*This is the essay I prepared for my American Novel class. Quotes are permissible as long as you make citation.* By Sheriff, NMHU. We live in a web of pains and pleasures. The actions we perform, whether they be mental or practical, are based on an endless pursuit of happiness and an avoidance of sorrow. Human life is the final meeting point of the thesis and the antithesis in the universe. This world of duality is the foundation for the most fundamental realities that we put on the list of the willed and the unwilled. Existence is an actualization and it includes an endless number of choices to follow. By existing, we accept the possibilities that sometimes may not be in our favor. That is why none of us is able to name it a good or a bad world. It’s the world of possibilities and these are shaped by numerous external factors. From the remotest agent, which would be the very condition of the universe of which we are a part, to the nearest, which would be the nucleus of the cell that composes our DNA, all these externalities act like the forces of nature do: Part of which is constructive, which helps us maintain our wholeness, and part of which is destructive, which works to decompose our corporeal being. Human existence is possible with the existence of those clashing forces where chaos finally leads into order. The lack of chaos or an overexposure to it disturbs the wholeness in man, pulling it down into a disorder. In Ethan Frome, we see how the lives of the three people are misshaped by decomposing external factors with which they had hardly anything to do. And the reason for this was the acute singularity present in their lives that left little room for them to move. From the beginning to the end, Ethan, Zeena and Mattie were under the pressure of the forces they couldn’t harness. The nature kept them detached. If it hadn’t been the snow, the outside life would have come to them even if they would be unwilling to approach it. Ethan’s poorness kept him from realizing many of his earlier dreams, the last of them being his intention of running away with Mattie to a more promising place. Her social status hindered Mattie and didn’t allow her to go out into the real world and try her luck there. Maybe the bond tying her to Ethan was her crippled standing on the social ladder. Zeena was afraid of tumbling into a disaster if she ever lost Ethan, although her rigidness dated back well before Mattie’s entering into their lives. Nonetheless, Zeena, too, had fears she couldn’t cope with. Somehow fate had tied three of them to one another. In the presence of the destiny they were merely victims and had little to do but complain and make life unbearable for each other. Ethan expresses the general helplessness of the three when he stands by the family graveyard, looking at the headstone which bore his name: “Then with a sudden dart of irony, he wondered if, when their turn came, the same epitaph would be written over him and Zeena.” (33) This helplessness in the face of externalities sometimes gives way to dramatic incidents such as the one when Ethan comes home from work with the anticipation of Zeena’s still not returning from his trip to Bettsbridge. “The barn was empty when the horses turned into it…” (44) Think of Ethan’s great joy when he presumes that Zeena isn’t home yet. But there are externalities they will never overcome; the very externalities that bind their fate and make them slaves in the vastness of the world. ‘“See here, Matt, I’ve got some stuff to mend the dish with…’ he cried. Oh, Ethan – Zeena’s come,’ she said in a whisper. They stood and stared at each other, pale as culprits.” (44) Desperately, Ethan tries to cling to reasoning, saying, “But the sorrel’s not in the barn!” (44) Their despair showed against the forces outside them is striking. Actually, the whole novel is but a dramatization of its characters’ smallness in the face of ruthless externalities. What answers could they come up with if things beyond their reach prove to be so adamant? Wharton wants us to see things in their naked reality. Here’s the stage: Man vs. his destiny. Humanity vs. God. Are we simple toys in the hands of God? As if, in her story, Wharton says, ‘Yes, we are. We’re helpless creatures squeezed between our desires and God’s will. And it is always fate that becomes triumphant.’ Ethan, too, knows this very well and his madness falls eventually, “and he saw his life as it was… He turned and walked slowly back to the farm.” (61) Why these three people were not able to come to term with their destiny? Because they were living under the pressure of singularities. Life is composed of dualities. Good and bad, ugly and beautiful, high and low, hot and cold; all are the faces of the unique reality called existence. Nature itself, as well as the human life, rests upon its own peculiar dualities. In Ethan Frome, nature still keeps its normalcy. This manifests itself in the first pages of the book and lasts till the end. Looking at the fields, the narrator can’t help thinking that, “During the early part of my stay I had been struck by the contrast between the vitality of the climate and the darkness of the community.” (3) It has always been man spoiling the harmony immanent in the nature. In Ethan Frome we can feel the existence of nature still resisting against the corrosive forces of man: “It seemed to produce no change except that of retarding still