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Ethan Frome: A Zenobic Paradox Essay, Research Paper

There is a well-known expression that states, “There are two sides to every coin.“ This is no different when it comes to Mrs. Frome. She is either Zeena, a mean, cruel hag or Zenobia, a munificent, compassionate woman. In the book Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, Zeena is described as thin and hard. While in the short story Zenobia by Gina Berrault, Zenobia is described as slender, and gentle. There are two different “Zenobias” depicted and they are very paradoxical. Each author has used her own tools to illustrate this character.

In the short story, Zenobia herself is talking and she admonishes Edith Wharton for the grievous act she committed in the novelette. Edith has written a story in which the viewpoint is quite biased. Ethan seems like the only one suffering despite the fact that Zenobia herself is also tormented. Zenobia had come to assist her dear, distant cousin Ethan Frome, by taking care of his ailing mother. After the mother died, Ethan afraid of being alone, asked her to stay on with him. Was it Zenobia’s fault that shortly after they were married she became sick? After all, she had spent most of her life taking care of others who were sick, wasn’t it time for someone to take of her?

Edith Wharton portrays Zeena as one of the most unappealing people imaginable. She rarely opens her mouth except to complain or criticize. She does not need words to tell one what she thinks, because on her face is a constant disapproval. Zeena is mean and heartless, as Ethan felt the day Zeena told him that Mattie was to go. “He looked at her with loathing. She was no longer the listless creature who had lived at his side in a state of sullen self-absorption, but a mysterious alien presence, an evil energy secreted from the long years of silent brooding.” On the other hand, all Zenobia wants is for her love to be returned. As she said, “He took my satchel from my hand, and said my name, Zenobia, and my own heart was moved by him for the rest of my days.” All she wants is for Ethan to give to her love and devotion. When she realizes that this love is unattainable, meanness and bitterness sets in. “Meanness came and filled up the spaces where love was not.”

Ethan blames Zeena for ruining his life. She has held him captive by refusing to move to the city and thereby forces Ethan to stay on the farm and make a living there. Then Zeena’s chronic illness ends Ethan’s hope of escape. All his hard work pays for her doctors and medicines, and he cannot leave her alone and destitute.

In this book there are many references to coldness, darkness and sickness. Usually when one of these is mentioned, Zeena or an allusion to her will turn up. When Zeena is first shown standing in the doorway of the kitchen, her image is the epitome of ugliness. “She stood up tall and angular, one hand drawing quilted counterpane to her flat breast… drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wrist of the hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face under its ring of crimping-pins.” The kitchen “had the deadly chill of a vault,” and she is surrounded by darkness. Zeena embodies her surroundings. Starkfield is a bleak and lonesome place similar to the isolated valley in which she lives, cut off from society. Where Zeena is hag-like and sickly in the frame of the doorway, the light of the fire that Mattie has lit transforms her from a slim and pretty young girl into a shapely, beautiful woman. The cold, dark, spare kitchen has metamorphosed into a warm, inviting, homey haven.

Zenobia contests that she was only thirty-five when Edith describes her so repulsive. When Zenobia was younger she was graceful, and tall, and then to prove to Edith that she does not only stand for darkness she describes how pretty her black hair shone in the light.

Zeena is consumed by her illnesses, which is what she uses to control Ethan. By being an invalid, she can also use it as an excuse to do or say anything. Except, Zenobia has become sick because of the pain and hurt that Ethan has caused her. The feelings of alienation and disgust are written clearly on his face every time his gaze lands upon her face, or her teeth. All she needs is a little attention from the one she loves yet “Night after night he turned his back to me.“ Zenobia weeps over who she has become “dislikable as he saw me.” However, Zenobia is still is able to think of others, like Mattie. Mattie who has no father or mother and who is in poor health is welcomed into Zenobia’s home. Zenobia now urges Edith several times, to “recollect” how under her roof Mattie is able to blossom. Zenobia is trying to grab the attention of Edith with the repetition of the word “recollect,” the name Edith, and such other phrases like “Oh, hear me,” and “Take the liberty!“

Zenobia is the one that loves him, the one that had taken care of his mother and Mattie comes in, bats her eyelashes and Ethan falls in love with her. When Mattie achieves the one thing that Zenobia never could, the hurt overwhelms her and therefore banishes Mattie from her home. However, when the horrible accident occurs, Zenobia rises from her sickbed to never return. Twenty-four years she takes care of the woman who had tried to steal her husband. Edith would say that she did it as ultimate revenge, that now Zeena dictated everything Mattie did, but Zenobia would say that it is her kind heart and her nature to care.

These two perceptions of Zenobia give the reader a broader spectrum in which to understand her. Zeena is not a one-dimensional character as seen in Ethan Frome; she does hate but she also loves. She can be cruel but it is only in response to something cruel happening to her. Zenobia has dreams of happiness and she longs for a life where she would be able to share love. Or Zeena is just a crotchety nag that lives to die. As the old saying goes, “There are two sides to every coin.”


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