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Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome, the main character in the book entitled Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton, has many complex problems going on at the same time. His family has died and he has a wife that is continually sick, and the only form of happiness he has is from his wife’s cousin Mattie. This, however, at times proves to be hard because of Ethan’s wifes interference. Nothing seems to be going in Ethan’s favor. The main theme of the book is failure, and this is shown through marrying his wife, not being able to stand up to his wife, and his involvement concerning the “smash up.

The first way failure is shown in the book is through the marriage of Ethan and his wife. He married her because she had tried to help his mother recover from an illness, and once his mother died he could not bear the thought of living in the house alone. His wife was seven years his senior and always seemed to have some kind of illness. It seemed all she ever did was complain, and he resented this because it stifled his growing soul. Since his wife was continuously ill, and her cousin needed a place to stay, they took her in to help around the house.

Ethan took an immediate propensity to her cousin, Mattie, because she brought a bright light upon his dismal day. He seemed to have found someone that cared for him, was always happy and could share his youth, unlike his sickly wife who always nagged him. He longed to be with Mattie, however he had loyalty to his wife. Being married to the wrong person proved to be Ethan’s first failure. Ethan’s second failure was not being able to stand up against his wife. His wife claimed that a new doctor said that she was extremely sick, and needed more help around the house.

She told him without any discussion that Mattie had to go. Ethan could not find the words to make her alter her decision. His wife also decided that Mattie had to leave the next day itself and Ethan could not do anything about it. It was stated in the book that his wife had the upper hand in the house by the line “Now she [his wife] had mastered him [Ethan] and he obeyed her. ” Ethan just could not find the right things to say and it was because of his failure of not being able to stand up to his wife, he was going to lose the only thing that made him happy.

Ethan’s last failure was the way he modified his and Mattie’s lives regarding the “smash up. ” He so desperately wanted to run away with Mattie, but he could not because his practical sense told him it was not feasible to do so. Mattie wanted so desperately to be with Ethan, that she suggested in order to stay together forever, was to die together. It was Ethan’s job to steer into the tree with the sled so that it looked like an accidental death instead of suicide. Instead of running square into the tree, he did not hit the tree right and it did not kill either of them.

Instead it just injured them , and these injuries stayed with them forever. In this way Ethan had his last failure in not exceeding to die with his love, instead he had to live with the guilt from his wife, the injured Mattie, and broken dreams. In these three ways, of marrying the wrong person, not being able to stand up to his wife, and incidents that come from the smash up, proves that the main theme of the book is failure. It seemed that everything Ethan tried to do, worked against his favor. With all the incidents that happened it seemed inevitable that his life would always be a string of failure.

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Home » Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is known as a classic novel of American realism. This short novel described a mournful situation that ruined the already afflicted lives of two lovers, and also depicted a third person whose life was dramatically changed. The catastrophe that was encountered by the characters was caused by simple human emotions. These fears and passions eventually led to one life-altering decision. Edith Wharton’s powerfully tragic novel, Ethan Frome, exposes the depths of derangement that a combined life of loneliness and hopelessness can drive a person to attain.

Ethan Frome is narrated by a nameless character who appears in the prologue and in the epilogue of the novel. This man was a youthful engineer with some time to spend in Starkfield. He was curious about the odd appearance of Ethan Frome. His investigative manner caused him to interrogate some of the town’s residents about Ethan. He received interesting feedback in choppy bits; not as a sequential story. With his newfound information, he pieced together the story of Ethan’s life. He powerfully narrated the story of Ethan Frome, a character who had withdrawn from society after years of hopeless effort to ring happiness into his life.

Ethan lived with his consistently ill wife, Zeena, and her cousin, Mattie. Ethan had a troubled life, and an unhappy marriage to Zeena. He looked fondly upon Mattie, and realized one night that he loved the young girl. Shortly after this “discovery”, Zeena went out of town to find new medicines to cure one of her new affliction. While she was gone, Ethan was excited to finally be alone with Mattie. Their private time was romantically and otherwise uneventful with the exception for Mattie breaking a glass dish that was cherished by Zeena.

