Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Ethan Frome is a tragic story of a man who gives up his dream to go to university in order to tend to his ailing mother. When his mother passes away, in his grief he impulsively marries Zeena. His new wife hampers his dream of going to university and becoming an engineer, and after a year of their marriage she falls ill herself. He is again forced by circumstances to take up a caretaker role. Mattie, Zeena’s cousin, comes to the Frome’s loveless household to act as a “help” and Ethan falls deeply in love with her and she with him. Zeena is aware of the unfolding events and sends away Mattie. As Ethan escorts Mattie to the train station, she comes up with the idea that they should spend their last few moments together by sledding, just as they had planned they would in a previous conversation. Unable to imagine life without each other, Mattie then suggests that they kill themselves by crashing against an elm tree. Unfortunately, they both survive but become crippled. Eventually, Zeena, Mattie and Ethan are forced by these circumstances to live unhappily together with Zeena now acting as their caretaker. This paper is going to analyze the three major themes in the story; frustration, determinism vs. free will and illusion vs. reality.
The theme of frustration is illustrated vividly in the lives of the major characters; Zeena, Ethan and Mattie. Ethan does not fulfill any of his ambitions, instead his circumstances always seem to hinder the attainment of his goals. When his father dies, he gives up his education and other opportunities to take care of his ill mother. His dreams of moving to town and becoming an engineer are again thwarted when his wife of one year, Zeena, becomes ill and he has to take care of her. He says that he had always wanted to “live in towns, where there were lectures and big libraries and ‘fellows doing things.” He is frustrated again when his marriage becomes loveless and he feels as though he is trapped in it. He falls in love with Mattie but cannot be with her for two reasons; he is married and cannot even elope with her because he barely has any money to spare. His poverty is also a frustrating factor in his life. Zeena too, is frustrated with her life; she is ill, her husband does not listen to her so she has finally given up talking to him and he is also in love with her cousin, Mattie.
We also see Mattie’s frustration as she is in love with a man who she can never completely have, and this frustration is clearly illustrated when she suggests that they commit suicide. Her life takes an even more frustrating turn after the failed suicide attempt that lives her severely crippled and as a result bitter and angry. The character’s frustration are also a result of their environment, their society seems to be very dictatorial of what is moral, immoral, wrong or right. It is for this reason that Zeena and Ethan are stuck in an unhappy marriage. Their poverty to a large extent limits their choices, their rural life is extremely hard, Ethan struggles to make ends meet, he is unable to follow his dreams and ambitions and eventually, after the accident, it is these frustrating poverty that forces the three live miserably under the same roof. The theme of frustration in this novel elicits a feeling of helplessness, hopelessness and despair. The narrator calls Ethan “a ruin of a man” because even from first impressions he appears to be a man who has encountered many difficulties and frustrations in his life.
The second theme is that of illusion vs. reality. Illusion is the state of having the wrong perception of reality, it is where the individual is not able to differentiate between what is real and what is not. In the context of this novel, illusion is also the state of having impractical desires and fanciful wishes. Ethan is unable to deal with the harsh realities of his life and sometimes escapes to a fantasy world where everything is altered and is now perfect and he is finally happy and satisfied with his life. He goes into this state of building castles in the air out of a sense of hopelessness and despair; it is a source of solace for him. In chapter 5, he has a daydream of what it would be like to be married to Mattie and live in the same house together. He has this illusion that life would be much happier and fulfilling if he had a wife like her. However, his daydream is interrupted when his wife’s “beloved” pickle dish falls down and breaks, he now has to worry about his wife’s reaction when she finds it broken. His love for Mattie might also be an illusion that helps him imagine how it would be to really be in a warm loving relationship. He married Zeena not because he was in love with her but because he was afraid of spending a lonely winter by himself in the Starkfield farm. Therefore, it was a marriage of convenience, that has made him feel trapped and increasingly unhappy and is unable to divorce her, as finances will not allow him to do so. The reality therefore is that he is stuck in unhappy marriage with Zeena; being unable to cope with this reality, he seeks for an escape as soon as Mattie arrives by convincing himself that he is deeply in love with her to the point that he would even elope with her.
