Some decisions have an everlasting effect on one’s life. Ethan Frome, the protagonist in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, is tormented by his passionate love for Mattie Silver, but is morally shackled to Zeena by the sacred bonds of marriage. After years of harsh life with his wife in the dreary town of Starkefield, Ethan comes to believe that his greatest chance at a happy life is with Mattie Silver, a cousin of Zeena, who has come to live with him. However, in the end Mattie’s other side, one which is extraordinarily similar to Zeena’s attitude, comes to light, after a thwarted suicide attempt. In Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton makes an ironic comment on the choices present in an impoverished world by presenting contrasting images to describe Zeena Frome and Mattie Silver, yet also presenting details which make them seem alike.
Wharton suggests that Mattie’s cheerful attitude, her spirited activity, and her ability to inspire confidence in Ethan, prompts him to believe that Mattie could bring him bliss. One of the reasons why Ethan thinks that Mattie could turn his life around was because she usually overflowed with cheerfulness and energy. Ethan is often fascinated by “her gaiety [, which to him,] was a plain proof of indifference.” Her cheerful image contrasts sharply with that of Zeena who is selfish and melancholy, and brings some cheer into his otherwise dull life. Mattie again exhibits her ability to spread warmth while she learns her household duties. When Ethan sees her performing her household duties awkwardly, he bursts out laughing, and, to his surprise, Mattie also “burst[s] out laughing and this made them better friends.” This incident baffles Ethan who assumed that a woman would blush with embarrassment instead of laughing it away and charms him so that the idea comes to be implanted into him that Mattie would bring him a happy life. Mattie brings him further happiness by simply listening to him especially when he talks of subjects completely new to her.
When he talked about stars on their way back from the dance, Ethan and Mattie stood “entranced” and gazed at the starry sky. Talking to Mattie of such subjects gives Ethan a considerable amount of pleasure because he could impart his knowledge to an eager, cheerful and somewhat ignorant listener. Mattie’s colorfulness and liveliness also helps Ethan to fall in love with her and strengthen his conviction that she could bring happiness into his life. Mattie’s colorfulness and liveliness is seen in the church where Mattie is dancing. Ethan, who is seeing through the window, is entranced by her graceful figure as she danced, and when “scarf flew off her head and stood out behind her shoulders…[revealing her] laughing panting lips.” By just looking at her dance, Ethan seems to share the joy that Mattie feels as she dances. Her liveliness also differs with that of Zeena who is something of a cold, selfish introvert and seldom goes outside for the fear of her health. Another scene in which Mattie’s liveliness captivates Ethan is when they are alone in the living room while Zeena was in Bettsbridge.
While Ethan was talking to Mattie, she changes her countenance frequently “like a wheat field under a summer breeze.” Ethan takes a secret pleasure in seeing how Mattie reacts to his remarks especially when they talk about Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale’s upcoming marriage and is overjoyed to see Mattie blush when he recounts what he saw Ruth and Ned do. Yet another scene in which Mattie’s activity strengthens his belief is when Mattie knits by the fireplace. As she knits, he watches in admiration as her fingers fly like “a pair of birds making short perpendicular flights” over their nest. This encourages his notion because she seems to be able to knit like his mother could in the happy days before the illness had taken her. He also shows his appreciation of her abilities by kissing the “stuff” she made.
Mattie’s ability to inspire confidence in Ethan also leads him to believe that Mattie could guide him to a happier life. Mattie’s ability to inspire Ethan’s confidence is clearly shown when they are walking home from the dance. While walking home he talks to her about the “Orion,” “Aldebaran,” and the “Pleiades.” Mattie listens to Ethan eagerly, leading him to wonder how his dull talk could interest a carefree person who cared little about stars. Mattie also inspires confidence in Ethan when the cat breaks the pickle dish. Shocked and terrified she raises her eyes to him for a solution and “his courage was up.”
He is able to free her mind of the broken dish and able to mend it enough so that it would look unbroken until he could obtain some glue to fix it. Mattie’s ability again inspires Ethan to gain self-confidence when Zeena orders Jotham Powell to take Mattie to the railway station. He gains self-confidence by looking at Mattie’s stricken face and responds by insisting to Zeena that he “would take Mattie over” to the railway station. This incident in which Ethan was able to muster enough self-confidence to oppose Zeena shows how Mattie is able to directly or indirectly to encourage Ethan to have confidence in himself, thus corroborating his idea that he and Mattie could lead a happy life.
Despite Mattie’s untiring gaiety, Wharton includes scenes in which she is closely related to Zeena to imply that Ethan’s choice is nothing but an illusion. One of such scenes in which Mattie closely resembles Zeena is when she prepares the table when Zeena is in Bettsbridge. While she prepares the table, she uses the pickle dish which Zeena “never meant [for it] to be used.” Mattie shamelessly using the pickle dish strongly resembles the character of Zeena because like her, Mattie uses the dish secretly and with deception, a quality of Zeena’s which Ethan abhors. Mattie again shows strong resemblance to Zeena when she and Ethan sit down in the living room to pass time.
When she sits down to sew in Zeena’s chair, Ethan sees in Mattie’s face the face of “the superseded woman” who was then at Bettsbridge. This shows that Ethan’s choice is an illusion since Zeena haunts him even when she is not present and disproves the idea that Ethan would be happy with Mattie because even then Zeena’s face would haunt him. The character of Mattie after the coasting accident rudely reveals to Ethan that he had never had any choices all along. When he takes the narrator into his house, the narrator faces two women who look sickly; Zeena looks “old, and gray with…pale opaque eyes” while Mattie looks “bloodless” and “her eyes [have] a witch like stare.” The narrator also reveals that Mattie’s voice sounds querulous like Zeena’s voice. This shows how Mattie and Zeena are similar and the dependency of both the invalids on Ethan–contrary to the dreams of Ethan in which he and Mattie would have been free.
Wharton depicts the sharp contrast between the morose Zeena and the gay Mattie to imply that Ethan’s choice is obvious. However, Wharton includes scenes that show the resemblance of Mattie to Zeena to warn the unsuspecting Ethan that Mattie has another personality, which is just as bad as that of Zeena. In the end, Ethan realizes that Mattie had just been a wolf in a sheep’s clothing and that from then on he had to carry burden to care for 2 invalids as well as himself.