more sluggish pulse of Starkfield.” (3) Nature’s helplessness in the face of human apathy is clear here. The state of anomaly present in each household in Starkfield somehow becomes alien to the constructive impacts of nature. Without human intervention nature is poised to collapse into itself as it is also, just like mankind, created to be shaped by certain externalities. This lack of human interest and affection turns fertile lands into barren fields or savage forests. Not to be reduced into their lowest state of being, these two active forces in the world need to touch and feel one another. Only in this way can they keep or regain their integrity. Throughout the novel, the broken connection between man and nature is made clear. When Ethan fails to look after the fields he owns, the nature transforms into a hostile place for him. The narrator emphasizes this disinterestedness, “…the image it presents of a life linked with soil, and enclosing in itself the chief sources of warmth and nourishment…” (4) And nature takes its revenge by “the thickening darkness… descending on us layer by layer.” (9) Life is the culmination of our yearnings for unity. But the path to unity has to pass through numerous externalities and dualities. Man is made of thought, of will and of love: He can think truth or error, he can will good or evil, he can love beauty or ugliness. The synthesis is possible only when the singularity is reached through multitude. The Real is achieved through multiplicity as the signs of It is discernible in the things more than one. To light the fire of our desires, we need not only a can of kerosene but a box of matches as well. What put a damper on the lives of Ethan, Zeena and Mattie was their failure to grasp life in its multitude. Each lived such singular lives that they could not find the answers to their sorrow, unable to see the brightest light signaling their salvation. When Zeena wept over her broken pickle dish, she scolded Mattie in a most unusual way: “…I tried to keep my things where you couldn’t get at ‘em – and now you took from me the one I cared for most of all.” (54) She was sincere when she showed sign of emotion upon finding out what really happened to her pickle dish and this was the only time she became sensitive for something broken. Her nature looked for multiplicity while she denied it everything but a one-dimensional life. Like the nature around them and the businesses they are doing, their lives were on the brink of collapsing inside for long. This state of being devoid of multitude is demonstrated more starkly when Ethan finally concludes that “There was no way out – none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of life was to be extinguished.” (57) Life, lived in such a linear manner, could hardly bring about any feasible answer to the problems faced along the way. No wonder that Ethan was unable to detect the faintest light over the horizon of his future. The helplessness of Ethan in the face of Zeena’s rigidness deteriorates further when the unipolarity of society leaves hardly any space for them to move and Ethan Frome cannot think of a solution whereby he could “renew his appeal without too much loss of pride…” (59) This rigidness is tangible in the lives of these three people, Mattie having the least of it in her personality. However, in the end of the story, she also yields to the pressure of this singularity and cries in despair: “Ethan, where’ll I go if I leave you? I don’t know how to get along alone…” (71) These examples taken from the hearts of the main characters in the novel, lead to the conclusion that certain externalities have a profound impact on our lives. We’re bound by what we call the manifestation of fate and its imposition on us. But, if it’s faith and the will of God leading us into a certain point, there should have been no evil discoverable; but there’s evil in the lives of Ethan, Zeena and Mattie. As an answer to this claim, it could be said that God being the highest good, he would not allow evil to exist in His works, unless His might and goodness were to bring good even out of evil. It is part of the infinite goodness of the Absolute that He allows evil to happen and then makes good come out of it. This argument places all the responsibility on the shoulders of these three people, not that of fate. They were responsible for their salvation but they became unsuccessful in the actualization of that potentiality. They end up real losers. In Mrs. Hale’s words, “It is bad enough to see the two women sitting there – but his face, when he looks around that bare place, just kills me…” (75) What kills her is the face of a deep sorrow. If the mere apparition of it is so strong, how could they were able to endure it for such a long time? Yet, Wharton goes one step further from this point and demonstrates that even if we submit to the externalities imposed by fate, it’s often not enough. These external forces not only impede our progress on the road, but also drag us backwards and we find ourselves deprived of even a spoonful of happiness and satisfaction in life. This very quality of the externalities, against his and Mattie’s will, has built a monument of tragedy out of Ethan’s already ruined life. In the last second of their prospective salvation, “suddenly his wife’s face, with twisted monstrous lineaments, thrust itself between him and his goal, and he made and instinctive movement to brush it aside…” (72) There’s no further point from this indescribable human condition. It’s hell in the world; judgment before the Judgment Day. It’s the point where the novel gives its subtlest yet the most striking message: Man is but a speck in the face of the storm of the forces that made him what he is, placed him where he is and gave him what he has. Work Cited: Wharton, Edith, Ethan Frome, New York, Dover Publications, 1991
