Conveying hidden truths regarding the conspicuous shift in psyche and behavior is generally revealed in an unsuccessful manner by many authors; however, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is an exceptional novel which effectively explains these enigmas. Her characters vary with clever nuances, reflecting the human mind, while the setting is loaded with symbolism. The author’s deliberate intentions of word choice, diction, and the characters’ behaviors, reflects the dichotomy, visible in our lifestyles.
Ethan Frome is portrayed as a psychological approach to human nature, a paradox of sorts: as it varies in setting, characterization, and includes references to her personal life. She unveils the presence of existing evil in the world which inclines us towards domination over one another and warns readers about the danger of misleading personae. A constant constraint that portrays the characters as prisoners is the location at which the novel takes place.
The fictional town of Starkfield, Massachusetts is reflected as a prison, due to its climate, surroundings, and the isolated position of the Fromes’ farm. The etymology of the town’s name itself gives the impression of how it’s citizens life must be. “Stark” defines as “severe or bare in appearance” and reflects the distant behavior and apathy of the townsfolk. Throughout the novel, the surroundings are described as grim-looking and sullen, reflecting the setting with the emotions of the characters in the novel; moreover, the overbearing amount of snow in the winter consistently has a desperate effect on the mood.
The Frome’s farm with its broken “L” shows how Ethan is exposed to the grim society, signifying his hopelessness in life. The missing “L” symbolizes the lack of life in the house and the darkness taking over their soul. The hopelessness which controls Ethan represents his torn relationship with Zeena and the broken life he has created for himself, making regretful decisions one after another. The distinguishable traits of each character show the importance of each role in the novel. Though the characters present contrasts, they all crave chaos and hold it close creating a sense of security. Zeena is one of the characters in the novel that is trapped in an Ivory Tower. Unable to face reality, Zeena compensates for what she lacks in her life, by she using a fake illness to manipulate Ethan to stay with her. Her entire life is wasted taking care of others’ needs while disregarding her own happiness, and uses the distraction to keep her from thinking of her insecurities. It was only when Zeena was left alone, that she began to fall sick with serious illnesses. Whether the illness was fake or not, it required dedicated attention from Ethan, expensive medicine, and treatment from doctors in distant towns. Besides Zeena’s beloved Pickle dish, the illness was her only method of escape and may even provide herself with an identity. In the aspect of needing disorder for security, Ethan is no different from Zeena. When Ethan’s mother had become ill, Zeena was brought to the Frome Farm in means to aid his mother to health. After his mother’s passing, Ethan married Zeena out of gratitude but mainly obligation. Rather than seeing the path for an opportunity to pursue his passion for a higher education after the passing of his mother and father, Ethan clings to Zeena for support.
Throughout Ethan’s journey, whenever he is faced with a dilemma he always takes the easy but regretful path. He never tries to be his own person and fails to listen to his true desires which results in his cowardice behavior. Another instance of Ethan’s need for disorder is arbitrary affair with Mattie Silver. If only Ethan had methodically planned for his escape with Mattie, he perhaps could have lived happily with Mattie. Ethan was extremely close to overcoming his deep-rooted desire for chaos but at the last moment, it surfaced itself and resulted in failure. The new couple could have waited until Spring to elope as they had originally planned but Ethan lacked commitment and confidence in himself. Mattie is Ethan’s only symbol of hope in the barren town of Starkfield. She is the little glimmer of light than Ethan desperately held onto to retain sanity. Through delving into the personal life of Edith Wharton, many similarities between Ethan Frome and the author are featured in the novel. Wharton uses Ethan to project her thoughts of adultery and justify one’s need for liberation against social expectations. Wharton herself was involved in an affair while being part of a dysfunctional marriage. Ethan is her outlet to justify her actions and presents him as a sympathetic character throughout the novel. Both of their regret and loneliness are apparent as Wharton writes about her shameful actions through the actions and thoughts of Ethan.
The reasoning behind the behavior of the characters is very transparent once Wharton’s history was unveiled, starting from why she made Ethan a man instead of a woman. At the time of Wharton’s marriage, women being involved in affairs was not accepted in society; in order for the audience to be more sympathetic to the circumstances described in the novel, it was ideal to make Ethan a man. The author continuously hides herself in the actions of the characters and reveals bits and pieces of her life through their journey. The need for chaos and selflessness are extremes which will never coexist. One can never achieve the enlightenment of selflessness if once their desire was for havoc to break loose. It becomes rooted in the subconscious and has a tendency to surface when least wanted. There is no way for humanity to achieve this deeply-desired peace, as there is a constant of ignorance and ego creating evil by promoting unassailable impulses.
Edith Wharton’s novel, Ethan Frome reveals the dichotomy present in our life and is portrayed as a psychological approach to human behavior. It playfully varies in setting, characterization, and includes references to her personal life. The indulgence of Ethan Frome gives insight on the many aspects of life which are generally hidden due to its taboo enforced by society.