Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, part 2
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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