Zeena returned with news that she must hire a new irl who will complete all the housework because Zeena would have to be bedridden. At first Ethan refused to believe that Zeena would force Mattie to leave. He knew he could not argue with Zeena, but decides that he would find some way to stay with Mattie. He did not want to be separated from this girl that he loved, yet he did not even know yet if she returned these feelings for him. On the day she was to leave, Ethan helped her load her things and started to bring her to get a train.

On their way, they stop to reflect on their time together and finally profess their love for each other. Rather than separate, they attempt a double suicide. More tragically then dying in each other’s arms, they survive to go on living a hellish life. The setting of this novel promotes each character’s loneliness. It took place in a small New England town in the dead of winter. The winter season drains the life out of plants, buries the houses in snow, and creates and morbid and somber seclusion. The small town of Starkfield was a cold and desolate place.

Ethan’s wife, Zeena, and Mattie, are both solitary figures. Zeena’s illness, whether wholly mental or a valid physical condition, consumed her, and permitted her from leaving the house regularly. Mattie’s ttempt to escape her loneliness was to seek refuge by working for the Frome’s. When she was told she must leave, she chose the notion of death as opposed to returning to a world of seclusion. Ethan Frome’s entire existence reflects his failure to succeed at anything during his existence. Ethan’s misfortune began at a young age.

In his youth, he had aspired to go on to study science. Family sickness and death crushed this dream. Then, after he married Zeena, he was unable to fulfill his intentions of selling the farm and moving to a city because of her bad health. His repeat defeat caused him to grow discouraged and frustrated with ge. Without emotional or physical strength, he succumbed to disappointment and abandoned his effort to persevere a life of hopes and dreams. Instead, he ended up existing in a vegetative state as he has devoted all of his time and energy to the farm.

This monotonous work provided him with little satisfaction, and his small wages were used by Zeena to purchase medicines. Without any spare money, Ethan could not escape with Mattie because he could not afford the fare for them to travel west. He was not able to bring himself to steal money by deceiving people who relate to him, so he and Mattie ecided to head for happiness in the afterlife. When their attempted suicide failed, Ethan discovered himself in a living a life more lonely and hopeless than before his failed self-destruction.

While Zeena was her usual cold and unforgiving self, Mattie had turned bitter after the “accident”. The two women fought terribly in their old age. Earlier in the story, on their way to the Flats to catch Mattie’s train, Ethan and Mattie recalled the good times they had shared in the short year they have known each other. Then they stopped to go coasting. This activity represents their last enjoyable experience together. Unable to contain hemselves any longer, they both confessed their love for each other. At the top of the hill, Mattie turned and cried, “Ethan!

Ethan! I want you to take me down again! So ‘t we’ll never come up anymore” (130). Ethan first thought that Mattie was insane to want to die instead of go away, but he then realized there is logic to her idea. The thought of going home to his hateful wife persuaded him that he would rather die there with Mattie than return to live unhappily with Zeena. They got on the sled and kissed each other for the last time. As the sled dove down the hill, Ethan steered toward the trunk of a huge elm tree. They crashed head on into the tree, but unfortunately they both survived.

Ethan’s secluded life caused him to lose touch not only with his wife, but also with the whole community. This loss of touch originated in his silence. The excessive lack of communication extended into the lives of all the characters. Ethan and Zeena rarely spoke, and the few times they did seriously converse, Zeena was quick to remind Ethan of her condescending behavior. For example, when Ethan tried to argue for Mattie to remain at their home, Zeena replied that Mattie was, “A pauper that’s hung onto us all after her father’d done his best to ruin us. I’ve kept her here a whole year; it’s somebody else’s turn now” (93).

With harsh backlashes such as this, it is no wonder Ethan partially withdrew from society and spoke only when the necessity arose. This self-implied seclusion also reflected the fact that for a long time while Ethan cared for his sick mother, she was almost mute. In his life, he was either surrounded by either words of pain or no words at all. Ethan’s isolation intensified because he was often tongue-tied when he wished to express himself verbally. For example, when he was alone with Mattie for the evening and wished to surprise her with omantic words, he could not find words to illustrate his feelings.

