Typically one of the subtler parts of a novel, setting usually serves as a frame that supports the plot and characters. In Ethan Frome, however, Edith Wharton reinvents the use of setting as an integral element of the story. She weaves the physical aspects of the weather and landscape so tightly among the characters' inner feelings that the two become almost interchangeable. The prominence of the bleak winter weather in Ethan Frome demonstrates Wharton's unique mode of storytelling and allows her to develop deeply complex characters.
An unnamed visitor to the town of Starkfield narrates the preface and introduces the reader to Ethan Frome, the main character of the novel. He describes his curiosity upon seeing the taciturn, mysterious man, and resolves to find out what happened to transform "the most striking figure in Starkfield" to "the ruin of a man" (3). From his very first encounter with Ethan, the narrator views him through close parallels with the winter weather. The narrator employs Ethan to transport him by sleigh across town each day to do business and observes the strange man's behavior as he navigates the icy terrain: "[Ethan] seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an...
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CRITICA ESSAY #1 Jeffrey M. Lilburn, M. A (The University of Western Ontario) is the author of a study guide on Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman and of numerous educational essays. In the following essay, he discusses the narrative and moral ambiguity in Ethan Frome First published in 1911, Ethan Frome is now considered a classic of twentieth-century American literature. A tale of lost opportunity, failed romance and disappointed dreams ending with a botched suicide attempt that leaves two people crippled and dooms another to a life of servitude, Ethan Frome immerses its readers in a world of unrelenting pain nd misery. To some, the suffering endured by Wharton’s characters is excessive and unjustified; to others, the novel addresses difficult moral questions and provides insightful commentary on the American economic and cultural realities that produced and allowed such suffering. Others still look to the novel for clues about the author’s own life. However, no explanation is completely satisfying because regardless of the meaning one chooses to find in the novel, this meaning, like the vision put together by the narrator, will inevitably be shrouded in mystery and ambiguity.
Much of the discussion about Ethan Frome involves the frame story with which the novel begins. Although the framing narrative and the story embedded within it are told by the same unnamed narrator, the reliability of the latter is made problematic by the various and varying sources used to construct it. Also, by introducing his story as a “vision,” the narrator makes very clear the fact that what we are about to read is not a factual record of the occurrences leading up to Ethan’s accident, but his own impressions of what those occurrences may have been. As several critics have pointed out, the only “facts” of
Ethan’s story are to be found in the narrative frame; the information contained within the frame cannot be considered reliable because, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff explains, it “bears the imprint of the narrator’s own interpretation. ” His vision is a “hypothesis,” one vision among many possible others. Wolff argues that Wharton’s novel is not about Ethan Frome, but about the narrator and his reaction to the story he tells. Pointing to the “disconcerting similarities” between Ethan and the narrator, she suggests that the narrator’s vision depicts his own “shadow self, the man he might become if the reassuring ppurtenances of busy, active, professional, adult mobility were taken from him. ” Jean Franz Blackall offers another possibility. Blackall agrees that the narrator’s knowledge is based on inference but believes there is evidence in the text to support his story. He finds this evidence in the final pages of the novel, arguing that Mrs. Hale, who was with Mattie on the morning after the accident, corroborates the narrator’s intuitive discovery. According to Blackall, the ellipses representing Mrs. Hale’s unfinished report of what Mattie told her signifies that she knows about the love affair between Mattie and
Ethan and their subsequent suicide attempt. However, it is important to remember that Mrs. Hale never actually tells the narrator what it is she heard Mattie say; a sense of shared secret knowledge between her and the narrator is suggested but never confirmed. Complicating the debate over the novel’s narrative structure even further is Orlene Murad who, believing that a biographical tie exists between Edith Wharton and Ethan Frome, argues that it is the author herself who narrates the “vision. ” Murad believes there is nothing in the narrator’s character that would make him capable of so lyrically rticulating Ethan’s thoughts and actions. Instead, she believes that Wharton abandons the “engineer-narrator” of the first part of the novel and “continues her story as its omniscient narrator. ” Murad even suggests that Wharton “becomes” Ethan Frome, explaining that the author can so well enter into Ethan’s point of view because she is experiencing Ethan’s dilemma herself. By creating a character “who painfully takes on the burdensome care of those for whom he is responsible,” Murad claims that Wharton “has fashioned a scapegoat” and has pushed onto Ethan the grueling life that her own marital ircumstances might easily have pushed onto her. Despite the biographical similarities between the author and her fictional character, readers and critics continue to seek additional justification for the interminable suffering depicted in the novel. Biography may provide insight into the inspiration for the characters and their particular dilemmas, but it cannot reveal all of a text’s meaning. Consequently, the novel’s conclusion leads many readers to ask: Do Ethan, Mattie and Zeena deserve their horrible fate? For many, the answer to this question is no. Lionel
Trilling, for example, argues that Wharton is unable to lay claim to any justification for the suffering her characters experience. Moreover, he contends that in Ethan Frome, Wharton presents “no moral issue at all. ” He thinks the ending “terrible to contemplate,” but says that “the mind can do nothing with it, can only endure it. ” Other readers find much to do with Wharton’s ending. Marlene Springer believes that Ethan Frome explores the possibility that life can offer equally strong conflicting choices. Among the moral choices she identifies are: “perceived duty versus genuine love; ersonal happiness for two versus righteous loneliness and penury for one; and the pressure of social structures versus the particularly American desire to ‘light out for the territory. ‘” Springer also contends that Ethan Frome offers a “stark realization of what life can be like if you accept circumstances with resignation—refusing … to look at the variety of moral options to its dilemmas. ” Read in this fashion, the narrator’s vision becomes a cautionary tale about the dangers of inaction and moral paralysis. Recalling that Wharton was careful to label Ethan Frome a “tale” instead of a “novel,”