Many times, Ethan imagines that Mattie is also deeply in love with him and is trying to show signs of this affection even when that is not the case. For instance, he assumes that she is well dressed for him on the day when they are finally alone and have dinner together. Mattie has also not told him that she loves him, but he just has a feeling that she does. When Zeena discharges Mattie, Ethan cannot believe it and goes to bed hoping that in the morning, his wife will have changed her mind, yet he knows that his wife is too obstinate and cold to change her mind about it. Later on, he fantasizes of running away with Mattie, divorcing his wife and starting a new prosperous life in the West. However, reality strikes him that he would not even be able to afford even one ticket to the west.
Zeena is also delusional; her illness remains unnamed and she has wasted the little money that Ethan had on doctors and medicine that do nothing to cure her. Her illness seems to be a mere state of mind, perhaps caused by her negativity towards life. This is further illustrated by the fact that when Mattie and Ethan became crippled after the failed suicide attempt, her illness disappears and she is now their caretaker; she cooks and cleans whereas before the accident she had been ‘seriously ill’ consulting numerous doctors and finding no cure. Zeena is also afraid to face reality when it comes to the matter of Mattie and Ethan. Sometimes she seems to be aware that her husband has developed feelings for her cousin yet sometimes she seems to be completely ignorant of this fact, this leaves Ethan feeling confused. Mattie’s love for Ethan is also not realistic; he is her cousin’s husband and she seems to have a childish perception of love, she thinks that by just running away together things would get better. She is the one who suggests that they ram into the elm-tree so that they die together. The reality is that being separated from Ethan will not be the end of her life and it was therefore pointless to want to die because she could not be with him.
The third important theme in this story is that of determinism vs. free will. Determinism is the belief that one is unable to change the course of his life or his destiny and therefore one has to simply follow the path life paves for him. Free will, on the other hand, is the belief that one has the power to make his own choices and decisions regarding his life. It is also based on the belief that one has the power and ability to shape his own life and thus, his destiny. Ethan feels so trapped in his marriage that he begins to hate his wife. He seems to be extremely unhappy while he has the option of divorcing her and starting a new life. The fact that he gives up all of his dreams to live and settles for a life of poverty on the farm clearly shows that he has no power to control his life, instead oh looking for a solution to his problems, he struggles and even turns to day dreaming out of frustration. He loves Mattie and wants to be with her, yet does not do anything significant about it; if his wife had not dismissed her, he would have been content living in the same house as her while remaining married to his wife. He blames his difficulties on his wife’s ill health saying calling himself “the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute.” Zeena is also deterministic as she opts to live in the Starkfield farm that she hates so much instead of moving to a town where she would begin a new life and perhaps find happiness. She says that it would be difficult to move to a new town with people who would not be welcoming and hospitable towards her.
Ethan seems to believe that the events in his life should be determined by his environment, social norms and life’s circumstances. While he is very unhappy with his life, he also lacks a strong will to do anything to change it. Initially he wanted to finish his education and become an engineer but this dream is completely shattered when his parents become ill, he feels obliged to take care of them and the farm. He also plans to leave Starkfield and live in a town, but he is stopped by his wife’s illness and also the fact that no one is interested in buying his farm. He wants to leave Zeena for Mattie whom he loves more but, again, he is stopped by the fear that such an action would be condemned in New England. His indecisiveness and deterministic attitude is a key contributor to his misery. This attitude is shown when he sees Varnum and Ned Hale kissing yet they are not married and is jealous of their happiness, yet he has the option of also deciding that he wants his life to take a different route.
These three themes; frustration, illusion vs. reality and determinism vs. free are used by the author to set the overall tone of tragedy and suffering. These themes illustrate the fact that sometimes life does not follow the expected paths, as has been illustrated in the lives of the three major characters; Ethan, Zeena and Mattie. Their lives all take a tragic twist after the accident that rendered Mattie and Ethan crippled and forced Zeena to become their caretaker. In the end, even Mattie who initially had a bright and pleasant personality becomes as bitter as Zeena. These themes also illuminate the manner in which a person’s weaknesses can hamper his happiness and fulfillment in life.