Ethan Frome: Essay Q&A
1. Do Ethan, Mattie and Zeena deserve their fate?
Many readers would answer that they do not. The critic Lionel Trilling is among them. In "The Morality of Inertia," in A Gathering of Fugitives (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), Trilling writes that Wharton is unable to justify the suffering her characters experience. He also argues that in Ethan Frome, Wharton presents "no moral issue at all." He thinks that the ending is "terrible to contemplate," but that "the mind can do nothing with it, can only endure it."
Ethan does not create and shape his life through making conscious choices; he simply endures. The sight of a hero (Ethan), a sympathetic character (Mattie), and an unsympathetic but hardly blameworthy character (Zeena) enduring such suffering is hard to take and makes Ethan Frome one of the bleakest experiences in literature.
Some critics liken Ethan to a scapegoat (a sacrificial goat ritually laden with all the sins of a community and sent out into the wilderness to starve, with the aim of freeing the community from the burden of sin). They suggest that Wharton created Ethan to purge herself of the suffering she endured in her own unhappy marriage to (as she saw it) a parasitical invalid and her attempts to find fulfilment with her lover (see Biography). While we expect literary works to have an internal poetic justice that results in each character getting his just deserts, life - and, following life's example, Ethan Frome - can be less tidy, in that innocents can suffer (Ethan) and wicked witches win (Zeena).
Wharton, unlike Ethan, did escape her marriage, but she was conscious of the social cost of doing the 'wrong' thing as defined by conventional morality. Ethan does not break free of conventional morality, as can be seen in his refusal to ask the Hales for money that would allow him and Mattie to run away. It can be argued that Wharton is showing us the cost of obeying conventional morality at the expense of individual fulfilment.
Certainly, Ethan fails to take decisive action to alter his fate, and so allows it to be dictated by external factors: climate, conventional morality, marital duty, and poverty (Trilling's "morality of inertia"). Mattie is unfitted for any kind of independent existence, and is similarly unable to carve out a better destiny. It could be said that both Ethan and Mattie get their wishes and deserts, in that they wanted never to be parted, and they end up living under the same roof, albeit in dreadful circumstances. Ethan was unable to leave Zeena, so he ends up with her too. Zeena too gets what she seemingly wants - the continuing domination of her household, finally through others' incapacity rather than her own. But though fate gives each character what they want and deserve, this is only true in the cruellest and most ironic sense.
2. What moral choices does Ethan Frome present and how does Ethan deal with them?
Among the moral choices Ethan faces are: should he sacrifice his marital duty to Zeena to pursue personal fulfilment with Mattie? Would his and Mattie's happiness together justify leaving Zeena in potential poverty and loneliness? Should he deceive the Hales in order to get an advance on the payment they owe him, to give him money to run away with Mattie?
Ethan several times has rebellious urges to leave Zeena and run away with Mattie. Wharton often contrasts the two women by means of the imagery of warmth, life and the spring season (Mattie) and the cold, barren winter (Zeena). This makes it seem natural for Ethan, who still possesses some of his youthful vigor, to choose Mattie over Zeena - as natural as the progression of the seasons. But Ethan has "been in Starkfield too many winters." Again and again he makes a decision to stand up to Zeena or leave her and run away with Mattie, but then he loses momentum. He chooses winter, death and inertia over life and growth. This is emphasised by his invocation of his dead ancestors to keep Mattie with him, and by the metamorphosis of his initial desire to leave Starkfield into a desire to stay and be buried there next to Mattie. It is no coincidence that he does indeed end up being with Mattie, but her existence after the accident is closer to death than life.
The critic Marlene Springer (Ethan Frome. A Nightmare of Need, Twayne, 1993) argues that Ethan Frome offers a "stark realization of what life can be like if you accept circumstances with resignation - refusing ... to look at the variety of moral options to its dilemmas." Springer suggests that the novel is a cautionary tale about the dangers of inaction and moral paralysis. Certainly, Ethan sees his moral dilemmas in black-and-white terms: run away with Mattie, and leave Zeena in penury. He fails to see other possibilities, such as that Zeena may grow stronger without him (the possibility of Zeena confounding all expectations is illustrated in her renaissance after the accident) or that he may be able to earn enough to help her financially. And there is more than one way of dealing with the Hales and possibly getting enough money from them to run away with Mattie. He seems to overlook the fact that he is due this money. It is only a convention that Andrew Hale takes three months to pay, but Ethan behaves as if it is written in stone.
Ethan's bravest decision - the suicide pact with Mattie - is, in fact, her decision. He merely goes along with it, and he does so in spite of his initial objections. Ethan is a 'coaster,' one who is carried along by external factors rather than carving out his own path.
3. Ethan Frome has been described as an inverted fairy tale. Discuss.
The critic Elizabeth Ammons ("Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome and the Question of Meaning," Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 7, 1979) sees Ethan Frome as a modern version of the fairy story Snow White. She points to the imagery of the frozen landscape, Mattie's young and beautiful appearance, her role as household drudge, and her persecution by the witch-like Zeena, which have "obvious parallels in the traditional fairy tale about a little girl whose jealous stepmother tries to keep her from maturing into a healthy, marriageable young woman." Backing up such an interpretation is the fact that Zeena has a cat which acts as her 'agent' when she is away, jumping between Ethan and Mattie and breaking the pickle dish, an act for which Zeena blames Mattie. Witches had their 'familiars' or companion animals, often cats, whose bodies their owners would borrow in order to travel about and act unnoticed.
