Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome is often referred to as a classic American novel. Set to the early American rural backdrop, Starkfield, Massachusetts, it weaves the tale of Ethan Frome, a desperate man caught in a dead marriage but passionately in love with his wife’s cousin. The story mostly rotates around his agony and desperation in how to morally deal with his desire (affair) and his responsibility (wife).
Although it is historically considered a tragedy, many, including the literary analyst Lionel Trilling, believe it “contrived . . . as the phrase goes, “merely literary” (388).
Oh, how wrong they are!
Ethan Frome is under no circumstances “literary”. While it simmers with symbolism, the characters, suffering, circumstances, and even the symbols themselves are not “merely literary” at all, but are all based entirely on fact. Wharton wrote the novel about herself and that life. Not only is it modeled after her life, but it copies her existence verbatim. With that understood, the novel, while becoming more drab and ordinary, grows clearer, like the limpid Lake Geniva in the pristine French Alps. With that in mind, it presents much to society while serving as a brief insight into the author’s tumultuous life.
Edith Newbold Jones was born into a prominent New York family in 1862. She was educated (as much as any girl could be at the time) and obviously had a passion for the arts as is evident in her stylistic writings (Bass).
Edith Wharton's novel, Ethan Frome, is a tragic tale about the memories of a once young man and the choices that one makes which all have their own consequences. Ethan Frome is first seen as a quite, disfigured old man. In chapter one we go back into the past that was once Ethan Frome's. The author of this novel wanted this tragic story to have those in her lifetime change their veins to certain ...
In 1885, she married the wealthy Edward Wharton; they hated each other. With the exceptions of their societal backgrounds and love of travel, he was her exact antithesis. Wharton lived simultaneously in Massachusetts and France, allowing her to endure Edward while playing with the dreamily artistic Morton Fullerton. In 1908, Edith began an exhilarating affair which ultimately led to disappointment. Shortly after the shortcomings of the affair, she published Ethan Frome (Campbell).
Doesn’t this seem familiar?
From the beginning, Edward is the much older (twelve years) spouse—Zeena (Campbell).
While Zeena is only a mere seven years older than Ethan, the connection is made. Also, Edith suffered an estrangement with her mother and, like Zeena did for Ethan when his mother is dying, Edward helped her cope with that. Most obviously, and hardest to ignore, is the domination that Zeena possesses. Zeena clearly, and lamely put, wears the pants in the family because Zeena is a man—Edward.
Therefore, Ethan is Edith. The similarities are as countess as the stars on a clear night. Even the names are alike thanks to the clever and tricky author. In addition to that, Ethan is barely educated, faces problems because of his mother, abhors his marriage, distastes the cultural animosity against divorce, and has a deep love of nature. All of these things are notable aspects about Edith as well (Campbell and Bass).
Most notably though, is Ethan’s apparent lack of a spine. He is quite effeminate and rightly so. Men and women have two different brains; they may both see the same situation, but their instincts differ vastly. While Wharton attempted to write this novel using Ethan as the main character, she failed to truly delve into the male psyche, because every thought and emotion that he feels is ultimately that felt by the female author.
For example, in their entire seven years of marriage, Zeena and Ethan never fight except for the one time he attempts to upset her emotional brawn by refuting her decision to send Mattie away. Although this assertion fails, Ethan still feels shamed about his forfeit of the docility superiority (Eggenschwiler 242), and “felt as if he had lost an irretrievable advantage in descending to the level of recrimination” (112).
The Destruction of Ethan Frome In this classic tale of Ethan Frome, written by Edith Wharton is set in a small town in Massachusetts, a farmer with no love for his dreary wife is given his forsaken fate. Ethan is married to Zeena, a nagging hypochondriac, and Mattie, a girl of relation to Zeena who does some housework and is very beautiful. The combination of Mattie and Zeena are Ethan Frome's ...
The thought of simply ‘going along’ with the dominant spouse seems like something that only a woman would do in 1911.
The most pressing example of Ethan’s effeminatity is noted in the sledding incident though. Despite that Ethan spends most the novel bragging of how he can steer a sled, while ignoring the thought that he begins sitting in the rear of the sled to steer, he orders Mattie to switch positions with him. Ethan whispers, “. . . I want to feel you holding me” (121).
What a chick! In this, their last moment of romance, Edith—sorry, Ethan—whispers that he wants to die wrapped in the passionate arms of his lover, Mattie.
Mattie is yet another character representative of someone else, and while it is not as distinct and overwhelming as the previous two, the connection between her and Morton Fullerton is made. Morton Fullerton was a writer that Edith began an affair with. There was much more between those two than her and her real husband. For instance, and most basically, they shared each other’s artistic flairs. They could relate better just as Ethan and Mattie could relate better in even simple instances. One, for example, is their ability to even associate with each other on any sort of a verbal level—a feat Ethan wishes he could master with Zeena. Better still, Edith began her affair with feelings of exhilaration and excitement, a feeling common to any budding relationship, just like Ethan does. He feels so relaxed and loved around Mattie that even in their simple and seemingly uneventful night alone “he sets his imagination adrift in the fiction that they always spent their evenings thus and would always go on doing so” (90).
However, like most relationships, Edith’s feelings for Morton eventually waned. Just like Ethan and Mattie’s sledding attempt, Edith and Morton’s affair fizzled and was ultimately unsuccessful.
Or perhaps she wasn’t merely representing the demise of her relationship with Fullerton. Perhaps she was writing to herself. The hyperbolization of the tragic and gruesomely ironic ending for the three characters may have been a sort of warning to herself; perhaps this message was merely an encouragement note to end her agony, which she did, with divorce after thirty years (the same amount of time that Zeena and Ethan are wed in the book) (Campbell).
