Deserts can be either hot or cold, but all are barren and hostile, much like society can be and much like Edith Wharton’s fictional town of Starkfield, the setting of her novel, Ethan Frome. Wharton’s iconic novel, Ethan Frome follows a tragic hero caught between the conventions of society and his own happiness. The tragedy of Ethan Frome revolves around him, his sickly wife Zeena, and his mistress Miss Mattie Silver.
As a child, Frome was expected to care for his sickly mother and later in life had to stay and care for his sickly wife despite his passions for Miss Mattie Silver. In a desperate attempt to escape from his societal obligations, Frome and Silver enter in a suicide pact that leaves Silver paralyzed and Frome disfigured. After Frome recovers, he stays to dutifully care for his mistress and his ungrateful wife. Frome is a modern tragic hero who could not achieve happiness with his love due to the judgemental eye of society and his own moral code.
Frome’s position as a tragic hero helps readers to understand Wharton’s point that societal conventions and an individual’s morals often act as an impediment to the fulfilment of their desire.
Modern tragic heroes, unlike their classical counterparts, are usually average people with average traits – people the audience can relate to and are not deeply flawed like classical tragic heroes. Modern tragic heroes like Ethan Frome are good people who are barred from their goals by society or, as in the present case, the conventions of society.
Frome’s only conceivable flaw is that he can’t decide between his own happiness and that of those are around him. Societal conventions won’t allow him to be with both Mattie and Zeena, but his own moral integrity won’t allow him to leave Zeena alone being as sick as she is.
“With the sudden perception of the point to which his madness had carried him, the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had the heart to desert her he could have done so only by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him.” (124)
At the climax of the story, when Zeena is about to send Mattie away and Ethan is rushing to get an advance from one of his customers so that the two can elope, he realizes that his plan violates his moral code in too many ways for him to truly be happy. He cannot lie to his friends. He cannot leave Zeena without a caretaker. He cannot elope with Mattie. Because Frome is a tragic hero, the audience understands all of his motivations and understands that without such rigid social conventions, such as that of marriage, Frome could be happy.
“Mattie is all that Zeena is not – vivacious, warm, and beautiful… Mattie brings out the best in Frome, and he is filled with both love and gratitude.” (x)
The author doesn’t attribute a single positive trait to Zeena. Zeena doesn’t love Frome and isn’t kind to him, but Frome nurses her in her sickness because his moral code won’t allow him to do otherwise. By creating Zeena as a cold character, Wharton emphasizes the goodness of Ethan Frome so that the audience isn’t critical of him for desiring Miss Mattie Silver and instead focuses on how societal conventions and Ethan’s upright moral carriage prevent him from fulfilling his desires.
As is characteristic of tragic tales, Wharton’s story is set in the solemn, dreary town. In her story, the icy, outdated town of Starkfield represents society and it’s draining influence on the will of individuals like Ethan Frome.
“He never turned his face to mine, or answered, except in monosyllables, the questions I put, or such pleasantries as I ventured. He seemed 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; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence.” (13)
By directly showing the parallels between Ethan Frome and wasteland that is Starkfield, Wharton is emphasizing her point that society has a negative impact on the will of individuals. After giving a description of Frome’s cold, melancholy nature Wharton reiterates that Frome isn’t unfriendly or remotely a bad person, but after years of being subjected to the desolate, harsh society of Starkfield he has adopted some of its cold attributes, though he remains an unrecognized hero below the surface of his plaintive exterior.
Frome is a character devoted to others and suppressed by society. He follows his moral code even though it means he will never get to marry his true love and will instead live life tending to his ungrateful wife. Frome is unable to marry Miss Mattie Silver because he is Married to Zeena and society will neither allow him to leave his sickly wife without a caretaker nor marry Mattie. In conclusion, Edith Wharton’s choice to create Ethan Frome as a tragic hero helps the reader to understand her novel as a criticism of society.