Naturalism is commonly understood as an extension or intensification of realism. The intensification involves the introduction of characters of a kind (Baym, 1999) A perfect example of Naturalist work is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Ethan, one of the main characters in the book, is a old, deformed man who is in love with his wifes cousin. Zeena is Ethans wife who occasionally has psychological illnesses. Mattie is Zeenas cousin and is in love with Ethan. There are many examples of naturalism in Ethan Frome: the characters, their deformities, and their lowly place in society, their bad luck, and distasteful environment they lived in.
Ethan Frome, a significant character in the book, is very troubled. Life hasnt been pleasant for Ethan. Through his life experiences, Naturalism has been portrayed. At the beginning of the story, the reader, from the following quote, finds out that Ethan is crippled from a smash-up:The smash-up it was—I gathered from the same informant—which, besides drawing the red gash across Ethans Fromes 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 4)This is a characteristic of Naturalism because the smash-up was caused by Ethans emotions. If Ethan did not have any feelings for Mattie, the smash-up would have never taken place and Ethan and Mattie would not be injured and forced to spend the rest of their lives being taken care of by Zeena. Then, the novel goes into a flashback and the whole story of Ethan Frome is told to the reader.
The reader then finds out that Zeena, Ethans wife, is actually his cousin who came to Starkfield to take care of Ethans mother, and she never left after his mother passed away. Ethan and Zeena get married and they have a loveless marriage that took place because of loneliness. In the novel, it says that the marriage might not have taken place if it had not been wintertime. This is also another example of Naturalism because it was decision that was controlled by their instincts that if they did not get married, then they would have a lonely winter. Zeena becomes sick, and her cousin Mattie has to come to Starkfield and take care of the house. Ethan falls in love with Mattie, but is not able to express his feelings at first because of Zeena. Later on in the story, Ethan and Mattie discover that they love each other and that they cannot be together so they decided to commit suicide.
Unfortunately, the suicide attempt was futile and Mattie and Ethan both survive. In this part of the story, Ethan and Mattie are acting on their emotions because they know that they cannot runaway together, and they also know that if they commit suicide they will never have to be apart together. Ethan and Mattie would have run away together if not for their economic conditions. Because the farm was so poor, Zeena wouldnt have sold the farm for very much and she would have to suffer if Ethan and Mattie had runaway together. Although, Ethan Frome plays a very big role in this novel, Zeena also portrays examples of naturalism.
Zeenas character was portrayed to the reader as being selfish and needy. Because Zeena was not required to take care of anyone, she began to show the symptoms of sickness that Ethans mother was described to have had.
And within a year of their marriage she developed the sickliness which had since made her notable even in a community rich I pathological instances. When she came to take care of his mother she had seemed to Ethan like the very genius of health, but he soon saw that he skill as a nurse had been acquired by the absorbed observation of her own symptoms.(Wharton 53)This is an example of Naturalism because Zeenas need to be required by others led her to become psychologically sick and this affected her marriage with Ethan. In the middle of the novel, Ethan and Mattie walk home together after the dance and Zeena hasnt put out the key. To the reader, this seems like it was Zeenas instinct to not put out a key because she was suspicious of the relationship between Mattie and Ethan.
Soon after, Zeena goes to see a new doctor in town because of her sickness. This event gives the impression that Zeena is sick only because she wants to be recognized in society, and being sick is allowing her to be noticed by others. At the very end of the novel, Zeena recognizes that Mattie and Ethan have feelings for each other, and tries to split them apart by hiring another girl to take care of the house. However, the smash-up allowed Zeena to be needed by the handicapped Mattie and Ethan, and Zeena instant got better. These are examples of naturalism, because Zeena is acting on her instincts that that Ethan and Mattie are having an affair, and the outcome is that they try to commit suicide and fail and have to live the rest of their lives together with Zeena almost in poverty.
The decisions that the characters in Ethan Frome impact the rest of their lives. These decisions are all examples of Naturalism. Ethan decisions are based on his instinct and also his emotions of love for Mattie, and his emotion of loathe for Zeena. Zeenas, on the other hand, are based on by her instinct that Ethan and Mattie are in love with each other, her lowly status in society, and also their meager economic conditions. This book shows the reader that life should not always be controlled by instinct and emotion, but rather that it should be controlled by thoughts and adapting to the environment around you.
Wharton, Edith. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
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