Ethan Frome, the title character of Edith Wharton’s tragic novel, lives in his own world of silence, where he replaces his scarcity of words with images and fantasies. There is striking symbolism in the imagery, predominantly that of winter which connotes frigidity, detachment, bleakness and seclusion.
Twenty-eight year old Ethan feels trapped in his hometown of Starkfield, Massachusetts. He marries thirty-four year old Zeena after the death of his mother, “in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the silence, isolation, and loneliness of life” (Lawson 71). Several years after their marriage, cousin Mattie Silver is asked to relieve Zeena, a gaunt and sallow hypochondriac, of her household duties. Ethan finds himself falling in love with Mattie, drawn to her youthful energy, as, “The pure air, and the long summer hours in the open, gave life and elasticity to Mattie” (Wharton 60).
Ethan is attracted to Mattie because she is the antithesis of Zeena. “While Mattie is young, happy, healthy, and beautiful like the summer, Zeena is seven years older than Ethan, bitter, ugly and sickly cold like the winter” (Lewis 310). Zeena’s strong, dominating personality emasculates Ethan, while Mattie’s feminine, effervescent youth makes Ethan feel like a “real man.” Contrary to his characteristic passiveness, he defies Zeena in Mattie’s defence, “You can’t go, Matt! I won’t let you! She’s Zeena’s always had her way, but I mean to have mine now -” (Wharton 123). To Ethan, Mattie is radiant and energetic. He sees possibilities in her beyond his trite life in Starkfield, something truly worth standing up for. Her energy and warmth excite him and allow him to escape from his lonely, monotonous life.
While Zeena is visiting an out of town doctor, Ethan and Mattie, alone in the house, intensely feel her eerie presence. The warmth of their evening together is brought to an abrupt end by the accidental breaking of Zeena’s prized dish. Zeena’s fury at the breaking of an impractical pickle dish exemplifies the rage she must feel about her useless life. “That the pickle dish has never been used makes it a strong symbol of Zeena herself, who prefers not to take part in life” (Lawson 68-69). Ethan’s response to Zeena’s rage was silence.
Just as Ethan lives in silence, so too does his wife. The total lack of communication between the “silent” couple is a significant factor in Ethan’s miserable marriage. Ethan kept silent in his dealings with his wife, “to check a tendency to impatient retort he had first formed the habit of not answering her, and finally thinking of other things while she talked” (Wharton 72).
Zeena is the cold and ugly reality from which Ethan tries to escape in his dreams of a life with Mattie. He is happy only when imagining his life with Mattie. The night that they are alone, hepretends that they are married. Often when they are together, he fantasizes that Zeena is dead and that he and Mattie live togetherin blissful devotion. Ethan deludes himself because, as a prisoner of circumstance, his only escape is illusion. His happiness in the company of Mattie is the product of a self-deception necessitated by his unhappy marriage to Zeena, the obstacle to a life long relationship with Mattie.
After the night of the broken dish, Ethan and Mattie finally articulate their feelings for each other, and are forced to face the painful reality that their fantasies can not come true:
The return to reality was as painful as the return to consciousness after taking an anaesthetic. His body and brain ached with indescribable weariness, and he could not think of nothing to say or do that should arrest the mad flight of the moments (Wharton 95).
“Zeena herself, from an oppressive reality, had faded into an insubstantial shade” (Wharton 39). Her hypochondria is her outlet, just as Ethan’s world of fantasy is his. “It her obsession with her health is adventurous in contrast to her monotonous marriage” (McDowell 66). Sickly Zeena is able to manipulate her husband using her frail health to justify her bitter personality. “When she Zeena spoke it was only to complain” (Wharton 72).
Ethan and Mattie attempt to preserve their happiness and remain together the only way they can, in death. At this point, Mattie inadvertently becomes the cause of Ethan’s tragic suffering. The aborted suicide attempt leads to their tragic fate, living a life of physical suffering, so badly injured that former invalid, Zeena is forced to care for them.
“If she’d Mattie’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived” (Wharton 181). It is horribly ironic that, as a result of the accident, Mattie, the source of Ethan’s earlier joy, is now an additional trial in an already depleted life. Where Ethan was once uplifted by virtue of Mattie’s being, he is now burdened by her very presence. Tragically, time only accentuated his suffering instead of alleviating it. After suffering so long with the sickly Zeena, Ethan now has to exist with the horribly deformed remains of a once beautiful, sensitive, and loving girl. Once again surrendering himself to the forces of isolation, silence, darkness, cold, and “death-in-life” (McDowell 68).
The setting for Ethan Frome is winter. Edith Wharton, the author, chose winter as a theme because it symbolizes the emotional and physical isolation, cold, darkness, and death that surround Ethan. Similarly, the name of the town Starkfield is symbolic of Ethan’s arid life. “Stark denotes the harsh winters causing barren, lifeless landscape, with lifeless and devastated people” (Howe 113). The narrator notes this connection; “During the early part of my stay I had been struck by the climate and the deadness of the community” (Wharton 8).
“Wharton emphasizes the rigor of life in a harsh land with its rocky soul, its cold winters, and its bleak, desolate beauty” (McDowell 65). Wharton writes:
The snow had ceased, and a flash of watery sunlight exposed the house on the slope above us in all its plaintive ugliness. The black wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped from the porch, and the thin wooden walls, under their worn coats of paint, seemed to shiver in the wind that had risen with the ceasing of the snow (20).
The downtrodden image painted in this quotation describes the environment, as well as describing Ethan. Just as his house was once new and beautiful but is now torn by many harsh winters in Starkfield, so to was Ethan. The ravages of winter destroy both man’s will to survive and the buildings he constructed to shield him from this environment. As the narrator explains, “I had a sense that his Ethan’s loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it the profound accumulated cold of many winters” (Wharton 15).
The description of the weather is also used to foreshadow events and set the mood. Once Ethan and Mattie decide to take their lives, as if to suggest that something will go wrong, the sky is described as, “swollen with clouds that announce a thaw, hung as low as before a summer storm” (Wharton 167). This is just one of many times in the novel when the climate is used to indicate foreboding events.
The weather imagery is used in character development and depiction. After the accident, “He Ethan seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of it’s frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface” (Wharton 14). When Mattie first arrives in Starkfield, her presence is perceived as, “… a bit of hopeful young life, like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth” (33). In contrast to Mattie’s radiant warmth, Zeena is described as wintery and unappealing:
She Zeena sat opposite the window, and the pale light reflected from the banks of snow made her face look more than usually drawn and bloodless, sharpened the three parallel creases between ear and cheek, and drew querulous lines from her thin nose to the corners of her mouth (64).
In view of his miserable life, the reader can well understand Ethan’s need to escape into a fantasy world of warmth and love. The pervasiveness of the winter imagery evokes in the reader a sense of the bitter solitude, silence, desolation, and despair ultimately felt by each of the three main characters. Their tragic lives are overshadowed by gloom and hopelessness, in much the same way that winter stunts the growth and vitality of nature’s creations.
Works CitedHowe, Irving. Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Prentis Hall, 1962.
Lawson, Richard H. Edith Wharton. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977.
Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton – A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975.
McDowell, Margaret. Edith Wharton. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976.
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Charles Scribener’s Sons, 1911.