Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome is a sophisticated period piece which places the reader in a poignant era of American history during the turn of the 20th century. Published in 1911, Ethan Frome can be considered a historical document that reflects the growing ideologies that came about as a result of the Progressive Era, in which people demanded social change as a result of rapid industrialization and modernization (Kennedy, 453). Throughout the text, Wharton uses setting and characterization to illustrate these sentiments of the time.
Using the setting of Starkfield, Wharton generalizes farming communities as suffering as a result of rapid modernization, foreshadowing what is to become of all farming communities. In addition, Wharton shows the fate of the rural community through her characters Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena and uses the concept of disability to highlight the inability for these characters to survive in the rapidly approaching modern society.
Wharton greatly contrast the growing industrialization of the time through her representation of Starkfield in the text.
In general, Wharton illustrates the setting of the story as cold and dead to generalize the dying farming community. Particularly in the first couple pages, Starkfield is introduced as “[being] under two feet of snow”, consisting of “deserted streets”, being “complete absence of atmosphere”, as well as being a “frosty darkness” (Wharton, 1-2). With this imagery, Wharton effectively characterizes Starfield as almost an abandoned, winter “ghost town”. Kenneth Bernard in his article Imagery and Symbolism in Ethan Frome, provides additional evidence to support this claim. In his introduction, Bernard looks specifically at the name “Starkfield”, equating it to a literal “stark field” and pointing out Wharton’s characterization of the town ad gray, mute and “cold as a grave stone” (Bernard, 179) All in all, the significance of Wharton’s use of morbid and cold imagery becomes rather obvious that it is supposed to show Starkfield as a dying town that greatly contrasts the growing, industrial metropolitan communities of the time. This “stark” contrast serve to characterize Starkfield, and farming communities in general, to be completely lost in the past and left to die as a result of the imminent modernization.
As a resident of Starkfield, Ethan’s demise throughout the story reflect the demise of every farmer as a result of industrialization. One rather intriguing characteristic of Ethan is how he has experience in both the fields of agriculture and industrialization. In the text, Ethan “had always wanted to be an engineer, and [live] in towns where there were lecture and libraries” , and he even had “ a slight engineering job” which he got after studying at Worcester (Wharton, 71). Having this experience, Ethan is left feeling this “dumb melancholy inside his heart” for he realizes there in no future for him in Starkfield (Wharton, 152). Because of this, he has accepted death, which can be further seen in his interactions with the gravestones at his home. Before he used to look at the gravestone and wonder why he has not left Starkfield yet but now the grave gives “him a warm sense of continuance and stability” (Wharton, 51). Through this quote, it seems as though Ethan understands that the time for him to leave Starkfield is gone and that death here at the farm is imminent. Through Ethan, Wharton can show the rapidly approaching end of the farmer, and with Ethan’s unique understanding of both the farming and industrial world, she shows how the farming community is not in favor overall. Furthermore, Ethan constant struggles financially help generalize the financial state of all farmer at the time. This constant reference to poverty, struggle, and separation from the modern prosperous world suggests Wharton is categorizing Ethan as Karl Marx’s definition of a proletariat. Using Ethan, Wharton is showing how all farmers represent this suffering laboring class that is coming to a demise by the hands of the growing bourgeoisie, which in this case is the modernizing, industrial metropolitan society. This type of sentiment is perfectly in line with the sentiments of the Progressive Era in which farming and rural communities formed the Populist parties to fight the growing industrial revolution. In the end, Ethan serves as the perfect vessel to characterize the struggle of all farmers and the imminent demise by the hands of modernization.
Ethan’s dying and delipidated farm acts as an extension of Ethan’s demise. Through constant morbid description, Ethan’s farm like the rest of Starkfield, is succumbing to the effects of being behind in a modernizing society. Ethan home is characterized as having “leafless trees”, “mute and cold fields” of “rigid gooseberry bushes”, which all providing an eerie and almost death like character to his home (Wharton, 50). With all this imagery as well as the gravestones at the entrance of the residence, Ethan’s home almost acts like the tombstone for the dying farming community. Kate Gschwend in The Significance of the Sawmill: Technological Determinism in ‘Ethan Frome’, looks at similar imagery of the Frome household. Particularly, Gschwend looks at the old sawmill at Ethan’s house and compares it to technology at the time. In comparison, Ethan’s water powered sawmill represent ancient or even barbaric technology that is being forgotten in time. Gschwend concludes that “the mill symbolizes…the antithesis of modernity and progress at the turn of the century” and “the rural communities that are built around the sawmill are passed over by civilization” (Gschwend, 12). With this further illustration of Ethan’s farm, it becomes clear that Wharton is characterizing Ethan’s home, and all Starkfield, as ancient or even dead, which in the end causes them to be lost in the past as a result of the everchanging world.
Unlike the death of farming communities, the role of women during the progressive seemed to enter a completely new evolution. The concept of women simply being at home and caring for the family was slowly dwindling as women were more educated, part of the working force, and were even fighting for the right to vote. Understanding this, Wharton uses the woman in the text, particularly Zeena and Mattie, to show this evolution and deviation from the previous role of women. Zeena in the text represent the homemaker which is shown in her initial encounters with Ethan where she cares for his mother and him (Wharton, 70). Since then, Zeena undergoes this transformation from being a new spark of light in Ethan’s life to her “falling silent” and ultimately being portrayed as “sickly” (Wharton, 70). This evolution indicates death of the homemaker at the turn of the 20th century, who previously was considered the ideal woman. Zeena’s worsening symptoms throughout the story, emphasize this change in women’s role at the time where being an active, educated member of society is more important than providing for one’s family. While Mattie at first is Zeena’s opposite, she as well represents the antithesis of the modern woman. While on the surface Mattie is characterized as beautify, naïve, and innocent, a more in-depth analysis shows Mattie representing the stereotypic damsel who has no place in modern society where women are independent and a member of the working class. In the article, Edith Wharton’s sick role, Lagerwey et al. address this characterization of Mattie in the text. While for the majority their focus is on Zeena and her role as the hysterical woman, they momentarily look at Mattie’s inability to find other work prior to working at the Frome household. They particularly look at the quote, “When[Mattie] tried to extend the field of her activities in the direction of stenography and book-keeping her health broke down, and six months on her feet behind the counter of a department store did not tend to restore it” (Warton, 60). This view of Mattie as “ill” symbolizes her inability to conform to the new modern role of women that are educated and hardworking. Later events in the story such as her hysterical moment after breaking the pickle dish, and even her accepts of suicide with Ethan show her understanding that she has no future in this world that demands woman to be independent, strong, and intelligent. Her ultimate disabilities as a result of the accident symbolizes how she is disabled in the world which favors the more “abled” modern woman.
Through use of her use of characterization and setting, Wharton highlights the demise of the farming lifestyle as a result of the industrialization and modernization that took place during the Progressive Era. The illustration as Starkfield and its inhabitants as cold, dark, and near death further emphasizes this claim. On the other hand, while the dying farming community takes places, new opportunities for women also occurred in the Progressive era which was shown through the downfall of characters such as Mattie and Zeena. Wharton overall characterize Ethan, Mattie and Zeena as being disabled in terms of the modern world, where they most likely would be survive or be able to exist. Wharton’s description of farming communities foreshadows the civil unrest of these rural communities who attempt to fight modernization and industrialization in the years following the novella’s publication.