Elizabeth Ammons searches for meaning by comparing the work to the archetypes of fairy tales. What she finds is a “modern fairy story” that is “as moral as the classic fairy tale” and which functions as “realistic social criticism. ” Specifically, she believes that a network of imagery in the novel “calls up the fairy tale Snow White”, the frozen landscape, Mattie’s physical appearance, her role as housekeeper, and her persecution by witchlike Zeena all have “obvious parallels in the traditional fairy tale about a little girl whose jealous step-mother tries to keep her from maturing into a healthy, marriageable young woman. The difference is that in Wharton’s “inverted fairy tale,” it is the witch who wins. This victory is then amplified by the failed suicide attempt that transforms Mattie into “a mirror image of Zeena. ” According to Ammons, in Wharton’s modern fairy story, witches not only win, they multiply. Whereas Trilling and other critics have found Ethan Frome to be without moral content, Ammons argues that Wharton’s moral “emerges cold and grim as her Starkfield setting. ” She explains this moral as follows: “as long as women are kept isolated and dependent. Mattie Silvers will become Zeena Fromes: frigid crippled wrecks of human beings…. To her, the fact that Wharton cripples Mattie but does not let her die reflects not the author’s cruelty, but the culture’s. Without a family or skills she can utilize in the workplace, Ammons believes that Mattie’s fate is unalterable—she will live in poverty, will become prematurely old, and her dreams will be shattered no matter what she does. The sledding accident merely accelerates the process, sparing Mattie the “gradual disintegration into queerness that Ethan has witnessed in Zeena and his mother. ” Ammons’ reading of the novel suggests that witches are made, not born. In Zeena’s case, he transition appears to have begun soon after her marriage to Ethan. Like her beloved but never-used pickle dish, Zeena’s life was also put on a shelf the day she was married. The lack of communication between husband and wife, the absence of intimacy, and the isolation of life on a farm in a rural community make Zeena’s a very lonely existence. To her husband, preoccupied by dreams of Mattie, Zeena has “faded into an insubstantial shade. ” Blake Nevius draws attention to the scene in which Zeena, face streaming with tears, confronts Ethan and Mattie with the shattered remains of her pickle dish.
In this scene, Nevius argues, “we get a terrible glimpse of the starved emotional life that has made her what she is. ” We also get a glimpse, a vision, of the life Mattie would have known had she replaced Zeena as Ethan’s wife. What makes Ethan’s and Mattie’s fate so frustrating for so many readers are the many wasted opportunities to invent for themselves a new one. Over and over, Ethan is stormed by feelings of rebellion, words of resistance rise to his lips, instincts of self-defense intensify, but each time, the feelings wane, the words remain unspoken, and the instincts fade away.
Ethan’s decision not to ask Andrew Hale for the money that would give him and Mattie the opportunity to begin a new life together is particularly troubling. Nevius views this scene as the turning point of the novel. Ethan has been and continues to be “hemmed in by circumstances,” but here, it is his own “sense of responsibility that blocks the last avenue of escape and condemns him to a life of sterile expiation. ” Why does Ethan choose not to ask Hale for the money? The answer to this question might have more to do with Ethan’s reluctance to actualize his dreams and visions than it does with a udden attack of conscience. Throughout the novel, Ethan continually shifts his attention from his immediate surroundings to another moment, another space existing in his imagination. We are told, early in the novel, that it is when abandoning himself to these dreams that Ethan is most happy. At various times before the accident, Ethan imagines that he and Mattie will one day in the future lie side by side in the Frome graveyard, that they have and will continue to enjoy a long-standing intimacy and, just moments before their impending separation, that he is “a free man, wooing the girl he meant to marry. He even imagines the means through which he might once again become a free man. A cucumber vine dangling from his porch “like the crape streamer tied to the door for a death” leads him to imagine that it is Zeena who has died. The news that she is “a great deal sicker” than he thinks has a similar effect, causing him to wonder if at last her words are true. Cynthia Griffin Wolff argues that Ethan retreats “from life into a ‘vision'” because, to him, the “uncompromised richness of the dream is more alluring than the harsher limitations of actual, realized satisfactions. And indeed, to Ethan, nothing can compete with his own visions of what life with Mattie would be like. On the morning after his evening alone with Mattie, he is glad that he “had done nothing to trouble the sweetness of the picture” he had created in his mind. Consequently, when circumstances force upon him a situation in which he must act and make a decision, he is unable to do so, leaving to Mattie the final decision to sled down the hill into the big elm. According to Wolff, Ethan is “like a man who has become addicted to some strong narcotic, [savouring] emotional indolence s if it were a sensual experience. ” Perhaps the most difficult moment for readers to understand is Ethan’s lack of reaction when he discovers that Mattie has long shared his feelings and desires. The news gives Ethan a “fierce thrill of joy” but does not incite action. Mattie’s love represents the renewal of opportunity, a second chance to become one of “the smart ones [who] get away. ” But because of the novel’s structure, we know that Ethan does not get away. We know there will be a “smash-up,” that Ethan will suffer crippling injuries, and that he will spend “too many winters” in Starkfield.
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Perhaps it is this predictability which reveals the novel’s ultimate meaning. Perhaps Wharton reveals Ethan’s fate early in the novel so her readers may share the sense of helpless resignation that her characters feel with respect to their miserable fates. Then again, Ethan’s unrealized visions of a new life with Mattie— themselves the visions of a man who reminds Ethan of the life he could have had—may be the true source of the novel’s tragedy. Source: Jeffrey M. Lilburn, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999 Source: Novels for Students, ©2013 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved. Full copyright.
Author: Brandon Johnson
Ethan Frome Critical Essay
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