Edith Wharton's Novel Ethan Frome: Essay
Excerpt from Essay :
Although he was strong, with intellectual ambitions, Ethan could not bring himself to violate social conventions as a young man. Ethan's studies were left unfinished because of his familial obligations and he never resumed them. He felt resentful at times of Mattie's youthful exuberance, as if her carefree nature and the fact that she did not feel a need to worry about what others thought and said was a reproach of his own values, the cross he chose to bear for his family and later his wife: "her [Mattie's] gaiety seemed plain proof of indifference' (Wharton 31). However, instead of taking logical steps to extricate himself from Zeena's grasp, and defying the norms of his society by running away with Mattie, Ethan acted impulsively. When Mattie was about to leave his home, the two decided instead to take a suicidal sled ride into a tree. The suicide was bungled, and both Ethan and Mattie were physically, emotionally, and spiritually broken by the accident.
Wharton's narrator makes it clear that because of the accident, neither Ethan nor Mattie will ever be able to leave Starkfield. Their emotional difficulties at leaving the small town are now physically manifested in their broken bodies. Ironically (although unsurprisingly in the eyes of the reader), Zeena recovers after the accident, and is able to tend to both her husband and her cousin with little assistance.
Ethan's decision to try to kill himself and Mattie seems uncharacteristic at first, given his methodical, plodding character. But it is very much in character if the reader understands it as a way for
Ethan to extricate himself of the need to make a change in his life. If he escaped with Mattie, he would have to begin a new life, and embrace new values beyond that he had learned in Starkfield. He would have to cease to care what people said about him. Ethan seems to wish to leave untenable circumstances through suicide, but he unconsciously recreates the cycle of caretaking and illness that gave birth to his relationship with Zeena Even death, given the long-lived nature of the Fromes, seems unlikely.
The common theme of 'no where else to go' is repeated over and over again in the novel -- Ethan remains with his wife; Mattie stays under the thumb of the tyrannical Zeena as a housekeeper; and eventually Ethan and Mattie must remain their when they become injured. However, until the sledding accident, it is mainly Ethan's own mind, not the pressures of society that confine him. Ethan will never become one of the 'smart ones' who get out of Starkfield. Ultimately, it is not intellect that brings freedom, Wharton suggests, but courage: the courage to leave rather than to forgo making hard choices and to choose instead to destructively tumble down a cliff. Ethan admits this to himself before the accident: "He was too young, too strong, too full of the sap of living, to submit so easily to the destruction of his hopes…. Zeena, I've done all I could for you, and I don't see as it's been any use" (Wharton 113). Unlike other American heroes, Frome cannot bring himself to head out west, so he instead destroys himself, and the one woman in the world he truly loves.
Sources Used in Documents:
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. Signet, 2000.
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