Ethan’s emotions and of binding him to his predicament. Stuck in his position, he is left with no choice but to face the adversity that falls with the snow.However, the composition of this gloomy landscape provides more than just a metaphor for Ethan’s emotions and a figurative prison cell.Marlene Springer, in her analysis, “Setting and Symbolism”, posits, “the snowy chill of Starkfield, the blistery winter of the interior story, is the bleak backdrop for the entangled relationships and serves as a foreshadowing of tragedy” (Springer 1).The dark and dreary landscape mimics the dark fate awaiting Ethan.The overcast sky, perpetual snowfall, and overall grayness are the monotonous elements that characterize the vague relationship he shares with Mattie.

Ethan’s marriage to Zeena is not founded so much on love as it is founded on gratitude.Zeena cared for his sickly parents until they died and he felt obligated to marry her, but soon after she “went silent” like Ethan’s mother had.There was nothing he could do, and his desire to be rid of her becomes apparent in two important scenes.The more blatant instance is when Zeena must travel out of town to see a doctor that requires an overnight absence.Ethan relishes the chance to be alone with Mattie.The second, subtler, instance occurs when Ethan and Mattie are returning home from the dance. A dead cucumber vine hangs from the door symbolic of death and after not finding the key in its usual place beneath the doormat, “another wild thought tore through him.What if tramps had been there…” (Wharton 194).Though at face value this thought appears to be tender concern, the foreboding death symbol and this “wild thought” carries an implicit meaning in that Ethan, if for only a fleeting moment, wishes tramps had broken in and harmed Zeena.It becomes evident that Ethan’s marriage is loveless.However laborious Ethan’s toleration with Zeena may be, there are reasons out of his control that prohibit him from abandoning her.

Given the circumstances of his past, Ethan is left with no choice but to reside in Starkfield.When his parents were in good health, Ethan had been an engineering student with lofty dreams, and a job offer, “increased his faith in his ability as well as his eagerness to see the world…he felt sure that, with a ‘smart’ wife like Zeena, it would not be long before he had made himself a place in it” (Wharton 199).Young Ethan was a hopeful person, held dreams, and chased after an education in earnest.The illnesses of his parents and their inevitable succumbing to them are yet another cause of Ethan’s despondency and his capitulation to an unfulfilling life.Perhaps the most telling moment of Ethan’s dread is when he and Mattie are returning home and come upon his parents’ gravestones, which, “for years that quiet company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom” (Wharton 193).He is encumbered by the deaths of his parents, as if the headstones themselves where resting on his shoulders, weighing him down and suppressing his hope.Forced to support them with the dwindling income from a failing farm and sawmill, Ethan looks for any solace he can find but locates it in an unfortunate choice, his parent’s caretaker, and Ethan’s past is not so detrimental to his happiness as his wife is.

Zeena is the most oppressive force in Ethan’s life.Her hypochondria and/or genuine illness drain his finances.Her coldness and reluctance to communicate have a lasting effect on his inarticulate and introverted personality.He receives no love from the woman he is expected to live the rest of his days with, and, “her abrupt resolve to seek medical advice showed that, as usual, she was wholly absorbed in her health” (Wharton 197).Her self-absorption causes her to neglect her husband and makes him more of a caretaker and benefactor than a lover.Perhaps more affecting than her self-absorption is her perpetual presence in the Frome household.While off seeing an expensive physician, her cat plays the clandestine role of spy for her.While Ethan and Mattie are enjoying each other’s company, “the cat, who had been a puzzled observer of these unusual movements, jumped into Zeena’s chair, rolled itself into a ball, and lay watching them with narrowed eyes” (Wharton 204).Before this, Ethan had requested Mattie move closer to the warm stove, which incidentally meant taking Zeena’s usual chair.After testing the position out, Mattie feels uncomfortable and returns to her own place.The cat notices these “unusual movements” and acts to discourage them by occupying the chair and scrutinizing the potential lovers.This situation symbolizes Zeena’s fastidious hold on the family.Ethan and Mattie can never truly be alone unless outside the house.Beyond Zeena’s incessant observation of Ethan lies her illness.