The difference between the traditional fairy tale and Wharton's inverted fairy tale is that in Wharton's tale, it is the witch who wins. This victory is amplified by the failed suicide attempt that transforms Mattie into "a mirror image of Zeena." Ammons points out that in Wharton's modern fairy story, witches not only win, they multiply.
Ammons disagrees with those critics who find Ethan Frome to be without moral content. She believes that the novel has as strong a moral message as the fairy tales from which it drew inspiration, and that it is a message of social criticism. She explains the moral as follows: "as long as women are kept isolated and dependent, Mattie Silvers will become Zeena Fromes: frigid crippled wrecks of human beings." She says that Wharton's decision to cripple Mattie but not to let her die reflects not the author's cruelty, but the culture's. Without a family or marketable skills, Ammons believes that Mattie's fate is inevitably one of poverty, premature ageing, and shattered dreams. The accident only accelerates the process, sparing Mattie the gradual slide into queerness that Ethan saw in Zeena and his mother.
Ethan Frome reflects rather than inverts one particular fairy tale tradition, which we could call 'the malevolent benefactor', in which a wicked fairy or witch grants one's wishes, but the outcome turns out to be a curse rather than a blessing. As the modern truism has it, "Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it." Ethan and Mattie want never to be parted, and their wish is granted - but by means of Mattie being crippled and Ethan lamed.
However, it is possible to interpret fairy tales psychologically and see apparently external forces as aspects of the self. In such an interpretation, Ethan and Mattie forge their fate out of their own psyches. Ethan's fate becomes the logical conclusion of his chronic indecision and inertia, and addiction to daydreaming at the expense of action. Mattie's fate emerges out of her tying her life to Ethan's, combined with her inability to do any work that would support her financially (when she tried it, her health collapsed).
4. How might things have been different for the characters if they had lived in the modern age?
Modern readers see a range of possible ways in which the characters of Ethan Frome could seek a better life, and considering these can lead to a better understanding of the novel as social criticism. Chief among them is the ease with which people today can obtain a divorce and the lack of stigma associated with it; in Wharton's day, divorce was difficult, expensive and carried enormous social stigma. Few people today would see any reason to continue with a marriage as dead as Ethan and Zeena's. As for Ethan's scruples about leaving Zeena in penury, even if Zeena had remained sickly after the divorce, she may have got financial assistance from the state. But it is possible that, freed from her limited life on the Frome farm, she could have channeled her skills at manipulating people into a career - perhaps in advertising or sales. Wharton was not the only writer to imply that hypochondriasis was one of the few occupations open to women in the nineteenth century, and even genuine sickness can result from unfulfilled creativity.
Increased care options today mean that Ethan may not have had to break off his studies and abandon his ambition to be an enginner in order to care for sick relatives.
Both Ethan and Mattie would have benefited from having the increased opportunities in education and training that are available now. In their time, choices were limited by social class and geographical location. Now, in an age of better transport, most people can attend a college to get training or further education, regardless of age and social background. There are also internet or correspondence-based courses. But Ethan would have had to move to a town to further his education or training. He could not do so because of Zeena's weakness. Ethan is also constrained by lack of money: he would not get enough money from the sale of the farm to pay off Zeena and escape with Mattie because the farm is mortgaged. Today, loans are available even to people with no security, if they are prepared to take on high interest rates.
Mattie was unfitted for the work she tried - working in a store and book-keeping - and her health collapsed, leaving her forever dependent on a man to provide for her. Until well into the twentieth century, work opportunities for women were severely restricted to the type that Mattie tried. Mattie and Ethan's work prospects would have narrowed even further after their accident. Now, however, many people with delicate constitutions find lucrative work, which is why our age has been called 'the age of the nerd.' This change has been enabled by the shift from heavy manufacturing, laboring and agricultural jobs to more information- and communications-based industries.
All the above arguments can be countered with the point that even in Wharton's day, people did surmount the limitations of class, bad marriages, geography and poor health. But it was undoubtedly more difficult and needed a correspondingly greater drive to overcome the obstacles - more drive by far than Ethan and his household possessed.
5. How strong is Ethan Frome?
When the narrator arrives in Starkfield, he is struck by Ethan's powerful appearance, in spite of his lameness. As the novel progresses, we see that Ethan has strong moral principles and is kind and generous. He has the stoic courage of endurance, as is suggested by his identification with the tombstone marking the graves of his ancestor Ethan Frome and his wife Endurance.
However, he lacks strength of character. He would rather dream than act, and every time he has an impulse to rebel against his circumstances, he allows it to peter out. He allows Zeena's illness to destroy his hopes of moving to a town to study and work as an engineer. And though he recognises the futility of devoting his life to Zeena, as is clear from his unsent goodbye note to her, he is unable to leave her and take up with Mattie.
The only decision he makes and follows through is the suicide pact with Mattie - though this was, in fact, Mattie's plan, with which he simply went along. Suicide is not a postive decision, but the logical conclusion of a passive existence, a giving up of endeavor. It is no coincidence that the sled ride is called "coasting"; the direction and result are determined by gravity, the snow conditions and the tracks made by other coasters. It is equally no coincidence that the goal is a big elm tree. Many critics have remarked that this is a phallic symbol, a sign of the manhood that Ethan never claimed in life. The fact that the tree does not fulfil Ethan's hope to die with Mattie, but simply cripples him, tells us that even in this final act, he does not attain that elusive manhood. Neither does he have any chance of doing so in the future. His choices are removed; for the rest of his life he must merely endure, a shadow of a man with a shadow of his former love, under Zeena's dominance.
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