Since the beginning of storytelling and writing, authors have constantly implemented the thinly-drawn distressed female into their works. The most evident examples have been in fairy tales, in which princesses or beautiful maidens find themselves in terrible situations, usually due to an evil witch or being, and desperately await a heroic male to rescue them. However in most recent works, the presence of a damsel in distress is less obvious, as is the reason to why a certain character ended up that way.
In Edith Wharton’s book Ethan Frome, Wharton reimagines the classic damsel in distress situation through Mattie Silver and her relationship with Ethan Frome, while highlighting how society affected relationships between men and women at the time.
Since the story is told through Ethan’s eyes, at first Mattie Silver appears to be the perfect woman, especially when compared to Zeena. In the drama of the novel, Mattie’s shortcomings and character flaws aren’t as evident. However, when the reader delves a little deeper they notice how Mattie has a very foolish, almost childish nature and exhibits all the qualities of the stereotypical damsel in distress.
Mattie is someone new within Starkfield, a bleak, dreary location. She is young, beautiful, and full of life, qualities that mirror those of an innocent maiden within a folktale. When she is assigned to do chores within the Frome household, Mattie constantly turns to Ethan for aid, since she doesn’t know how to do anything due to her wealthy beginnings.
Ethan, the heroic male in this scenario, more than willingly helps her do her duties, rescuing her from Zeena’s rage. A moment in the novel where it is clear that Mattie is nothing more that a helpless girl is when Zeena’s pickle dish breaks. Mattie had taken Zeena’s pickle dish off from the top shelf in preparation for her dinner with Ethan; however, during their dinner, Zeena’s cat ended up knocking it over and shattering it. This is when, Mattie, shocked by the grave mistake she commited, assumes her damsel in distress persona. She cries and desperately asks Ethan what they are going to do, highlighting her helplessness. Ethan readily takes on the role of the hero once more demanding her to stay calm and telling her that he will fix the problem by trying to purchase some glue the next day. The way that Mattie instantly obeys his order reveals just how weak and thinly-drawn her character is.
Her character is nothing more than a woman who leans on a man to help her across every obstacle she encounters, typical behavior coming from a damsel in distress. Moreover, the fact that Ethan is drawn to Mattie, someone who is weak and submissive, instead of Zeena, someone headstrong and outspoken, emphasizes what society at the time expected out of the relationship between a man and a woman. When Ethan was educating Mattie, taking care of her, and making all the choices for her, he felt strong and in the right headspace. Men at the time were more attracted to women they could dominate, and society expected women to follow and support their husband’s decisions without much question.
The archetypal damsel in distress situation in this novel is unique due to the fact that it is actually an outcome of society and societal expectations in that specific time period. Mattie’s innocent, compliant behavior was strongly influenced by society’s views on women. Mattie’s character ended up becoming a very stereotypical female, and her personality also lacked depth as we only saw her through Ethan’s dominating viewpoint. Ethan Frome’s heroic actions were also largely influenced by how society dictated men should act within the household and within a relationship. In the end, Ethan and Mattie’s relationship was reduced to what society saw as acceptable: a submissive woman and a strong, decision-making man.