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Ethan Frome The Destruction Of Life Essay, Research Paper

Ethan Frome

The Destruction of Life

(The Unforbidden Love Affair)

This tragic book tells a story of yet another forbidden pair of lovers, but separates itself from other stories such as these with

its vivid imagery. The setting of the book and the characters

themselves share the same traits sullen, silent, somewhat cold and unfriendly. Edith Wharton uses these images to portray each

character, each setting, and each situation with an air of the

tragedy that will soon strike them. The characters and the settings

in Ethan Frome share many of the same characteristics and are

therefore symbolic of one another. Even the name of the village in

the story takes place in is symbolic Starfield. Every feature of

the landscape seems to relate directly back to the people of the

town, whether it is the town as a whole or a specific place. As

you will see throughout, Edith Wharton uses imagery and symbolism in

describing the plot, theme and settings.

Edith Wharton draws many parallels between the plot of the novel and it s setting. As you read this story, it has consistently

stated throughout the novel that the silence of each character is

symbolic of their inability to communicate with one another in order

to dispel their own loneliness. In the case of Ethan Frome, to

combat the silence, isolation, and loneliness in his life,

he marries Zenobia Pierce after his mother s death; nevertheless, she

will never leave Starkfield and develops into an oppressively silent

hypochondriac. Ethan is unable to break away from the laborious

captivity of his farm. There seems to be no hope for Ethan, the

moral landscape of Starkfield offers no redemption and no new life.

Ethan must live out his days surrounded by the elements of a harsh

and indifferent nature. For Ethan, the escape he sees from the cold,

the silence, the isolation, and the loneliness of his life, is his name on a headstone in the Frome s graveyard.

The motif of silence is complementary to the motif of isolation of man from his fellow men. The isolation of each

character before the tragedy is not self-imposed, but is enforced

upon them by outside circumstances. Ethan tried to escape the

isolation of Starkfield and his father s farm by going off to college

at Worcester. Then his father s death brought him back to the farm.

There are several significant phrases within the body of this novel that would signify the silence and isolation that these three

characters live in, including: A dead cucumber-vine dangles from

the porch like the crape streamer tied to the door for a death .

(Wharton, 51) In this particular phrase, the narrator has portrayed

Ethan looking for a way out of his marriage and isolated life, by

imagining his wife s possible death, without him having to make the

choice. The narrator refers to hemlock-shaded lane, where Ethan s

sawmill glommed through the night and out again into the comparative

clearness of the fields (Wharton, 48), in this paragraph alone, I get an imagery of death and loneliness without any hope for tomorrow.

Even Ethan s farmhouse was symbolic of himself. The L of the farmhouse was like that of his own body, shrunken and weak (Nevius, 136). Ethan himself represented Wharton s idea of an honorable man in the nineteenth century. He has admirable qualities, such as integrity, ambition, and wisdom (Trilling, 531). It is his sense of morals and responsibility that continuously prevents him from leaving Zeena and joining Mattie to make a better life for himself. He is trapped not only by his morality here, but has

been a trapped man from the very beginning. His parents illness, his unfinished education, the farm and saw-mill he is left with, and finally his marriage to the once bright Zeena all bring Ethan further into a state of unhappiness (Kellogg, 154). This story ends in tragedy for all three and the reader is left with a feeling of remorse for each character. While reading the tale, the reader gains a sense of who each person is and what he or she is feeling inside. The symbolism throughout the book only makes these feelings more distinct, and gives strength to the tone of the story. As perhaps

Wharton s greatest book, Ethan Frome provides the reader with a strong sense of the setting and characters beyond any other work.

The setting is conveyed to the reader by specific descriptions. In the beginning, she uses the statement that Ethan Frome dropped the reins on his hollow-backed bay and dragged himself This particular statement leads the reader to feel that there is something physically wrong with him or he is a very unhappy person. It also shows that the horse is old and tired, just like the town is being portrayed. This alone has a significant meaning Starkfield stark naked the severity of nothing, meaning death.

The narrator goes on to set the scene with specific barren statements to conclude the town as a shadow in the dark, a nothing town. Showing the people there are the left overs , the ones not smart enough to leave or get out. Too tired to live the enjoyable life. With the winters being six-months of snow, the seasons changing bring no excitement in the town s people as they drag themselves out of the barren reality.

The author shows a lot of silence within the character of Ethan Frome, showing how down and out he seems. There is sadness in the way the author portrays him as having a grave mien, morbid expression on his face. His demeanor is filled with hollow, empty sadness. The narrator speculates that the winters in Ethan s past must have brought about a suppression of life and spirit.

The author talks about the town 20 years earlier, how the town s people

might have had the means of resistance; but year after year the winter has

beaten the remaining town s people into the ground. The ravages of winter

destroy both man s will to survive, and the buildings he constructs to shield

him from his environment. The narrator gets to see more of the landscape,

which suggest the debilitating effects of winter: the starved apple orchard,

which writhes over a hillside and suggests the barren land, which starves

men instead of feeding them. The dead vine on the front porch of Ethan s

farmhouse is emblematic of the dead and dying spirits that inhabit the house

and it s adjacent graveyard.

