Ethan Frome Essay, Research Paper
They say that if you give a man the necessary tools and supplies, he will build himself a trap. This trap is made unconsciously; therefore, it cannot be escaped; the solution cannot be found. The only solution that suffices is to live with this trap, sadly, for life. But is it the only solution? In Edith Wharton’s romantic, yet tragic novel Ethan Frome, the need for affection causes Ethan Frome to gradually shed his taciturnity and bring his emotions to life. Early in the novel, Ethan’s passiveness and lack of self-confidence, allow his wife Zeena to emasculate him, as well as make him emotionally inarticulate toward Mattie. Once Mattie Silvers enters Ethan’s life, she awakens in Ethan the bitterness of his youth’s lost opportunities, and a dissatisfaction with his joyless life and empty marriage. Gradually, Ethan strengthens and gathers the courage to defy Zeena and confess his love for Mattie. At the start of his journey, Ethan surrenders himself to the forces of isolation, silence, and his depleted life. Soon his desire for love, in a situation where only abject coldness exists, transforms him into an emotional and confident man.
Because of his emotional weakness, Ethan loses opportunities to reveal his passion to Mattie and also acquiesces to his wife’s demands, while shunning out his own needs. After suffering so long with the sickly Zeena, Ethan fears unveiling his passionate feelings to Mattie, for he is bound as a husband and tradition to Zeena. Years earlier as a younger and more hale man, Ethan felt trapped in his hometown Starkfield. Mistakenly, he marries Zeena, a gaunt, sallow nagging hag, as compensation for her nursing Ethan’s sick mother. Ethan and his morose, invalid wife Zeena live in a trapped, unspoken resentment on Ethan’s isolated and failing farm. Driven by a perverted need for attention, Zeena claims to have numerous ailments and employs her destitute cousin to help with the chores. Over the course of the years, Ethan, lonely and miserable, finds himself falling in love with Mattie, drawn to her youthful, animated energy. As he walks through town one night, he stops by the church to watch Mattie dance. As he marvels at the young girl’s beauty he thinks, “But hitherto the emotion had remained in him as silent ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He did not even know whether any one else in the world felt as he did, or whether any one else in the world felt as he did, or whether he was the sole victim of this mournful privilege”(17). Ethan lives in his own world of silence, where he replaces his scarcity of words with imaginations and fantasies. For years Ethan and his wife live in silence and seclusion. Ultimately, the total lack of communication between the silent couple significantly contributes to their miserable marriage as well as Ethan’s inability to act out his emotions. Ethan, accustomed to his silent relationship with his wife, flutters when he meets Mattie and loses complete faith in himself. Fear and doubt overwhelms because love is a new concept to him; a journey he scarcely ventures. Every time Ethan tries to converse with his wife, all he ever hears are her complaints and demands. Thus, he would rather not communicate with her at all. Also, since Zeena looks down on Ethan, he feels that he also must not be worthy enough for Mattie. He believes Zeena’s criticisms and they taunt him when he attempts to court Mattie. Ethan further displays uncertainty and shyness by restraining himself from kissing Mattie. The morning after Ethan escorted Mattie home, Ethan’s thoughts turn back to last night. As the memory of Mattie’s warm shoulder comes back to him, he regrets his failure to kiss her when he had the chance. Ethan, frustrated, asks himself, “Why had he not kissed her when he held her there? . . . a few minutes earlier, when they had stood alone outside the house, he would not have dared to think of kissing her” (29). As a cold, isolated, and grim figure, Zeena embodies her surrounding. She creates a loveless, desolate home for Ethan where he never learns to express his love and affection. When the moment to manifest his passion to Mattie in the form of the kiss arrives, he becomes nervous, and shies out like a scared lamb. Even more, Ethan lacks the confidence and courage to stand up for himself against Zeena, who manipulates Ethan and uses her frail health to justify her bitter personality. When Zeena returns from her visit to the doctor, Ethan cautiously greets her as she sits in the darkened bedroom. She coldly informs him that her illness is worse than he thinks and even blames him for her illnesses. Although, since Mattie’s arrival, Zeena does very little housework, such a recommendation is most welcome because it provides her with an excuse to get rid of Mattie, of whom she has become increasingly jealous. Ethan calmly endures her harsh accusations, and helplessly replies, “But you know it. I’m sorry, but it can’t be helped. You’re a poor man’s wife, Zeena; but I’ll do the best I can for you” (57). Overcome by his enormous sense of responsibility for others, Ethan never tries to pursuit his own pleasures. A life without pleasure characterizes Ethan’s painful silence and despair. The monotonous routine of life’s daily responsibilities and self–doubt hold Ethan captive to his farm and frigid marriage. Ethan feels guilty that he fancies Mattie, and as a result, he feels it is his duty to submit to Zeena’s wishes, even though they are against his. He fails to realize that his failing marriage is not his fault, but because Ethan feels responsibility for everything, Ethan senses he has no right to defy Zeena. In summation,
