Ethan Frome and Feminism Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 20 February 2017

Ethan Frome and Feminism

Ethan Frome is the main subject of the book Ethan Frome. Ethan’s wife Zeena from Ethan Frome represents middle class women. For a long time, social roles of women in the society and within the family were limited by gender stereotypes and social norms dominated since prehistory in a myriad of cultures. These norms were closely connected and influenced by class location of women and their social status. The following paper will focus on the main characters Zeena, Mattie and Ethan of Ethan Frome and their presentation as literary characters and their attributes of the real world struggle for feminism.

It is with Zeena and Mattie that the story hinges upon an idea of the lifestyle of women during this time period and the needs which they staunched through patriarchy. The paper will focus on how the values of this time period did not leave room for independent women and the reaction of women to this societal assignment will also be analyzed. In the work, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton the author explores questions concerning the role of social class and social position in life of ordinary people especially in reference to the gap between women and men in reference to equality.

The female characters are influenced by false social values and traditions accepted by society’s mores, but their ‘awakening’ is caused by different events and life circumstances, so they choose different methods to resist social oppression and tyranny. The dissection of women’s social roles and their ability to traverse these roles will be examined through character analysis of the literature mentioned. Ethan’s story is told, or discovered by the reader when the narrator becomes fascinated by the history of this lone man who comes into town to pick up mail.

Interest sparks greater when the silent ride to Corbury Flats is bridged by a hint or two of what Ethan lived, or had done in his life. There are elements of feminism in this book as they relate to the strength of the women of the story, such as Mattie. The main focus of this paper will explore the dual role of feminism and strength of the women through love. A snow storm comes which permits the narrator to spend the night at the Frome farm. Here the reader is shown the complete past of Ethan Frome as told by Mattie in the kitchen.

Mattie and Ethan had a forbidden love because Ethan was married at the time of their tryst. Ethan was married to a woman named Zeena and Ethan was logical with himself and thought that it would be better to run away with , and as Lawson states, The warmth of the evening is brought to an apprehensive end by the accidental breaking of one of Zeena’s sacred, never-used pickle-dishes. That the pickle-dish, a wedding gift, has never been used makes it a strong symbol of Zeena herself, who prefers not to take part in life.

The depth of Zeena’s reaction to its being broken is revealed by her angrily twitching lips and by “two small tears… on her lashless lids. ” (Lawson 30). And their love could flourish outside of the watchful eye of his wife. Their fate together however was doomed. One winter night when the moon was high in the sky, in desperation for fear of dying slowly without eachother Ethan and Mattie decided a double suicide would be a better fate and symbol of their love. Here certain feminism elements in the story can be examined such as the lack of strength in the character Mattie, but as critic R. Baird Shuman states, “there is probably no more pervasive single element in Ethan Frome than the symbolism. ”

Although Mattie loves Ethan, she does not attempt to ask Ethan for a divorce from his wife, but her ‘logical’ thought pattern suggests to there that suicide is the answer for both of them. There is a definite emasculation in this action as it does not allow the lovers to actually be together in a life, but rather to die dramatically and when this type of death is decided upon it is purely an act of attention to say to the world, or to Zeena that they are better off dead than with her in their lives.

Thus, the act of suicide is not a strong feminist action but merely a cowards way out of a live neither of them want, without each other nor understand. The suicide attempt is done by sleigh riding into a tree together. The plan ultimately and tragically fails and they live with Zeena where the narrator finds them. It seems that the true feminist in the novel is Zeena. Despite the fact that she was abandoned by her husband for his new lover, and in the fact that she takes both of them back in, her strength as a character comes through.

Ethan Frome was a strong young man doing what he thought was right. It was a sad thing that he married Zeena but then he wouldn’t have met Mattie. Ethan is an upright man with enough loyalty to love to end life with love and enough honor toward marriage to not run off like he was going to do. Ethan was a man with few woes but the ones he did have were seemingly too large to bear. How could he live without his love, but in living at all live being changed by guilt to his wife.

He was a sad man that life couldn’t do without because it made him live through the torment of having a faithful wife, this is what Kenneth Bernard speaks of when he mentions ‘true dimensions’. These true dimensions center around the revelation of character through landscape; such as the snow as a symbol of things being dormant between Frome and his wife. Although Ethan was an honorable man there does seem to be a striking difference between Zeena’s honor and Ethan’s honor; could both of them be considered feminist?

Feminism is not an theory based primarily on the injustices done to women, but is in fact a statement that women have had injustices done to them, and there is finally action and unification among women and men to stop such actions. So, the question becomes how is Wharton’s book about feminism. The concept of feminism in Ethan Frome is arranged around how the characters react with one another. Zeena is a strong willed woman who does not cheat on her husband and thus is an upright and outstanding wife, except for the fact that Ethan is not in love with her.

Zeena does not appear to have any character flaws, but she does seem to be overbearing in parts, unless that is the impression the other characters want to give of her. However, it does seem that the characters only exhibit qualities of feminism during parts of the book. It may safely be surmised that Zeena was only a faithful wife out of spite. She used her faithfulness as a weapon to shove into Ethan’s face to keep him chained to her. Zeena was a typical wanna be invalid: Complaining about anything for attention and if someone found something to be good at she despised that thing and that person.