Ethan Frome is a novel where the very limits of humanity is forced, tested and tresspassed on. What we witness in that book is a human tragedy, not a sacrifice. In fact, sometimes, it is hard to call it even a tragedy as we don’t see purification through pain in the story. A tragedy aims at reaching a state of purification and exaltation through sacrifice. There is no sacrifice in this story. There’s not death and martyrdom, as well. And we cannot see any moral lesson to be derived in the end. The lack of moralization, martyrdom and sacrifice leave us awestruck in the face of stark cruelty and inhumaneness. This novel is the story of a struggle between opposing wills. Not only the clash of wills of Ethan and Zeena: the wills of the whole village also participate in the struggle, making the situation more and more untangible for the Fromes. In this struggle, do we realize that even failure has a spiritual value? I looked for a sign of spiritual greatness in Ethan and Zeena, but couldn’t see any. This must mainly because of the fact that such a prolonged and hopeless defeat as Ethan Frome’s has hardly anything to bring out but isolation and a twisted body. In this atmosphere, I can’t help loathing the notion that suffering and defeat have an innate value. What is sadder and more pitiful for Ethan is his lack of hope of any kind. Under the pressure of his ill fate, he is no longer able to extend the limits of his future beyond the family graveyard at the age of 28. The most striking line in the whole novel, the line that, to me, summarizes the story, is when Ethan confesses that “..it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter…" (p. 29) Zenobia and Ethan, despite they are young, seem old and already wretched emotionally. Was that natural and conventional for those times -- to feel like old at such an aerly age -- or was that the result of their incompatibility and lovelessness? If the answer is the second option, then we would easily put the whole blame on Zeena. Personally, I hate those kind of women who pretend to be weak, helpless and lopsidedly vulnerable -- Women who seem to be always on the verge of a psychological and physcial collapse. Zeena is a successful valetudinarian. And I ask myself, are women weaker than men? The answer to this would reveal if Zeena was really sincere or was just pretending. Actually, Zeena was a hypochondric well before she began nursing Mrs. Frome. At some point, it is said in the novel that, “..her skill as a nurse had been acquired by the absorbed observation of her own symptoms.” Indeed, that’s why she so successfully was able to take care of Mrs. Frome without any single complaint. And again, after the smash-up, she quite happily turns back to her former ‘occupation’ of nursing ‘the sick,’ this time two person on the list, one crippled, the other bedridden, forgetting all about her hypochondric sickliness. Zenobia had never been a sincere person. She was a schizophrenic that needed professional help, which was a luxury at that time. The worst part of her truthfully sick personality is her disinclination to consent to any change, even the slightest, in her physcial environment. This bad character of her forces Ethan to give up his hope of selling the farm and trying his luck in a city. This gleam of hope, however, is cruelly blown out when Zeena shows a blatant doggedness against such an idea. Zeena’s sneaky characteristics is once again made clear in her arrangement for Mattie to take the job of an unpaid servant, whom she could abuse without any fear of social denunciation. Until she discovers the blooming love between her and Ethan, she is perfectly consent with her. Because, to her, Mattie is more than a servant, but a modern-era, so to speak, slave without shackles. It is when the rapport between Mattie and Ethan developes into something which is close to love that Zeena rushes forward, through a despicable plan carried out masterfully, to find out a ‘real’ servant, but not a slave, whom they have to pay. And think about the lashless lids… “Two small tears… on her lashless eyelids.” This is a very strong depiction of a brutal personality. A physcial symbol of a merciless psychology, like that of Genghis Khan who were born with a blood clot in his palm, that wants neither a lover, nor a husband, nor a sensitive, compliant servant, but slaves that she could abuse and make fun of. In the face of this brutality, the first and the last revolt of Ethan against Zeena happens when he angrily declares to drive Mattie to the railroad station although Zeena has arranged for the handyman to do the job. And this revolt emerges at the wrong moment and is carried out very badly. The two lovers’ overt and exeggerated sentimentality brings about the very dawn of their fate, which is to be shaped at the hands of Zeena herself from then on. Such an execessive, childish sentimentality, given her age, is expected from Mattie; however, I would like to see Ethan