Themes are very significant to a story. A theme is the main idea of a

story, poem, novel, or play that is usually expressed as a general statement

about life. It can easily effect the way a person may think and view life

(Trilling, 102). Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is a great example of this. One

theme from the story is that you might not be able to obtain whatever you want

in life. Ethan is very unhappy with the way his life is bound. He is very

unhappy with his marriage, which was destined to be a failure in the first place.

The only reason Ethan marries Zeena is that she had come to take care of his

sick mother, and after she died he could not bear to be alone, therefore he asks

her to marry him. Ethan also had many ambitions such as moving to Florida,

which he could never achieve because his wife held him back. Soon Zeena s

cousin moves in. Throughout the book, Ethan yearns to be with her but cannot

because of his obligation to his wife, Zeena. Every waking moment he dreams

of being with Mattie, the cousin. He even goes as far as lying to his wife to be

alone with Mattie. Zeena is not very fond of Mattie, especially of her house

cleaning skills. He does this when he tells his wife that he has to get money

from Mr. Hale as an excuse not to give her a ride to the flats when she has to

go to Bettsbridge for a doctor. Even though Ethan knows he is married, he still

tries to woo Mattie. All of his fallen hopes, dreams, and failures just contribute

to the theme of the story, which is that you cannot always have what you

desire. When Zeena had returned from Bettsbridge, she tells Ethan that her

condition has worsened and that she has hired a girl to help around the house.

She also informs him that Mattie will have to leave the next day. This makes

Ethan very angry. Ethan than contemplates the idea of risking everything and

leaving his wife, and moving west with Mattie. Although he soon realizes that

he could not do this. Even though he wants to leave this dreadful town he

cannot because once again his obligation to his wife holds him back. Again the

theme of the story is illustrated here. As Ethan is driving Mattie to the train

station, they come to the realization that this was possibly the last time they

will every see each other. Even though this is where they both state the

feelings they have for each other. Soon they come upon a hill and a

sleigh, and decided to go sleighing which reminds them of the few happy times

they had in the past year with each other. Because they cannot be with each

other, Mattie and Ethan decide to commit suicide by sledding into a tree. They

go through with their plan, yet; they do not die. Mattie is crippled and Ethan is

also injured severely. The whole story is an illustration of the theme of not

always getting what you desire in life. In the end, Ethan is once again left

alone; he no longer has the relationship with Mattie that he once hoped for.

Nothing has changed for Ethan Frome; his life was just as it was before. This

situation in this story is also very realistic, people feel trapped in loveless

marriages, meet someone they love, but in the end, they are left with

less than what they had in the beginning. Ethan Frome personally found out

that you can not always have what you desire in life.

With regards to the characterizations, Edith Wharton is very specific in

describing each character so that the reader can get inside each person. Ethan

Frome’s life was one of perpetual hardship. He was a native of the mythical

Starkfield, Massachusetts. Ethan was born, and spent his entire life, at his

family’s farm and sawmill. With the tough land and brutal winters in New

England, it is a wonder that the Fromes could even come close to making

ends meet. These rugged circumstances determined most of Ethan’s life for

him. He was a farmer, and it would take nearly a miracle for him to change

where he lived or his station in life. Even from a young age, Ethan’s interests

in schooling, especially science, were put aside because he had other chores

that had to be done to sustain life itself. It would have been of no use for Ethan

to have “big dreams”.

Life was difficult for Ethan Frome, and it only became more difficult.

His mother was ill for a good part of her life, and Ethan and his wife Zeena

took care of her. Zeena took care of the house and her mother-in-law, leaving

Ethan to support the three of them on his own, with the minimum assets to do

so. A time after his mother passed, Zeena too became ill. Out of the need for

help around the house, another person joined the Frome household. Her name

was Mattie Silver. She was Zeena’s cousin, on her own without the skills to

make a life of her own. It was when Mattie Silver came into Ethan’s life that

his environment became its cruelest. Mattie’s last name is suggestive not only

of how precious she becomes to Ethan but also of the role money plays as one

of the determinants of the fate of the two lovers. Perhaps the most important

fact about Mattie is that she does indeed love Ethan, but this fact is not

conclusively revealed to Ethan nor to us until after the two have left Shadow

Pond on their way to the train. Mattie, a child of less than 20 years, thrown

into the world without father or mother; forced, by elements out of her control,

to sell her piano for $50.00. Not only does she have to give up the one thing

that has inspired her the most, but also she is bound by obligation to live with a

distant cousin and tend to her various needs, because she has nowhere else to

go. Upon arriving in Starkfield, Mattie is shattered and very fragile; and, of

course, Ethan is very aware of her appearance. He wonders how this young,

fragile, sickly girl is going to withstand Starkfield winters and the isolation of

the Frome house.

