Ethan Frome, published in 1911 by award-winning American author Edith Wharton, presents a spiritual journey embarked on two star-crossed lovers--Ethan and Mattie--in the snowy town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. Wharton, in denial of Ethan’s wife Zeena’s kindness and forgiveness, indirectly defends for Ethan’s desire to cheat on Zeena due to Ethan’s tragic life before he was again bounded to the demands of the farm and the family obligations. In developing the conflict in the novel, Wharton demonstrates how Ethan and Mattie both had to place their passions aside for the mundane rules the society has pressured on them, which Edmund Wilson deems as “a small closed system” that the two characters were trapped in.
To begin with, Wharton depicts Ethan as a simple man who had lost the privilege to dream because he was manipulated by extreme poverty, loneliness, and dark spirit in the “stifling” town of Starkfield. As early as the prologue, the author has already started to paint a lifeless characteristic of the town and Ethan himself by indicating that “Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away.” (9) The setting of extreme climate foreshadows that the destiny of Ethan and Mattie’s secret love is going to end in despair unless they manage to escape the literal burial ground for hopes and dreams. Indeed, the author later indicates Ethan’s inability to pursue his strong interest in a career in engineering to illustrate how much of an impediment this town, his wife, and poverty are to Ethan’s true passion. To reveal the domestic burden pressured on Ethan, the author skillfully utilizes Ethan’s own reflection on his constant concerns of Zeena’s tyranny to demonstrate how, as Edmund Wilson noted, Ethan “suffers a living death.” “and he felt sure that, with a ‘smart’ wife like Zeena, it would not be long before he had made himself a place in it.” (71) The narrator makes it clear that Ethan was, as Wilson would describe, a “prisoner” to his wife who intentionally obstructs his “imaginative spirits.” The author also incorporates an especially depressing and ironic tone to mock the domestic duties that are on Ethan’s shoulders as a depiction of the sick symptoms of the greater society in the early 1900s. This incorporation of satire further amplifies the negative effects the crowd could manage to execute on Ethan’s livelihood and the ability to think critically that eventually lead to Ethan’s emotional death.
In addition, Zeena’s spirited young cousin Mattie is also portrayed as a tragic character whose dream of long-lasting companionship clashes due to social restraints. Being an orphan from a young age, one would argue that Mattie is used to the loneliness that the town of Starkfield represents; however, what Mattie does to cover her fear of losing companionship is to show constant signs of warmth, passionate attitude, vitality, and boldness to Ethan’s family. This personality of Mattie is perfectly depicted in “a cherry-colored scarf called a 'fascinator,' appears happy and exhilarated.” (41) Nevertheless, this livelihood of Mattie is destroyed the second she steps into Frome’s residence while she is in companionship with Ethan: because of poverty, Mattie doesn’t have much choice but to make the best out of the farm life. But her desperate dream of the perfect love eventually acts upon her mind when she suggests a mutual suicide with Ethan in the forest. Clearly, Mattie’s mental conditions have been significantly weakened by the abandonment of Zeena, which she couldn’t afford after living with no resources or self-confidence. After the accident fails to accomplish its purpose by the end of the novel, Wharton officially “locks Mattie into a small closed system” when she reverses Mattie’s kindness and tenderness into a personality as crippled as old Zeena’s.
Generally speaking, Ethan Frome successfully exemplifies a conflict between passions and social burdens. Ethan and Mattie, collaboratively, prove Wharton’s ideology that passion is not enough to liberate one from an environment that traps people’s soul within.
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