He only managed to say, “Come over here and sit by the stove” when in his heart he wanted to share a close and intimate evening talking with her (73). Edith Wharton crafted her writing with carefully chosen words. Her style of writing reflects Ethan’s attitude that words are many times unessential and not necessary to go on living in physical world. She has a reason for every action and each descriptive passage. Her language is direct and precise. She writes in an efficient manner so that she does not waste any time or energy y concentrating on unimportant details not pertaining to the theme of the story.

An example of this efficiency can be seen when she realized the effect Starkfield’s cold winters had on Frome. “When winter shut down on Starkfield, and the village lay under a sheet of snow perpetually renewed from the pale skies, I began to see what life there-or rather its negation-must have been in Ethan Frome’s young manhood” (14). The freezing winters killed more than plant life in the desolate village. Ethan’s Frome’s consciousness slowly withered away each harsh day he resided there. Edith Wharton played with contrasting moods in this story. In many instances she used brightness to off set the gloominess of a situation.

Wharton exemplified this contrast when Zeena announced that she is going out of town for new medicine. At first Ethan was nervous because, “Zeena always came back laden with expensive remediesshe had never been able to learn to use (53). A short while later, Ethan became light-hearted when he realized that “for the first time since Mattie had come to live with them, Zeena was to be away for a night”, and he would be able to spend the night alone with Mattie (55). The light in the novel is commonly associated with Ethan’s good pirits, mainly those concerning his love of Mattie.

To illustrate that Mattie is to hold this positive position in Ethan’s view, Mattie’s last name is Silver. Darkness is suggested throughout the story by Zeena, Mattie’s opposition. Whenever physically depicted, Zeena is seated in the dark kitchen with a gloomy expression on her face. Ethan Frome contained interesting symbolism. Wharton’s choice of symbols affected the mood of the story. Wharton used the cat as a striking resemblance to Zeena. The cat added to hopelessness of Ethan’s situation because on the evening that Zeena was away, Ethan could not enjoy himself ithout the cat’s constant interference.

Especially while Mattie and Ethan were trying to eat supper, the cat was “unbidden, and jumped between them into Zeena’s empty chair”. (68) Symbolized by the cat, Zeena had a firm hold on Ethan’s conscience even while she was away. Wharton illustrated this beautifully, “Ethan, a moment earlier, had felt himself on the brink of eloquence, but the mention of Zeena had paralyzed him” (68). The cat ended a tender moment between Ethan and Mattie when she jumped up on the table and knocked a glass dish to the floor, smashing it. When Zeena returned from her rip to Bettsbridge, she feeds and strokes the cat lovingly.

Most tragic stories contain a significant ray of optimism that manages to peak through the disheartening cloud of desperation that the book manifests. Possibly this aspiration comes in the form of the gallant qualities of the main character who portrays his nobility to the utmost extent. There is no such reassuring occurrence in Ethan Frome. Ethan was unable to rid himself of his invalid wife Zeena. Even his attempt to kill himself failed. After the painful “smash-up”, he is still fated to be with her forever, even in the grave. His failure to escape the world doomed him to a living death.

At no point in the story did he reconsider his suicide attempt and disagree with it. He possessed the attitude that wished that he had died on that snowy day; in many ways he did in fact suffer a fatality. The characters portrayed in the story were not only physically ailing, but they were also sick at heart. Their lives lacked meaning and they suffered from the death of their spirits. Although Ethan remained intact physically, he might as well have been dead. An acquaintance observed, “I don’t see’s there’s much difference etween the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard” (140).

Ethan Frome is a short novel that analyzes why a human would reach the point of hopelessness and isolation in which they were so desperate they wanted to end their existence. Wharton achieved her theme using contrasts and symbolism. The reader’s conclusion should be that one the night when Ethan and Mattie attempted suicide, Ethan did injure a tremendous part of himself. He strangled his ability to love, be loved, or to correspond with his soul. Surviving the crash meant he was forced to endure years of hellish physical and mental torment.

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