Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome: The Term Paper
Excerpt from Term Paper :
Ethan is now 'married' to Maggie, but not in the way he desired -- he now effectively has two wives who cannot love him or escape the family house, rather than three. The existence for all three is a miserable one, and the women suffer as much as Ethan as they battle amongst one another.
The greatest humor of the novel is exhibited when Zeena is suddenly able to find the energy to care for Mattie and Ethan, despite her protests of ill health earlier in the novel. When forced, because of circumstances, to work (Zeena has nothing to live on, if Ethan dies) the 'angel at the hearth' is capable of toil. "Where the conditions of life rendered it inevitable that all the labour of a community should be performed by the members of that community for themselves, without the assistance of slaves or machinery, the tendency has always been rather to throw an excessive amount of social labour on the female" (Schneider 1911). A non-working female is a status symbol of the middle-class, when such labor is no longer inevitable.
If no 'angel at the hearth' ideology existed Ethan's tragedy would not have taken place. Ethan would have not felt compelled to marry to ensure that he had a wife to take care of domestic concerns. Zeena would unlikely have fallen ill if she had not fantasized about living a life of luxury: "She chose to look down on Starkfield, but she could not have lived in a place which looked down on her. Even Bettsbridge or Shadd's Falls would not have been sufficiently aware of her, and in the greater cities which attracted Ethan she would have suffered a complete loss of identity. And within a year of their marriage she developed the 'sickliness'
which had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances" (Wharton, Chapter 4). Had Ethan never married, he would have had the freedom to have gone to the larger cities he dreamed of, but because of his marriage, shackled to a wife and a farm he cannot sell, he is trapped.
Mattie is similarly a product of domestic, separate spheres ideology. She is raised to be an ornamental wife, without any real skills, and her health breaks down when she tries to learn useful skills like stenography. "She could trim a hat, make molasses candy, recite 'Curfew shall not ring to-night,' and play 'The Lost Chord' and a pot-pourri from 'Carmen.' (Wharton, Chapter 3). Zeena is right when she says that Mattie is not capable of being a proper servant, although she cannot afford to have a hired girl. Without the crushing ideology of the separate spheres that denied women the ability to learn useful activities, both Ethan and the women in his life would have been free to pursue their own dreams.
Wharton's tale is thus a tale of three tragedies. Ethan Frome, as a man, is supposed to financially support his wife, which he cannot without being shackled to the land. Zeena as a middle-class woman is not supposed to work, and thus makes herself unpleasant to her husband and frustrates his ambitions, because her own scope as a woman is so limited. Had Mattie learned some useful skills she would not have been forced to a state of dependency on Zeena -- and would not have taken that fateful coasting ride with Ethan.
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. Online Literary Collection. June 5, 2011.
Schneider, Olive. "Sex parasitism." From Women and Labor. 1911. June 5, 2011.
Sources Used in Documents:
Cite This Term Paper: