The Story of Ethan Frome

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Ethan Frome is a bleak tale of a man who falls in love with his wife’s cousin, only torealize that he doesn’t have the means to follow through on it. Ethan is fed up with hismarriage to Zeena, a sickly woman who is almost always in a rotten mood and is jealousof her own cousin, Mattie Silver, because she isn’t nearly as beautiful, charming, andhealthy as she is. This is one of the main reasons why Zeena is looking for an excuse toforce Mattie out of the house from the very beginning and the excuse that she comes upwith is that Mattie is too incompetent when it comes to taking care of the chores aroundthe house. So this brings up the question that if Zeena is such a miserable and spitefulwoman , then why does she go out of her way to take care of Ethan and Mattie after theirtragic “smash up” when she is almost too sick to take care of herself? Another questionwould be why do Ethan and Mattie decide to drive their sled into the big elm tree whenthey could have just ran away together despite not having much money to live on?Furthermore, what were they hoping to accomplish by driving their sled into a big tree?Were they trying to commit suicide or just seriously injure themselves?Ethan is unhappy in his marriage and ever since Mattie moved in he finally realizeshow old and sickly his wife really looks.

Mattie is a young beautiful woman in theprime of her life and Zenna is pretty much the opposite: “…the pale light reflected fromthe banks of snow made her face look more usually drawn and bloodless, sharpened thethree parallel creases between ear and cheek, and drew querulous lines from her thinnose to the corners of her mouth. Though she was but seven years her husband’s senior,and he was only twenty-eight, she was already an old woman.”(p28) Ethan resents thefact that Zeena is always looking for a reason to criticize Mattie for her lack ofhousekeeping ability. Mattie has been living with them for about a year and Zeena hasbeen growing more and more impatient with Mattie. In order to take the pressure offMattie, Ethan would secretly help Mattie with the housekeeping duties: “He did hisbest to supplement her unskilled efforts, getting up earlier than usual to light the kitchenfire, carrying in the wood overnight, and neglecting the mill for the farm that he mighthelp her about the house during the day. He even crept down on Saturday nights to scrubthe kitchen floor after the women had gone to bed.”(p16-17) Every time Ethan looks atZeena he begins to see how sick he really is of this woman. It seems as though no matterwhat he says, she’s going to respond by telling him the opposite.

The dark, freezing, and snowy weather along with the dreary atmosphere clearlyreflects the mood of the characters in this short novel. Just like the weather, day in andday out the characters feel like there is not much of a chance for change. Life hasbecome painfully routine and almost hopeless despite the fact that throughout most of thenovel Ethan is still holding out hope that a love affair between him and Mattie mightsomehow materialize and they could run away together, only to finally realize that its nota realistic possibility due to a lack of money. He first begins to realize this when hestarts writing a letter to Zeena telling her that he is leaving for good: “Zeena, I’ve doneall I could for you, and I don’t see as it’s been any use. I don’t blame you, nor I don’tblame myself. Maybe both of us will do better separate. I’m going to try my luckWest, and you can sell the farm and mill, and keep the money-“(p54) As soon as hewrites that she could keep the money he realizes that if he leaves everything to Zeena,then there would be nothing left for him and Mattie. His concerns then shift over toZeena because it was doubtful she would even be able to sell the property. Furthermore,how would she be able to keep the farm going all by herself, especially when youconsider the fact that she is a very sick woman. This is somewhat revealing because itshows that despite their marital problems, Ethan still cares about Zeena’s well being. Inaddition, what is even more revealing is that Zeena takes care of both Ethan and Mattieafter their “smash up.” What makes this so remarkable is that Zeena has been lookingfor an excuse to drive Mattie out of the house for the longest time and now here she istaking care of her and trying to help her recuperate from her injuries.

Things really begin to reach a boiling point when Zeena discovers the broken pickledish which had a lot of sentimental value for her. Despite the attempt by Ethan to coverfor Mattie by claiming that the cat climbed up the china closet and tipped the dish over,Mattie quickly confesses that she took the pickle dish down from the top of the chinacloset. Upon hearing this, Zeena snaps at Mattie by letting out all of the frustration thathas been building up inside her: “You’re a bad girl, Mattie Silver, and I always knownit. It’s the way your father begun, and I was warned of it when I took you, and I tried tokeep my things where you couldn’t get at ‘em-and now you’ve took from me the one Icared for most of all…If I’d a listened to folks, you’d a gone before now, and thiswouldn’t a happened.”(p52-53)Shortly before Zeena confronts Ethan and Mattie with the broken pickle dish, Zeenalets Ethan know that she has found a replacement for Mattie, who would have to moveout to make room for the new hired girl. This infuriates Ethan not only because hewould hate to see Mattie go, but because it would be very difficult for him to find themoney to pay her. This is somewhat of a monumental moment because it’s the first realargument they had in their sad seven years of marriage.

One very interesting aspect of this novel is that it begins in the future, meaning thatEthan is 52 years old. So immediately Edith Wharton creates this aura about Ethanwhich makes us want to know more about this mysterious protagonist: “When a man’sbeen setting round like a hulk for twenty years or more, seeing things that want doing, iteats inter him, and he loses his grit…Sickness and trouble: that’s what Ethan’s had hisplate full up with, ever since the very first helping.”(p 7) The story then shifts twenty-four years back into the past and that is where the heart of Ethan Frome’s story begins.

Another interesting thing to point out is that the narrator in the beginning of the novelis somewhat of a mysterious character who adds a different voice to the story. He, justlike the reader, wants to know more about Ethan Frome and what exactly happened tohim: “I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casualaccess, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personalplight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it the profound accumulated cold ofmany Starkfield winters.”(p8)In conclusion, Ethan Frome’s story is one of great turmoil and sadness. The hauntingimagery reflects the mood of the characters and paints a picture of unrelentinghopelessness and emotional fragility. One would wonder what would happen if Ethanand Mattie decided to run away together instead of choosing to take the path of tragedy?The answer to that question we will never know, but what we do know is that EthanFrome is a character who had dreams of running away with the woman he fell in lovewith, only to see those dreams become shattered.

Works CitedWharton, Edith. Ethan Frome (Signet Classics). New York:Signet Classics, 2000.