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My take on Ethan Frome

Updated on February 15, 2015

“Ethan Frome” the Real American Man

In order to define Ethan Frome as an American it is necessary to look at the definition of an American. An American is “a person born, raised or living in the United States or relating to, or characteristics of the United States or its inhabitants”. (Hacker 1) In the story “Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton it is shown just how truly “American” Ethan is. There are obvious reasons as to why he is an American for instance he is born and raised in America. But it goes beyond the obvious reasons into the characteristic reasons. He is the quintessential idea of what most think of when they think of an American man. He is a hard working family man. He has big dreams and goals. He is a small town boy who dreams of doing many things in the world that are out of the realm of his small town life. He has had a hard life “Somebody had to stay and care for the folks. There warn't ever anybody but Ethan. Fust his father—then his mother—then his wife. And then the smash-up”. (Wharton 6) He is doing his best to live the “American Dream” but the harder he tries it seems the harder the world beats him down.

There are many diverse characteristics that define being American. Americans like their privacy and personal space. Ethan too is a very private person. During a storm the narrator takes refuge at Ethan’s and this shocks the locals into saying “I don't believe but what you're the only stranger has set foot in that house for over twenty years. He's that proud he don't even like his oldest friends to go there”. (Wharton 175) His preference for privacy is in part because he is American but it also may be due to the strife and hardships that he has faced in his lifetime. His hard life has changed him “There the silence had deepened about him year by year”. (Wharton 69) After a time of driving the narrator to the train depot he is still very guarded “He never turned his face to mine, or answered, except in monosyllables, the questions I put, or such slight pleasantries as I ventured”. (Wharton 14) American’s are very future oriented. They believe in setting goals and working towards them. Ethan was working on his education but it was cut short due to his family obligations. He still has those dreams and goals. One day after dropping the narrator off at the train Ethan finds a volume of popular science left behind. It is apparent to the narrator upon returning that Ethan was interested in the volume. The narrator learns that it used to interest Ethan very much and offers "If you'd like to look the book through I'd be glad to leave it with you." He hesitated, and I had the impression that he felt himself about to yield to a stealing tide of inertia; then, "Thank you—I'll take it," he answered shortly”. (Wharton 16-17) Ethan like most Americans still has those dreams even if he can’t act on them.

American have a strong work ethic especially back then. Ethan is no exception to that he works and lives off of the land. He owns and runs a sawmill. He has so many attributes that make him American. He is hardworking, caring, family oriented, independent, and has many dreams. Ethan is working hard to achieve the American dream. He works so hard to achieve personal happiness. He leaves his small town to attend college. “His father's death, and the misfortunes following it, had put a premature end to Ethan's studies”. (Wharton 27) To take care of his obligations to his family he gives up his hopes and dreams to return home and care for his family, their farm and their mill. “Left alone, after his father's accident, to carry the burden of farm and mill, and when his mother fell ill the loneliness of the house grew more oppressive than that of the fields.” (Wharton 69) When his mother’s illness was near its end his cousin Zenobia Pierce came to help care for her. He had often felt that before Zeena had come that he might have lost his mind too. They get close because she is his source of human interaction that he has so desperately needed. “After the funeral, when he saw her preparing to go away, he was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay there with him. He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter”. (Wharton 70) He clearly marries her out of both obligation and dread. He feels obligated to her for what she has done for him and his family. At the same time he dreads being on the farm alone again. Their marriage is one of convenience rather than true love.

Once again things seem to be looking up for Ethan. He is married and starting his life with a woman who has many opportunities and dreams like he does. They plan to sell the farm when they can and move to the city. But when things do not go as planned and he is unable to sell things being to go bad for Ethan again. Zeena “too fell silent. Perhaps it was the inevitable effect of life on the farm, or perhaps, as she sometimes said, it was because Ethan "never listened.” (Wharton 72) Ethan probably did not listen to her because all she ever did was complain. She was not happy on the farm and made that known from the beginning. Ethan did his best to keep her happy but the one thing that would have made her happy, which was to sell the farm and move, was the one thing he could not give her. Now Ethan finds himself in the same position again. Stuck on the farm caring for a sick loved one while trying to maintain his farm and mill. To help with his burden Zeena’s cousin Mattie comes to help care for her. Inevitably Ethan begins to have feelings for Mattie. Zeena catches on to what is going on and tries to put an end to it. Ethan tries to find a way to leave Zeena and go west with Mattie but he cannot find a way to make it work. He does not have the money to get them to the west let alone to care for Mattie and himself out there. He still feels obligated to Zeena and knows that if he leaves her with the farm that she will not be able to get enough money to take care of herself. He chooses to stay with his wife that he married out of obligation due to the obligations he still feels towards her. He is a good man who got caught in a bad situation.

