Ethan Frome Essay
Ethan Frome had nothing but sickness and trouble. His life revolves around taking care of one invalid after another, from his father, his mother to his hypochondriac wife and finally ending up as a disfigured and very image of “ruin of a man”. He failed to achieve any of his ambitions to leave town and become an engineer and did not succeed even in his desire to run away with Mattie Silver. Aside from poverty, the rigid moral character of Ethan prevents him from going against the social conventions in favor of his personal ambitions and fulfillment.
Set in New England, in the rural town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, this literary piece was written by Edith Wharton in 1922. The bleak environment of seemingly endless winter aptly sets the tone of the story and the fate of Ethan Frome. A narrator who was forced to stay in Starkfield because of a workers strike was instantly fascinated by Frome’s appearance that looks quite old for a man of fifty-two and disfigured since an accident twenty-four years ago when he first saw him outside of the post office.
He went on to find out more about him as he “had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story” (1). The story of Ethan Frome is a portrayal of a passive and unhappy man who is weighed down by his duty to his wife and his bitter existence as a poor farmer. Ethan had been in Starksfield since his youth when his father died and he had to come home to take care of his ailing mother and their farm. Prior to this event, he was taking a technological course in Worcester but the lack of money prevented him from realizing his dream to become an engineer.
He decided to marry Zenobia Pierce or Zeena, his cousin who came to help him care for his mother, after the burial as he was afraid to spend the winter alone. Though Zeena was lively and cheerful at first, she later on fell silent and sickly. He woulf often think that had his mother died in the springtime he would not have thought of offering marriage to Zeena. Her illnesses became her obsession as she would go on a monthly trip to Bettsbridge to see her doctor. For rural towns like Starkfield, people with sickness or complications are common topic for conversations and are “singled out for a great fate”.
Zeena’s illness became her weapon that she uses to take control of the household and of Ethan. Mattie Silver actually came to the Fromes to do the household chores in exchange for the food and shelter as she was also destitute after the death of her parents. Since she was not used to doing housekeeping, Ethan would help her out in doing her chores just so she would not incur the wrath of Zeena. Ethan eventually fell in love with lively and cheerful Mattie who gave Ethan respite from the isolation and loveless match with a sickly and whining woman.
The illicit relationship however advances to no more than holding of hands as both Mattie and Ethan are too afraid to defy the forces of social and marital duties. The time came though that Zeena decided to send Mattie away because of a broken red pickle dish that is symbolic in the story of the marriage of Ethan and Zeena. The idea of living apart from each other was unbearable for Mattie and Ethan that upon the suggestion of the former, they went on to take a sleigh ride that would crash them into the big elm tree.
The attempted suicide failed leaving Ethan disfigured and Mattie a paralyzed woman. The irony of the story is that in the end Zeena seem to overcome her illness and became the caregiver of the now invalid, whining Mattie and the lame Ethan. The entire life of Ethan Frome had been a series of dreams destroyed because of the circumstances of him being poor and his adherence to social duty. His opportunity to leave town and finish education to eventually become an engineer was hindered when his father died and he has a farm and an ailing mother to take care of.
Their farm as he said was “side-tracked” when the railroads where put up and no more people came to town. He blames this as the cause as to why his mother’s condition deteriorated. It could also mean the lost opportunities for the town and also to him as the place got left behind in the course of development. Ethan was one of the people stuck in Starkfield, a place where “most of the smart ones get away”(14) as Harmon Gow, the stage driver in the story, aptly puts it. The bleakness that surrounds Starkfield, for one thing, is not an environment that would nurture youth and create a field for dreams to come true.
The narrator in the story noted that although he initially felt invigorated by the clear blue skies and shocking white of snow, this was soon followed by long periods of cold and darkness that he begun to understand the “deadness of the community” (15). In an environment that was neither nurturing nor bountiful, Ethan is further subdued into the tangled web of harshness and scarcity. The Fromes practically had to eke living from what little they could get from their farm for their survival. The connection between the land and the people is symbolic in the story.
The environment made life for the townspeople difficult such as when Ethan and another man had to struggle in the sleet just to be able to transport logs. Starkfield is isolation in itself, with the places beyond it seen as a place to “get away” so as to seek a different fortune or freedom from the drab and coldness of the place. The limitations of the environment coupled with poverty further intensified the lost potentials of Ethan Frome. There was the poignant scene where the narrator accidentally left his biochemistry book in the sleigh and later on sees it in Frome’s hand.
