Edith Wharton's Fantasy is an Escape from Winter

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Edith Wharton's Fantasy is an Escape from Winter

Fantasy is an Escape from Winter   Ethan Frome, the title character of Edith Wharton's tragic  novel, lives in his own world of silence, where he replaces his  scarcity of words with images and fantasies.  There is striking  symbolism in the imagery, predominantly that of winter which  connotes frigidity, detachment, bleakness and seclusion. Twenty-eight year old Ethan feels trapped in his hometown of  Starkfield, Massachusetts.  He marries thirty-four year old Zeena  after the death of his mother, "in an unsuccessful attempt to  escape the silence, isolation, and loneliness of life" (Lawson 71).   Several years after their marriage, cousin Mattie Silver is asked  to relieve Zeena, a gaunt and sallow hypochondriac, of her  household duties.  Ethan finds himself falling in love with Mattie,  drawn to her youthful energy, as, "The pure air, and the long  summer hours in the open, gave life and elasticity to Mattie"  (Wharton 60).   Ethan is attracted to Mattie because she is the antithesis of  Zeena.  "While Mattie is young, happy, healthy, and beautiful like  the summer, Zeena is seven years older than Ethan, bitter, ugly and  sickly cold like the winter" (Lewis 310).  Zeena's strong,  dominating personality emasculates Ethan, while Mattie's feminine,  effervescent youth makes Ethan feel like a "real man."  Contrary to his characteristic passiveness, he defies Zeena in Mattie's  defence, "You can't go, Matt! I won't let you!  She's [Zeena's]  always had her way, but I mean to have mine now -" (Wharton 123).   To Ethan, Mattie is radiant and energetic.  He sees possibilities  in her beyond his trite life in Starkfield, something truly worth  standing up for.  Her energy and warmth excite him and allow him to  escape from his lonely, monotonous life. While Zeena is visiting an out of town doctor, Ethan and  Mattie, alone in the house, intensely feel her eerie presence.  The  warmth of their evening together is brought to an abrupt end by the  accidental breaking of Zeena's prized dish.  Zeena's fury at the  breaking of an impractical pickle dish exemplifies the rage she  must feel about her useless life.  "That the pickle dish has never  been used makes it a strong symbol of Zeena herself, who prefers  not to take part in life" (Lawson 68-69).  Ethan's response to  Zeena's rage was silence. Just as Ethan lives in silence, so too does his wife.  The  total lack of communication between the "silent" couple is a  significant factor in Ethan's miserable marriage.  Ethan kept  silent in his dealings with his wife, "to check a tendency to   impatient retort he had first formed the habit of not answering   her, and finally thinking of other things while she talked"   (Wharton 72).     Zeena is the cold and ugly reality from which Ethan tries to  escape in his dreams of a life with Mattie.  He is happy only when  imagining his life with Mattie.  The night that they are alone, he pretends that they are married.  Often when they are together, he  fantasizes that Zeena is dead and that he and Mattie live together in blissful devotion.  Ethan deludes himself because, as a prisoner  of circumstance, his only escape is illusion.  His happiness in the  company of Mattie is the product of a self-deception necessitated  by his unhappy marriage to Zeena, the obstacle to a life long  relationship with Mattie.   After the night of the broken dish, Ethan and Mattie finally  articulate their feelings for each other, and are forced to face  the painful reality that their fantasies can not come true:   The return to reality was as painful as the return to   consciousness after taking an anaesthetic.  His body and brain   ached with indescribable weariness, and he could not think of   nothing to say or do that should arrest the mad flight of the   moments (Wharton 95). "Zeena herself, from an oppressive reality, had faded into an  insubstantial shade" (Wharton 39).  Her hypochondria is her outlet,  just as Ethan's world of fantasy is his.  "It [her obsession with  her health] is adventurous in contrast to her monotonous marriage"  (McDowell 66).  Sickly Zeena is able to manipulate her husband  using her frail health to justify her bitter personality.  "When  she [Zeena] spoke it was only to complain" (Wharton 72).

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