... (Baym, 1999) A perfect example of Naturalist work is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Ethan, one of the main characters in the book, is ... this affected her marriage with Ethan. In the middle of the novel, Ethan and Mattie walk home together after the dance and Zeena hasnt put ... controlled by thoughts and adapting to the environment around you. Wharton, Edith. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
With this knowledge in place, the novel seems quite simple. Wharton, feeling so frustrated and stressed about being torn being entrapment in an awful marriage and flying free with an artistic youth like herself must examine her life and see what to do. However, the complex web that Wharton weaves throughout this work paints the picture of what is truly occurring.
Besides representing Edward Wharton, Zeena plays a couple other roles in the novel. Ethan attends some technical college and begins to enjoy it, but, upon hearing of his mother’s illness, is called away to care for her. In her final weeks, Ethan slowly watches his dearest person leave him and envisions the future of loneliness and silence that it brings. The deathlike quiet commences when the illness causes his normally talkative mother to cease communication; Ethan’s world begins to completely crash and in his deepest moment of emotional vulnerability Zeena comes. She aids in the nursing efforts and talks to Ethan, keeping him company and guiding him through his grief. In a scattered effort to maintain that connection, he marries Zeena, not for love (10), but as a replacement of his mother whom he loved so much (Eggenschwiler 389).
Also, and to a lesser, but eventually imperative extent, the Frome family cat (i.e. Zeena’s cat) symbolizes Zeena as well. Whenever Zeena is not on the farm, ultimately she is there through her ferocious feline.
Moving on, one would be remiss if he failed to mention the deep sexual connotations in Ethan Frome. It is the most prominent topic in the novel. For one point, and fundamental to understanding the inner problems, the Fromes, in seven years of marriage, never consummate their relationship. They live on a dilapidated and barren farm; land that once flourished in the Massachusetts weather now produces no fruit in the stark winters. The setting represents his impotent (yet, unfortunately virginal sexuality).
However, a clearer point may be made if one examines the relationship. Zeena is a hypochondriac—too sick to have sex—and, really, for the time frame that the story is set in, it is not accepted that this couple has no children (Bernard 392-393).
Also, to end any doubt, since Ethan marries Zeena strictly for company and she serves as a symbol for his mother, it is assured that they never engage in intercourse because who, besides Oedipus, would want to sleep with his mommy?
One day, on an accidental occasion, a stranger is willing to bet with you on one of you skills which is not so critical, and you are likely to win. If you do succeed, according to the serious bet, you can get a quite new limousine from the man which is worth millions of dollars; If not, however, what you have to do is just to dedicate your little finger, which means, have that poor finger chopped ...
It must be noted that the Whartons probably did not have a sexless marriage. They likely indulged a couple of times, but they probably left both feeling unsatisfied leaving Edith, like Ethan, to look for her thrills somewhere else.
Ethan found his thrills with Mattie and the sexual symbolism tied to her. Take, for instance, the color red. Mattie innocently and seductively wears a scarlet scarf and a red ribbon in her hair. Crimson is the color of passion, and thus symbolizes the deep attraction between Ethan and Mattie.
Then there is the prized red pickle dish. This dish is Zeena’s most treasured possession. Given to her on her wedding day, she finds it so valuable that she keeps it on a high shelf and never uses it, but Mattie does. In summation, the passionate object that is to contain pickles is bestowed to Zeena on the day she joined in marriage with a man and is never used at all (poor, poor Ethan the virgin).
The cheating couple uses the dish, an intimate symbol so blatant one almost sheds a tear for Zeena—almost, and then the cat breaks it. Zeena destroys her marriage by not fulfilling her role as wife and making the relationship complete (possibly a little harsh, but it is from Wharton’s perspective).
Although, Ethan attempts to fix the broken dish, something like that, once it’s been used as such, can never be the same again (Bernard 393).
A final sexual symbol is represented so simply in the couple’s final and normal act. They go sledding. A quick and fun thrill (like sex), they spend their last seconds engaging in the activity representative of the cheap joys that Edith and Morton undoubtedly had.
Sex and confusion, passion and despair: Ethan Frome almost sounds like the opera La Bohème. Almost—the novel isn’t as chaotic and complicated, but it is just as real. Ethan Frome is about life. It is about Edith Wharton’s life. It is about everyman’s life. True, not every man faces the issue of a loveless marriage and the option of an affair, but every man faces issues and decisions. Every man can relate to the honest feelings and passion that Wharton writes with because they are real. Decisions are a part of life, and every man must make them. Some lead to happy endings; some lead to unhappy ones.
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Many, rather sardonically stated, lead to endings, and naturally so, as some people live their lives not making decisions. Even Ethan does that. Mattie decides upon the joint suicide and from then on he follows suit. His sheepish-
ness forbids him from refuting her; his fear places him on the sled, and his negligence and guilt lead to their failed deaths. Lionel Trilling had at least one point correct about this novel when he stated, “The moral inertia, the not making of moral decisions, constitutes a very large part of the moral life of humanity” (389).
Although, the particular situation in the novel is not something that every man can relate to, it is definitely something that every man can relate with.
Bass, R. Edith Wharton (1862-1937).
1999. Georgetown University. 4 January
Bernard, Kenneth. Excerpt from Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Linda Pavloski and Scott Darga. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale, 1988. 390-393.
Campbell, D. “Biographical Information about Edith Wharton.” The Edith
Wharton Society. 22 May 2005. 7 January 2008. <http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/wharton/bio/htm>.
Eggenschwiler, David. “The Ordered Disorder of Ethan Frome.” Studies in the Novel. 9 (1977): 237-46).
Trilling, Lionel. Excerpt from Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Linda Pavloski and Scott Darga. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale, 1988. 387-390.