Ethan was both fascinated and humbled by the book as he exclaimed, “There are things in that book that I didn’t know the first word about” (18). It shows that Ethan’s curiosity and intellect had very few outlets in that kind of environment. For a fifty-two year old man who found excitement in a book, it is painful to think of what he could have been had he got the chance to explore his potentials. The conflict between personal passion and social convention is another theme portrayed in the story. The character of Zeena and Mattie were so different that the reader would readily understand the choice of Ethan between them.
Mattie symbolizes beauty and energy in her ways, in the colors that she uses from the ribbons in her hair to the dish that she illicitly uses whereas Zeena possesses the deathly and sickly qualities in life. The sexual and emotional frustration in the marriage of Zeena and Ethan is symbolized by the unused pickle dish. Though shown as Zeena’s most prized possession, it remains at the topmost of the china closet left and unused. The barren relationship that they have is further portrayed with them not having children and hardly ever sharing a conversation.
Ethan fell in love with Mattie and had come to hate Zeena but his strong sense of marital duty prevents him from deciding to be with Mattie. He acts with uncertainty and frustration under the looming shadow of his obligation to Zeena that it created a conflict in him. Ethan is also hesitant to leave his sickly wife for he believes that if he went away it would leave Zeena alone and penniless. Even in the moment when Zeena went away, her presence was greatly felt in imagined visions and in the symbol of the cat.
Conventionally, the society upholds marriage as a sacred bond and is, in fact, at the apex of the set social orders. A man and woman are joined in marriage; it is protected by the norms of the society to keep the union intact. The critical eyes of the society is so that it could even permeate walls of intimate moments like the evening that Ethan and Mattie spent together when Zeena went away from the town to see a doctor. Their excitement though withered when the cat broke the dish and the looming figure of Zeena in their minds.
Zeena’s absence bear more weight that her presence that conversation became impossible. The circumstance does not allow them to attempt to recreate a fantasy of life together, spending an evening as a husband and wife would. Their passion was shrouded by guilt and the unseen eyes of the society that both of them felt in the situation. As Ethan noted ” in the warm lamplit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she (Mattie) seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable” (54).
Conformity and order in the living room reminded Ethan that it belongs to Zeena and Ethan and could never be Mattie and Ethan. And when Ethan crossed the line when showed the slightest act of passion by kissing a piece of cloth that she was sewing, Mattie was spurred into retreating, scared of the repercussions with the transgression made. Poverty also limited the illicit lovers from taking serious step in pursuing an adulterous affair. Mattie, for one, was in a very precarious condition being dependent on the Fromes for her daily sustenance.
Having nowhere else to go, she is also afraid of going into that kind of relationship with Ethan that could take away the refuge that she now has. Ethan, on the other hand, his duty to his wife and even to the Hales prevents him from acting on the situation like the loan that he planned to take from the Hale in able to elope with Mattie. Ethan did not only sacrifice his chance on love but he also sacrificed his ambitions just so he can fulfill his social duties.
He had to give up his dream to move out of Starkfield and of becoming an engineer to care for his father, his mother and the farm. And upon the death of his mother, he end up in frustrated desire to fulfill his dreams for he was trapped in a marriage with a sickly wife whom he cannot bear to leave because of her condition. Though a sympathetic character, Ethan Frome can be also frustrating because of his lack determination to change the course of his life. He allows circumstances to take over him and did not decidedly pursue his interests and ambitions.
Like the epitaph of the original Ethan Frome in the graveyard with his wife Endurance, he endures rather than act on his fate in pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. In his relationship with Mattie, instead of finding the courage to address his dilemma he opted for suicide with his lover, which he did not even decide on but took on upon the suggestion of Mattie. This was his only bold decision in the entire novel but this too ended up as a failure leaving him ruined and destined to live his entire life with an invalid lover and a controlling wife.
Though Ethan is a sensitive and decent person he lacks emotional strength and determination. Instead of mustering enough courage to defy conventions, he chose not to take decisions and face the consequences of it, The deadened vitality of Ethan Frome from the decades of frustrations and his inability to rise up beyond the circumstances had left him in a situation where is “not much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard”.