to be more articulate, mature and reasonable. But in the end, I still have enough symphaty for Ethan, having seen that, after years of misery and ill-fate, he remains, still, capable of reacting in a friendly way toward the narrator and showing a deep interest in modern knowledge. It is strange to see that, despite all her cruelty and inhumaneness, Zeena does not break the moral codes in the society. No one blames her for anything. Ethan and Mattie go against some basic traditional values. However, Zeena never displays a sign of humaneness except when she has wept over the pickle dish, a wedding gift, which she has never used. Zeena’s humaneness somehow manages to go as far as shedding few tears over a pickle dish – a pitiful distance, indeed, to go while she at the same time keeps up making a ruin out of the flowering love of Ethan and Mattie. How was Ethan’s mental state during his short happy life with Mattie? Was he really happy? Or did he keep suffering – suffering from a love that has hardly been fulfilled and from lovelessness? And why did Zeena’s apparition stand between him and the elm tree at the last moment? The moment that could have been their salvation? And who suffered most? I guess that’s one of the questions we need to ask. In this respect all my symphaty goes to Mattie, as she had nothing to do with Ethan’s or Zeena’s particular situations. She was not part of their lives and destinies until just one year ago. She did not deserve to be kept in a dark, cold kitchen for 20+ years as a bedridden young girl under the care of the one who were the very reason for her calamity. This is not a simple tragedy; this is mere cruelty. This level of realism leaves me in a state of shock and I come to the realisation that Wharton never wanted to give us a moral lesson. She simply wanted us to get awestruck.
I was wondering if it is vital for me to read the introduction, because my teacher had only assigned for us to read the entire book, he did not specify if reading the intro would be needed. I'd like to skip reading the introduction if it isn't completely necessary.
I noticed that Ethan also wanted to become an engineer before his father got sick... Could the engineer represent a free form of Ethan not tied to the farm and the saw mill?
I love the symbols that represent death, light and communication (or lack thereof). From the ride back to the farm all the way to the smash-up, symbols of these three things are present. Cool. (no pun intended)
I have a paper to do, and one requirement is to identify the tone and theme of this book... i really do not understand how to get tone and theme? Also, i need to see diction if possible...if some one could help me, i'd really appreciate it. thanks =]
I need some type of help with this damn book cause i have a project that I have to do and I dnt know how in the world I am going to answer these questions.....PLEASE HELP ME PEOPLE.
Having read Ethan Frome in class, and having gone through a very strange test, and a futile discussion that followed, I still have some questions in mind.
1) Did anyone get the idea that Ethan Frome wanted to teach college before his father's illness? I thought he wanted to be an engineer...that was our dispute over the True or False question "Ethan planned to be a college teacher after he graduated." or something along that line.
2) Does anyone think that Ethan is the antagonist as well as the protagonist? I thought that Zeena was the protagonist. Yes, Ethan hindered himself. But doesn't almost every protagonist in the history of literature?
3) About symbols...did the spruce symbolize anything? Is there an argument that they didn't? And as for the sawmill, is it possible that it was a symbol?
4) If someone asks you "True or False, Ruth Varnum continued to visit Ethan and Mattie Silver regularly and often after the accident", would you think that they're asking you about right after the accident or the time lapse between the accident and the time when the narrator tells the story?
Reading this in my junior year, between The Great Gatsby (terrific) and Into The Dust (horrible), it was fairly disappointing. The Romeo and Juliet-esque love theme made me want to vomit-yet more people that are simply stupid and have horrible things happen to them (ei, driving into the tree). The story went far too slow, what there was of it. And Edith Wharton obviously knew nothing of the simple life in wintry little Massachussetts. While coasting (sledding, in Americanese) and going to church dances seem fairly boring and trivial to most, these activities meant something to the people who live such lives. Ethan was a bad character to begin with, but in my opinion, he would never had tried to kill himself.
Yes, Wharton obviously knows her literary devices and themes (some of the more metaphorical thoughts are borderline masterful), but those themselves don't make a decent novel.
Fairly boring, and a waste of time, unless you enjoy those Shakeaspeareian(sp?) tragedies.
I'm writing a theme on this book and how authors use tragic love to add realism. I loved this book, how it was so optimistic- and yet it ended with my own feelings, that love isn't necessarily attainable...or it doesn't exist...or it doesn't always work out. Whatever. But I did adore the writing style and the general plot, the end just made me rip it in half. Literally.
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