The story of Ethan Frome is about a man in a small rural town at the turn of the twentieth century. At this time in American history, society was heavily structured and the things which were considered either morally acceptable or completely inappropriate were definite and there were serious repercussions for those who behaved in ways which were counter to society's order. Consequently, the pressure placed on people to behave according to the moral code was great and few were brave enough to contradict them. In Edith Wharton's novel the title character feels torn between what he knows to be right according to his society which would be remaining a faithful and devoted husband, and what he most wants out of life which is passion and romantic love. He is unable to breach the social contract of a time when there were very few divorces and any impropriety was akin to murder. In the story Wharton is making the statement that adherence to the social order of the period will only lead to personal unhappiness and entrapment in a life of misery.
The two women in Ethan's life, his wife Zenobia or Zeena as she is frequently referred, and her young cousin Mattie with whom he believes himself to be in love. Through the story's plot, it becomes evident that these two very different women are not merely individual characters and that Ethan is not just a conflicted man, but that the three characters function as symbols of the dangers of socially unacceptable behavior and the possibility for happiness if a person chooses to commit them. Zenobia, being the proper wife, is a symbol of fidelity and Victorian appropriateness although she is a highly disagreeable woman with an unpleasant personality and Mattie, with her dancing and suggestions of suicide, is symbolic of social taboos and their danger to the physical body as well as to the soul. Sin and passion which may seem exciting and invigorating, but are actually fleeting in their charm and will only lead to trouble in the Victorian view of life. From the perspective of the modern period, neither woman is wholly appealing because neither is a fully fleshed out character. They are symbols of a type of woman and are therefore never completely human.
Zenobia Pierce was the logical choice for Ethan when he came of age to marry. She had nursed his mother during the final days of her life and had taken care of the household chores on the Frome farm as well. Unwilling to work the farm alone, he took a wife who had proven herself physically able to be of help to her husband. There was no romance in the union, but instead it was a match made out of sensible arguments. Although having little humor and a sickly disposition, the society in which the characters live would say that Zeena is the better woman when comparing her with her young cousin. She is industrious, hardworking, and does her best to be productive despite her failing health which worsens over time which leads to further complaints and demands to be taken care of. As Wharton explains the relationship, "Sickness and trouble: that's what Ethan's had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping" (13). In his marriage to Zeena, Ethan Frome behaves as a good and proper man. He works hard both on the family farm and in business as well. Author Suzanne Fournier makes the point that Zeena is as unfulfilled in her marriage to Ethan as he is with the marriage (90). Since she is a Victorian woman, her major goal in life was to get married and to be a dutiful wife and to not venture outside of the home. The only chance she had in life was in getting married and being over thirty-five she was already considered an old maid, her prospects not helped any by her old appearance and habits (Pennell 108). She is in a prison of marriage as much as the male character. Ethan married Zeena for the sake of companionship and to help him work, not for love and has consequently come to dislike her, but he stays because that is what he knows he must do according to society.
The character who vies with Zeena for Ethan's affection is her cousin Mattie Silver. It is with Mattie whom Ethan falls in love after he has already been married to Zeena. Mattie is more lively and charming a person and also more appealing to Ethan than the earthy Zeena. However, she is also flighty and prone to daydreams which make it difficult for her to get anything done around the house. Wharton writes: "The motions of her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird in the branches" (46). In addition, she is a flirtatious girl which was highly improper for the Victorian period. When he falls in love with Mattie, Ethan engages in activities which from the Victorian perspective are extremely wrong as they are also against the rules in the Bible and are sins. Literary scholar Melissa McFarland Pennell makes the point that in Mattie there is also hope that she would be the angel in the house that was hoped for in every Victorian marriage (109). At this time, the wife was meant to stay in the home and be the wife and mother; this was to be her only goal in life and her ultimate ambition was to be perfect in look and in cooking skill and in cleanliness. Being homely and sickly, Zeena shows that she cannot live up to this socially-imposed expectation and in a way she has failed her husband for this, making his feelings for Mattie more acceptable to the readers of the period. Mattie is constantly compared or associated in the novel with the color red, which is often connected with sin, fire, and blood and also of passion (Fournier 106). He considers fleeing with Mattie and by extension engaging in an adulterous relationship with her. When he realizes that going away with Mattie is not a possibility, he agrees with her resolve to commit suicide by sledding down a snowy hill and hitting a tree. Suicide is, according to the Bible, one of the most heinous sins that a person can commit and was also improper according to the social order of the day. Scholar Gurpyari Bhatnagar says that there is a Freudian explanation for the desire to commit suicide, that since they cannot be together they equate this as a kind of death (26-27). In a way, this proves true because in trying to kill themselves, the couple dooms themselves to a living death, he crippled and she whining and invalid. Had he not tried to commit suicide, but instead run off with Mattie like he wanted, he would not have been injured and neither would she and they might have had a chance for happiness.
The comparison of the two women and their influence on Ethan can be viewed in the scene with the pickle dish on the night that Zeena is out of town. The pickle dish is the marriage between Zeena and Ethan which is fragile and delicate. Wharton writes: "The cat, unnoticed, had crept up on muffled paws from Zeena's seat to the table, and was stealthily elongating its body in the direction of the milk-jug, which stood between Ethan and Mattie" (72). The cat that destroys the dish is obviously meant to symbolize Mattie. Just as the cat breaks the dish with little care because that is how a cat behaves, so too Mattie allows the dish to be broken. She is impulsive and does not realize the damage for her actions until it is too late. Importantly, it is a red dish which is broken as if Mattie is inadvertently ruining anything that might usurp her position. It is Ethan who pledges to glue the shattered pieces of the dish back together before Zeena can be made aware of its breaking which shows that at least at that point in the novel's story he was still somewhat dedicated to the preservation of his marriage, like a good Victorian husband. Donna M. Campbell claims that everything in the story is carefully crafted and so it is inappropriate to assume that the breaking of the dish is as simple as it seems on the surface (268). Zeena's over reaction to the dish can only be understood when looking at it symbolically. She declares that it is the most precious thing she owns but in truth she is mourning over the loss of her marriage; not from a feeling of love but impropriety.
Wharton does not take a negative stance on the adulterous feelings of the protagonist, nor does she promote his feelings as something good but treats him as a real person in a real world who struggles with the reality of living with social pressure and having his own…