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‘He was but the ruin of a man’.
What factors have contributed to
Ethan’s tragic fate?
The first factor which adds to Ethan’s tragic fate is time. The book is mainly set in the nineteenth century and in those times things like divorce and adultery were less acceptable. Ethan would have felt morally wrong to leave this wife working on a poor farm or just leaving her money. Ethan’s birth into a poor family and in the time he was born, meant that he couldn’t really do anything so he was left unhappy. There was no welfare state in the nineteenth century America so again Ethan had to accept the burden of looking after his parents and wife, paying all of Zeena’s medical ’needs’ with no help. Ethan must have found these times hard because he received no help, he was the one who had to help everyone else. Ethan Frome’s wife Zeena is quite a hypochondriac, as we hear in the prologue that the post-master at ‘intervals’ would hand him medicine packages. Again we hear of this at page forty seven that Zeena’s last visit to the doctor cost Ethan twenty dollars, money he can’t afford to be wasted.
We are also told about Ethan’s desire to learn about science but with no university grants at that time and Ethan being part of a poor health stricken family he had to stop studying and go back to ’caring’ just like he does for the rest of his days.
He runs a farm which seems to be run down and again because of the time there were no farm subsides to help Ethan out so the farm worries add to his plight.
Mattie’s ‘coming to [the] house’ was due to her having no work to do or anywhere to stay. After her father’s death she was ’left on her own to make her way on fifty dollars’. There were fewer job opportunities for women in the nineteenth century, hence Mattie’s ’plight’. She had to go to Starkfield because as the narrator says on page 91,
’What chance had she, inexperienced and untrained,
among the million bread- seekers of the cities?’
Communications were less developed than today or even than the time on narration, when ’winter shut down on Starkfield’ everyone was isolated. There was no telephone, radio, television, buses or cars. If you needed to contact someone it had to be by foot or horse and Ethan ’[had] been in Starkfield too many winters’ so the season, added to Ethan’s plight. Even when the railroad had been introduced it had left them ‘side-tracked’ because before ’there was considerable passing’. This left Ethan and his family even more alone and desolate from the rest of the country.
The second factor is the place the novel is set in. The name Starkfield is suggestive of deprivation and lifeless souls, all contributing to Ethan’s hardship.
The main season in the novel is the ’enemy’ of winter. Edith Wharton uses the climate to match the feelings of people in Starkfield, walking with a ’sluggish pulse’.
Wharton uses a military metaphor on page seven,
‘Storms of February had pitched their white tents
About the devoted village and the wild cavalry of
March winds had charged down to their support’.
As I was saying before, the presence of Ethan in Starkfield for the whole of his life has added to his plight. The metaphor is showing how the residents of Starkfield, they are defeated by the winter, allowing the reader to understand why Ethan stayed. The narrator wonders, ‘how could any combination of obstacles have hindered the flight of a man like Ethan Frome’.
Ethan Frome is again associated with the ‘melancholy landscape’, an incarnation of it’s frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface’. Ethan Frome is very quiet and depressed, he is an embodiment of silence, keeping all of his feelings to himself. We can conclude that he is only like this because of the harsh winters, the suffering and repression.
Another little reminder to Ethan that he has been stuck in the depressed village is the Frome gravestones at his house. Ethan did want ‘change ... more
Find essay on Ethan Frome Is
13 May 1994
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"
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"
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).
Ethan and Mattie attempt to preserve their happiness and
remain together ... more
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