Morality In Ethan Frome By Edith Wharton
Morality has a way of shaping who a person is and of determining the path that their life is on. The novel Ethan Frome is an example of individuals whose lives were afflicted with the inevitable misfortunes of moral limitations of a society where women’s rights were limited and the divorce rate was low due to women not being able to provide for themselves in that time period. To conform to these morals, Ethan Frome tried to do what was right rather than acting on the things that he wanted that would make his life happier. In doing so, he felt constricted to the rules of morality that result in his life being miserable.
Throughout Ethan Frome, the theme of morality unquestionably played a vital role in the events of the story. Even though he is married to Zeena, Ethan has taken a liking to Mattie Silver, Zeena’s cousin, and Ethan himself also addresses, “The fact that he had no right to show his feelings, (Wharton 51)” for Mattie. In acknowledging this fact, it is shown that he understands the moral that he shouldn’t be taken to another woman when he is already married, and yet he proceeds, later on, to act on these immoral emotions with the awareness of what he is doing is not right. So though he would be most happy with Mattie, he can’t leave Zeena. After Zeena had said Mattie was to leave, Ethan thought about leaving, but he thought, “what of Zeena’s fate? (Wharton 115) because “it was only by incessant labor and personal supervision that Ethan drew a meager living from his land (Wharton 115-116)” and how Zeena, “could never carry such a burden.” He might have a better life with Mattie, but he knows that leaving Zeena would be a cruel thing for him to do. In this time period, Zeena wouldn’t be able to fend for herself without a man to assist her since women’s rights weren’t as they are now, such as how Zeena wouldn’t be allowed to own her own property so she would need to live with a husband or a family member.
Due to the rules of society at that time, Ethan Frome couldn’t help but feel imprisoned in his situation. While divorce was possible, the rates of couples who went through with it were low in the early 1900s, which was less than ten percent, compared to now where the divorce is easier to achieve and the rate is thirty-two percent, though a few years ago it was about fifty percent. To get a divorce at that time, the spouse had to have evidence for reasons such as adultery. Ethan, as said before, was planning on running away with Mattie, but when he thought about he wondered, “If he gave the farm and mill to Zeena what would be left him to start his own life with? (Wharton 115)” He would have to have money to support Mattie, as he states here, “Once in the West he was sure of picking up work… but with Mattie depending on him the case was different (Wharton 115).” By this, Ethan is saying that, though he could provide for himself if he left, Mattie wouldn’t be able to provide for herself. Mattie would have to rely on Ethan financially, and if Ethan has no money to start with then it would make it harder for him to support two people rather than one. He was planning on getting money from Andrew Hale by using the excuse of Zeena’s illness so that then he could leave with Mattie, because, “Andrew Hale, who was a kind-hearted man, might be induced to reconsider his refusal and advance a small sum on the lumber, (Wharton 122)” so that then, “nothing could keep him from Mattie. (Wharton 122)” Except he ends up not doing so, upon realizing that on doing that he would be, “planning to take advantage of the Hales’ sympathy to obtain money from them on pretenses. (Wharton 124)” He doesn’t do this, though, because Ethan knows it would be a corrupt thing to do, even if it would be a way for him to stay with Mattie. This shows that his stringent morals keep him from lying to the Hales, even if it was a way for him to run away with Mattie and be happy.
Ethan chose to stay so that he didn’t leave Zeena by herself instead of fulfilling his want to run away with the person that he loves. Ethan and Mattie decide to commit suicide, both feeling like it’s the only way they can stay together, except even when they are on their way to hitting the elm, Ethan’s, “wife’s face, with twisted monstrous ligaments, thrust itself between him and his goal. (Wharton 147)” and when he hits the elm, “he heard the sorrel Whinney, and thought: “I ought to be getting him his feed. (Wharton 149)” In what Ethan believes to be his way out of a morality’s restrictions, he still thinks of the things that are expected of him such as caring for his wife and feeding his animals. What he thought was going to help him escape, which was by committing suicide, ended up making his life even more confined by society, where he was crippled and had to take care of both Zeena and Mattie. It’s like what Harmon said, “Somebody had to stay and care for the folks. There wasn’t anybody but Ethan. Fust his father-then his mother- then his wife. (Wharton 6)”
By doing what society expected of him, Ethan ended up leading a life that he didn’t want and he felt confined to that life. He couldn’t leave Zeena because she wouldn’t be able to keep up the mill and farm without him, so he couldn’t leave with Mattie and be happy, which led to him doing something that resulted in him being even more miserable and stuck with the job of taking care of the farm, of Zeena, and Mattie. All through Ethan Frome, morality is what impacted Ethan the most, trapping him by its rules no matter how much he tried to escape them.
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