This story is full of irony. Zeena had mainly asked Mattie to come help care for her as a way of getting back at her for things that Mattie’s father had done to their family. It is ironic that Zeena called her there to be vengeful and it ends up punishing Zeena when her husband falls in love with Mattie. Then as a way to punish Ethan and Mattie, Zeena makes plans to send Mattie away and replace her with a hired girl. Mattie and Ethan are overcome with emotion at the idea of being apart. Mattie asks him to take her down one more time "Right into the big elm. You said you could. So 't we'd never have to leave each other any more”. (Wharton 164) At first he laughs it off but eventually Mattie talks Ethan into crashing the sled into a tree in hopes of being together in the afterlife forever. In a twist of fate they survive the accident. Even though the accident was horrific “"Wust kind," my informant assented. "More'n enough to kill most men. But the Fromes are tough. Ethan'll likely touch a hundred”. (Wharton 6) It is ironic that they end up together for eternity living on the farm with Zeena. Talk about irony Zeena tried to solve her Mattie problem and ended up with a lifetime Mattie problem. In another ironic moment Zeena went from being cared for to being the caregiver. “Zeena's done for her, and done for Ethan, as good as she could. It was a miracle, considering how sick she was—but she seemed to be raised right up just when the call came to her. Not as she's ever given up doctoring, and she's had sick spells right along; but she's had the strength given her to care for those two for over twenty years, and before the accident came she thought she couldn't even care for herself”. "It's horrible for them all," to be stuck in that house together. (Wharton 178)

This story is full of amazing imagery that really makes the reader feel immersed in this cold unwelcoming terrain. The author really helps the reader feel like they are in the isolated New England terrain. This story takes place in an area where the native’s are categorized by the number of winters they have survived. Ethan has "been in Starkfield too many winters”. (Wharton 6) There is great detail put into describing Ethan. The “red gash across Ethan Frome's forehead, had so shortened and warped his right side that it cost him a visible effort to take the few steps from his buggy to the post-office window”. (Wharton 7) We get a feel for Ethan, who he was and who he is now. His life has hardened him and changed him into the man he is now. The imagery in this story shows us the “isolated world of snowdrifts, sledges, and weary struggle for the mere survival of man and beast. (Thomas, 405)

The point of view is very interesting and adds to the complexity of the story. There are two points of view. One is an anonymous narrator and the other is Ethan Frome himself. This gives the reader a different take on Ethan. Readers can see things as the anonymous narrator does that Ethan is "a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface”. (Wharton 14-15) But then the reader can also see things thru Ethan’s eyes. The reader gets the perspective that only Ethan can give since it is his life story being told. Both points of view help to add roundness to the story that helps make it all encompassing.

Ethan is an American man who faces the battle of his life. He must choose between what makes him happy and what is morally the right thing for him to do. He is trapped between his obligations to his wife Zeena and the love that has blossomed in him for Mattie. He is torn with his decision and in the heat of the moment makes the biggest mistake of his life. It cost him every chance he had at happiness. Instead of living out his dreams of a happy life with Mattie he ends up living a miserable life with Mattie and Zeena trapped under one roof. Ethan Frome is a simple American man who has done the best with what he has been given and the circumstances that have been thrown at him. While Ethan has been changed by the hardships of his life he is still an American at the core. Even with his physical disabilities he still takes on driving the narrator in order to earn some extra money for his family. In true American spirit when the times get tough American’s get tougher. Ethan will do his best to carry on and do what he can for his family because that is the kind of man he is. He is a wonderful example of America at its best. Americans are not perfect but they try their hardest.

Works Cited

Hacker. "American." Merriam-bster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2014. <>.

Ress, Neil. "AMERICAN CULTURAL TRAITS, VALUES AND ASSUMPTIONS." Http:// N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2014. <>.

Thomas, J.D. "Marginalia On Ethan Frome." American Literature 27.3 (1955): 405. Academic Search Premier. Sun. 13 Apr. 2014.

Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Http:// 4 Feb. 2010. Web. 13 Apr. 2014. <>.

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