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Effects of the Environment

In Ethan Frome, a novel about the classic struggle between pure passion and conforming to social norms, there is one prevailing theme that cannot be ignored. That theme is the tremendous effect that the environmental conditions of Starkfield, Massachusetts have on the inhabitants.

From the very beginning of the book, when the narrator is learning about Ethan from Harmon Gow, he says, “But one phrase stuck in my memory and served as the nucleus about which I grouped my subsequent inferences: Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters. (p. 7), referring to what Harmon had mentioned about the mysterious man. This description portrays the environment of Starkfield as almost an oppressive power that has control over the people who live there, including Ethan. Or perhaps it is especially Ethan who is affected by this domineering climate because Wharton says, “He had always been more sensitive than the people about him to the appeal of natural beauty” (p. 29).

This statement is referring in particular to the natural beauty of Mattie Silver, but it can also be taken to mean that he is sensitive to the natural beauty (or lack thereof) of the landscape. Ethan’s sensitivity to this allows the grim and overpowering nature of Starkfield to basically steer the direction of his life. It seems as if Ethan’s entire life consists of nothing but the dreary, such as the farm and Starkfield, or the unobtainable, such as his “studies” (that he was forced to give up on) and Mattie Silver who was also unreachable for him.

No matter how Ethan tries to escape the dreadful place, something acts as a force to bring him back to it. Another observation that can be made about the depiction of the environment is that the description of Ethan’s farm is expectedly even more depressing than the general landscape of Starkfield. Wharton at one point even chooses to relate the depleted condition of the farm to the appearance of Ethan himself. She says, “.. and to see in the diminished dwelling the image of his own shrunken body” (p. ).

It seems at this point as if the farm has actually taken on the characteristics of Ethan, or maybe Ethan took on these characteristics because of the influence from his surroundings. Either way, it conveys a sense of hopelessness to the reader; it is as if Starkfield (and especially the farm) is a completely inescapable black hole for Ethan. There are other brief instances throughout the book in which Wharton attempts to relate the demeanor of the inhabitants to their surroundings.

For example, referring to Andrew Hale, she says, “Hale sat with his feet up on the stove, his back propped against a battered desk strewn with papers: the place, like the man, was warm, genial and untidy” (p. 66). Hale, like Ethan, is surrounded by an environment that is representative of his own personality. This description does not project that cold, almost hateful feeling as the surroundings of Ethan and therefore shows that Hale probably has a completely different attitude towards life in general.

Also, at the end of the book when it appears that things are looking up from his wife’s point of view Wharton says, “She ate well, declaring that the mild weather made her feel better.. ” (p. 128). It is not clear whether “mild weather” here is referring actually to the weather or to the fact that Mattie will no longer be residing in their home, but still, Wharton relates the mildness to a greater level of physical vivaciousness. Wharton did an excellent job of setting the mood of the situation at hand simply by placing the characters in a specific environment that almost takes on its own persona.

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