As time goes on, something amazing transpires and Mattie blossoms into

an inspirational and absolute gleaming beauty. Ethan Frome, of course, has

noticed the delightful transformation in Mattie and is subsequently devoured by

her beauty and mesmerized by her lively, enthusiastic, presumptuous behavior.

Ethan begins to fantasize and build an imaginary happiness out of his own self-

deception. Of course, Ethan, being lonely and feeling not very manly, due to

the fact that his wife wars the pants in the household, becomes somewhat

flirtatious and kind, in a way that entrances Mattie, and sparks an ultimate


Unfortunately, there is always an end to the means, and Zeena finally

decides to send Mattie away. In a last desperate attempt that alludes to the

ultimate destination, Mattie and Ethan are devoured by self-destruction. Yet,

their suicide pack does not accomplish their ultimate goal death. Ethan is left

with a deformed leg that did not set and other malformations. Mattie on the

other hand, was not so fortunate. Mattie was paralyzed and mutilated with

total deformity. This zealous, young beautiful girl is now helpless and reliant

upon the total care of Zeena. What a sad way to end your life: crippled,

disfigured and dependent on the one person that was responsible for the

destruction of your entire happiness.

Zeena, on the other hand, is not really described in great detail except

through various symbol. The pickle dish, for instance, is of great significance

in the novel. It is used to represent Zeena s virginity. Mattie seemed to know

a great deal more about the pickle dish than Ethan did. She had to remind him;

It was a wedding present don t you remember? It came all the way from

Philadelphia, from Zeena s aunt that married a minister (70). Ethan never

bothered to pay much attention to the pickle dish. When Zeena returned and

noticed that the pickle dish was broken she said, It takes the step-ladder to get

at the top shelf, and I put Aunt Philura Maple s pickle-dish up there o purpose

when we was married, and it s never been down since, cept for the spring

cleaning, and then I always lifted it with my own hands, so s t shouldn t get

broke (126). The symbolism becomes clear when Zeena explains that the

only person to touch it is herself and only to clean it. The dish also symbolized

another characteristic of Zeena. It symbolized Zeena herself, who prefers not

to take part in life. Just like the dish, Zeena is tucked away, uselessly in the


The symbolism that Edith Wharton wrote within this novel gets the

reader to understand the characters in more personal way. Each reader can get

a different meaning out of the symbolism, one that fits him or her best.

Without the profound symbolism inserted in the text, the novel would not have

been the astonishing novel that it has become.

In conclusion, throughout the first part of the book the narrator has set

the scene to be deadly, with no spiritual life, and nothing to look forward to.

The novel goes on to tell a story of the silence and isolation of three people

whose lives intertwine to the point of no return in a compatible environment.

Indeed, the character Ethan sees no hope and no future just his name on the

Frome graveyard stones. Isn t that something to look forward to? You can tell

from the beginning that the story is a tragedy waiting to be told. In every

chapter, the narrator never lets go of the harsh and violent environment that the

characters must endure. It has been said that even when things cannot seem to

get any worse, they do just that. This is exactly what happened to Ethan

Frome. Ethan s last effort at separating himself and Mattie from Zeena came

when he was supposed to be taking Mattie to the train station. They take a

previously promised trip sledding down the great hill, or coasting as it was

called, the two proscribed lovers decided to descend the hill again. Only this

time, they aimed for the large elm tree at the bottom of the hill.

Finally, Ethan Frome would escape the bitterness of his environment.

Yet he was only left alive to live an even more tormented life. Ethan and

Mattie hit the elm. Both were severely injured but neither met the ending that

they were looking for. Instead they and Zeena were left to live out their days

back at the home of the Fromes. Zeena now had to take complete care of

Mattie, and Ethan still had to work to support the three of them despite one side

of his body being partially crippled from the sledding accident. Ethan has tried

to run from his own personal hell, and yet he only dipped deeper into it. For

Ethan his world was his prison. For others, the bitter truth might not come

through such a dramatic love, but nonetheless it can still be assumed that there

will always be stories with sad endings.

Grumbach, Doris. Introduction to Edith Frome. Copywright @ Doris

Grumbach, 1987

Wharton, Edith, 1862-1937 Ethan Frome/Edith Wharton. Bibliography; p

I.Title. PS345.H26E7

Nevius, Blake. Edith Wharton: A Study of Her Fiction. Berkeley University

Of California Press, 1953.

Trilling, Lionel. The Morality of Inertia, Great Moral Dilemmas. New

York: Harper & Row, 1956. Reprinted in Howe.

Kellogg, Grace. The Two Lives of Edith Wharton: The Woman and Her work

New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1965.

Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. New York: Appleton Century Crofts,

Autobiographical reminiscences, a few of which touch upon the background of Ethan Frome.

Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:

Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England. First published Charles Scribner s Sons, 1911

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