She wanted to be the perfect Christian girl and be good to Ethan and Mattie just so that the town would feel sorry for her and say what a splendid woman she was to be kid to such a vile husband. She wanted that glory, thus although she was a strong woman in her own character this strength was a curse to those around her. The debate then is, is Zeena feminist or just a spiteful woman. Her husband cheats on her, tries to kill himself with his lover, and she takes him back and nurses Mattie.

This may seem like a genuinely good woman according to this unbiased facts, however, it is in Zeena’s reaction wherein lies the true character. This type of characterization does not have to be with patriarchy or developing an equality among women and men but facing the fact of Zeena’s deplorable character in the reasons that she allows Ethan and Mattie back in the home. Therefore, although Zeena is a very strong female character there is no reason except a selfish reason of propriety to allow her husband back in the home, and this is not a feminist woman.

Mattie’s character can best be described as sweet, loving, and at least trying to do something nice. She puts up with Zeena silently which is more than what most of the women in the novel could have done. She did what love, or what she love wanted her to do and be, a silent woman. A simple country girl looing for a life to live with someone she cares about. Thus, here is the counter to Zeena’s character. Mattie is not a strong character, so love for her does not prove that she is strong but rather weak since her escape is suicide.

She does not stand up to Zeena in any way in the beginning or middle of the novel and thus her character is even further away from being considered a feminist than Zeena. In view of this comparison Mattie is not a feminist but Zeena would be considered one, only in comparison with one another. Mattie is a silent woman, she does not challenge what Ethan says to her, she does not voice her own opinion, and she goes along with Ethan’s suicide attempt without a word of complaint or counteraction. Almost the entire story is told in the kitchen, which in a patriarchal society is considered the woman’s part of the house.

Although most people attribute women’s liberation to Betty Friedan’s wakening book Feminine Mystique the dates of women’s freedoms go as far back as 1848. During the freedom’s ferment era, women were contributing their time and ideas to many movements. One such movement included greater power for women. During the late 19th century women were not well accepted or permitted to hold positions of power in any political regime. Their daily duties consisted of housework, and motherly duties not to say that women were not including themselves in political venture, but the common belief of women’s place being in the home was widespread.

Thus, it seems that the focus of the book should not be on Ethan Frome but these two female characters. The emotional entanglement of Edith Wharton’s characters to their situations of love, sex and death, the reality for the story is one, is the complete circle of the other, and for Wharton this circle represents the emotions of the characters themselves in their unique situation, as Kuribayashi writes, “…erotic impulses are often born of close encounters with death, either one’s own or that of a loved one, though contact with death may also quench one’s sexual urges”.

In addressing these topics the subject of writing style isn’t elusive to its relevance in feminism. It is in postmodern feminism style that Wharton writes. This style of writing begets the transcendence of female writers and characters into a world where not necessarily control but freedom from man exists. This is how Wharton writes, with patches of reality mixed with cerebral counterparts. Wharton’s writing style does not reflect a precise example of postmodernism but a hybrid form of it with feminism.

She doesn’t write disjointedly but when looked at as a whole, her story comes together to reveal Ethan Frome as a patriarch of the story despite his honor and Mattie as the typical silent woman and Zeena as the witch of the story, and their story is quilted together with a basis of shared experiences coupled with various reactions. Wharton’s style of writing is one that isn’t intrusive as most postmodern writing reflects but is inclusive allowing the reader to form a cohesive viewpoint once each side of the story is known. Wharton doesn’t focus on the complete picture but the experience and emotional narration of the character’s experiences.

For these issues the inclusion of Wharton in a literary canon involves this narrative style which is very avant-garde and deserves recognition in her ingenuity and preference for that state of emotional landscaping (for it is through the details of the lives and events of these women and Ethan that the quilting effect or common thread is revealed). This is the new literary canon as derived from Munro; feminist postmodernism. This metaphoric approach to writing ensures that her craft delivers reference to feminism for each of these three characters. In this the narrative gives space to the character’s desires.

For Wharton, these desires aren’t about love necessarily but about being touched and gaining experience and not being lonely as Ethan seems to be. The true genius in Wharton’s new literary canon is that of upsetting the normal devices of narrative. As Nunes states, “As a metaphor for narrative, quilting/piecing destabilizes notions of unity, coherence, and balance; it becomes a source of disruption for patriarchal narrative structure” (1997). The style of piecing together a story becomes in this new tradition of a canon a feminine aspect. Wharton works her writing style in metaphor.

In Ethan Frome each character circles around to the next until they complete eachother, despite this circle having a negative connotation. Her writing style doesn’t necessitate an attachement between the characters but does give concord to their actions. The capacity Edith Wharton has to deliver a unique and persistent narrative exudes her place in the literary canon and the new definitions she lends to it. Her style of writing, at once reflecting her life and at once giving the reader clear identities to the characters and their emotional attachments to each other or to their own experiences makes Edith Wharton a literary genius.

It is her writing wit, intelligence, eroticism and her complexities in dealing with these issues through characters and personal development that contribute to the changing face of feminist postmodernism. The association the main characters have with each other and their identities is what makes this story intriguing in a feminist way, and their identities seem to be lost with one another as the story progresses is definitely felt. Through lack of communication between the genders, the characters find themselves imprisoned with one another.

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  • University/College: University of Chicago

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