Essay: Edith Wharton's Novel Ethan Frome: A Tragedy

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Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome: A tragedy of circumstance and character

Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome is a story of a man whose life is partially destroyed by fate, and partially destroyed by his own character. Ethan Frome lives in a gossipy, close-knit New England town named Starkfield that is highly resistant to change. The name 'Starkfield' suggests its stark, barren quality. It is utterly forlorn, and does not provide opportunities and upward mobility for any of its inhabitants. Everyone knows everyone else and lives in the manner of their forefathers. Starkfield is utterly inflexible and unchanging in its social structure. When Ethan is first spotted by the narrator at the beginning of Wharton's novel, he looks like an old man, despite the fact he is only middle-aged. His family is utterly bound to Starkfield and well-known. Says one long-time resident, with wisdom: "The Fromes are tough. Ethan'll likely touch a hundred…Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away" (Wharton 5). However, Ethan's inability to extricate himself from the town and his life is also partially due to his own character and the limits of his strength of will to question the mores of his society.

Ethan's conventional character is first manifested in his decision to marry his first wife, Zeena. Zeena helps Ethan while he is nursing his ailing mother. Out of foolish loyalty to the memory of his mother and a sense of obligation, Ethan marries Zeena. He unwittingly ties himself to a sickly woman who will prove to be a drag upon his spirit and his entire existence, and he seems unable to leave Zeena. From early on, Ethan Frome's life has been a never-ending circle of care: "There warn't ever anybody but Ethan [to care for people]. Fust his father- then his mother- then his wife" (Wharton 5). Ethan seems destined to act as a tender of the sick in a manner that saps his energy. It is noteworthy that despite his intelligence he seems unable to 'get away.' Although the locals view his fate as a natural one, Ethan is partially complicit in refusing to look beyond the confines of his town, except in his fantasy life.

The one breath of fresh air in Ethan's life when he was a young man was Mattie Silver, Zeena's cousin. The reader learns about Mattie in a series of flashbacks. Zeena quickly intuited Ethan's feelings for Mattie and soured to the girl. Mattie was young and went out twice a week during the evenings, and it was Ethan's obligation to walk her home safely. Mattie often went dancing, and when watching Mattie dance, Ethan was able to see a sliver of the kind of life that he could have enjoyed, if he had not married Zeena. Mattie's joy and the fact that she did not complain was stark contrast with his wife's attitude. "She don't look much on housework, but she ain't a fretter, anyhow" (Wharton 29). Zeena was tormented with the thoughts of what was going on between Ethan and Mattie, even though the lover's passion was only expressed through kisses. Ethan was unable to leave with Mattie, blaming Zeena's health, although Zeena seemed to conveniently feel more ill whenever it suited her, and recovered when it pleased her. "Frome had to admit that, if she [Zeena] were as ailing as she believed, she needed the help… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Edith Wharton's Novel Ethan Frome: A Tragedy."  March 7, 2011.  Accessed August 23, 2019.