The mysterious illness, with its only apparent symptoms being crankiness, a dour personality, and self-centeredness, speak volumes about Zeena’s rancor towards Ethan for their poverty.Mary D. Lagerway, et al, offer a sociological perspective on the issue of illness in their analysis, “Edith Wharton’s Sick Role”.They posit, “[Zeena] is not able to claim all of the secondary gains of the sick role because of the working-class status of her husband” (Lagerway et al 124).Those secondary roles, according to Lagerway, et al, are leisure, lax obligations, and dependency.This “sick role” that Zeena plays is yet another tactic in controlling Ethan. Her embrace of all the characteristics of an upper class Victorian woman represent her longing for privilege and class while simultaneously punishing Ethan for not providing them.Lagerway’s study sheds light on the social implications of Wharton’s work and it becomes more apparent that Ethan is restricted by social structure.Had Ethan been endowed with wealth, would his wife be a more loving, grateful companion?This question is not answered within the pages of Ethan Frome, however, the conflict from which it arises establishes an additional outside influence on Ethan’s life, a class structure that binds him to his fate and leaves him with a bitter and vindictive wife.

In that all-important scene when Zeena is out-of-town, Ethan, “set his imagination adrift on the fiction that they had always spent their evenings thus and would always spent their evenings thus and would always go on doing so…” (Wharton 204).He believes that even in the same town, in the same house, all his suffering would disappear if he were married to Mattie instead of Zeena.However, this is a false hope.When Ethan returns home to greet Zeena, who has recently returned from the doctor, something changes in the demeanor of his wife.She says, “I’m a great deal sicker than you think” (Wharton 209). Though literally, Zeena does feel that her condition has acquired some “complications”, implicitly this line suggests that she suspects something is going on between Ethan and Mattie.Her refusal to eat means that she is displeased and it is following this instance that Zeena reveals that Mattie must be sent away.

As mentioned earlier, Ethan and Mattie’s relationship is vague and unexpressive.The weariness Ethan’s feels from his surroundings, his past, and Zeena, manifest themselves in his relationship with Mattie.The troubles that brought about Ethan’s depression put a severe damper on this relationship.Keeping this in mind, it is also necessary to understand that Mattie is an outsider.She is depicted somewhat as a dunce.She lacks the housekeeping and caretaker skills that the younger Zeena performed so deftly.She is younger and more beautiful than Zeena ever was and she is sociable and charming.In short, she possesses everything Zeena lacks, and Ethan is not only wholly enamored by her, but views an intimate relationship with her as a way out. Yet this love is a pitfall.In Gary Scharnhorst analysis, “The Two Faces of Mattie Silver”, argues that the love is not mutual.He finds, “Mattie seems a conniving minx who plays on his goodwill in a vain attempt to remain in Starkfield” (Scharnhorst 262).He believes that her flirtatious behavior, specifically at the dance and the flashback to the picnic, is just a way of taking advantage of the crush she knows Ethan has on her.Further evidence of her deceit is seen when she finds Ethan’s letter to Zeena divulging his plans to leave, “with a sudden movement she tore the letter in shreds and sent them fluttering off into the snow” (Wharton 223).What appears to be an act of hopelessness is in reality Mattie’s implied refusal to accept Ethan’s love.Further, she knows that being sent away could very well mean her demise.Shunned by her family and pitifully unskilled, she has little prospect outside of Starkfield.With Zeena’s dismissal of her, she, like Ethan, has no option but to suggest suicide.

The broken pickle dish is the most significant symbol in the book.Though it has been interpreted to represent a plethora of different themes, most interpretations settle upon some aspect of Ethan’s marriage.Kenneth Bernard’s “Imagery and Symbolism in Ethan Frome” argues that it represents the most intimate aspect of his marriage, or rather, the lack thereof: Ethan’s repressed sexuality.Bernard argues, “barrenness, infertility, is at the heart of Frome’s frozen woe.Not only is his farm crippled, and finally his body too; his sexuality is crippled also” (Bernard 182).According to Bernard, the broken pickle dish signifies the gap in Ethan and Zeena’s marriage, a lack of intimacy.He states that the dish is ceremonial, not practical, just as the marriage is legitimized but has no heart.It is this broken pickle dish that reveals the most about Ethan’s hardship.When Zeena disposes of the shattered pieces, she is also making refuse of Ethan’s hope.

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Comments 2 comments

Richard Rowell profile image

Richard Rowell 3 years ago from Brockton, Massachusetts

Beautiful analysis of this novel. My little character analysis of Ethan himself recently posted on HubPages pales in comparison to your work here.


jambo87 profile image

jambo87 3 years ago from Outer Space / Inner Space Author

Thanks much!

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