Miraculously, Mattie, like a veritable angel, sheds light onto Ethan’s miserable life and shows him his weakness as he permits Zeena to control his emotions. At this point, Ethan begins to see Zeena as the root of his unhappiness and inexpressiveness. Zeena announces to Ethan the doctor’s recommendation for surgery. After hearing the news, Ethan is suddenly tossed between waves of jubilation and pity. Zeena wants his sympathy, and as usual, Ethan right about gives Zeena the vicarious emotion she lusts, but suddenly, Ethan notices Zeena’s hardness and callousness like never before–an antipathy of Mattie. Angered and dismayed, he stops himself and ponders at his discovery: “Wrath and dismay contended in Ethan. He had foreseen an immediate demand for money, but not a permanent drain on his scant resources. He had no longer believed what Zeena had told him of the supposed seriousness of her state: he saw in her expedition to Bettsbridge only a plot hatched between herself and her Pierce relations to foist on him the cost of a servant; and for the moment wrath predominated”(56). Now, Ethan begins to see what he failed to see before: Zeena removes herself from society and uses her feigned illness to control him. By being a semi-invalid, she can tell Ethan what to do. He decides that he no longer wants Zeena’s harshness and pretended ill-health beating him down. Ethan reveals to be still unsure and fears speaking his mind. However, the mere acknowledgment of Zeena’s true nature reveals a transfiguration in thought, soon to be put in action. Ethan no longer blames his bleak, depressing marriage on himself. In fact, Ethan preoccupies more about the treatment, which will cost him money, than about the diagnosis, exposing the degree to which he despises Zeena. After realizing with Mattie what true love is, Ethan begins to reflect on his own bereft marriage. Clearly, Zeena manipulates him like a toy and does not give him the love and care that a wife should. Their marriage resembles a one way street, where only Ethan works to appease Zeena. Afterward,
Ethan tries to build the courage to speak his mind to Zeena, as he becomes conscious of her malicious intent to send away his life’s last joy. Ethan explains to Zeena that he cannot afford another hired hand, but he pledges to do much of the work himself along with Mattie. Zeena wickedly laughs at Ethan’s face out loud and successfully deals him another blow below the belt. She signals her triumph over Ethan. Astonished, Ethan sweeps to Mattie’s defense and vehemently cries, “You can’t put her out of the house like a thief—a poor girl without friends or money. She’s done her best for you and she’s your kin but everybody else’ll remember it. If you do a thing like that what do you supposed folk’ll say of you” (58). Early in the novel, Zeena has the knack of making Ethan feels guilty about almost everything he does and thinks, especially after Mattie arrives. A certain look gives him an eerie feeling that Zeena can read his thoughts and he cannot bear to have his relationship with Mattie exposed. Now, Ethan sees through Zeena’s cold, conniving scheme and realizes that he might lose the one joy in his life for ever. He forces himself to speak up, even if it gives away his secret. Still yet, Ethan fears to fully admit to his misery in front of Zeena. Even more important, he fails to tell Zeena his true feelings, not only about his life and marriage, but about Mattie. In fact, he pretends to worry about Zeena’s reputation in order to conceal his defense of Mattie. In short, Ethan does not fully let go of his fear and submissiveness, but his very attempt signals development. Suddenly and unpredictably, Ethan comes to his senses and recognizes how Zeena oppresses him. Ethan knows that when Zeena makes her up her mind–it’s final. Hence, he dwells on how arid life might be if he loses Mattie. Wharton reveals the depth of Ethan’s reaction with great passion and intensity:
Ethan looked at her loathing. She was no longer the listless creature who had lived at his side in a state of sullen self-absorption, but a mysterious alien presence, and evil energy secreted from the long years of silent brooding. It was the sense of his helplessness that sharpened his antipathy. There had never been anything that one could appeal to . . . Now she had mastered him and he abhorred her . . . For a moment such a flame of hate rose in him that it ran down his arm and clenched his fist against her. He took a wild step forward and then stopped. (59)
Violence wells inside of the once emotionally stiff Ethan. He finally assures himself of Zeena’s true character: an evil, brooding woman who robs him of a happy life. He blames Zeena for ruining his life and holding him captive. He never tasted happiness until he meets Mattie. Now, Zeena intends to deprive him of the one thing that makes up for every hardship he has suffered in the past seven wretched years. 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. Zeena’s strong dominating personality emasculates Ethan, while Mattie’s feminine, effervescent youth makes Ethan feel like a “real man.” In brief, Ethan’s gradual realizations of his unhappy marriage to Zeena and happiness in the company of Mattie, precipitate his desire to build confidence.
Contrary to his characteristic passiveness, Ethan now defies Zeena and expresses his affection for Mattie. After Ethan and Zeena finish fighting, Ethan comes downstairs where Mattie serves him his dinner, but he cannot eat. He rises from his chair and walks around the table to her side. Frightened, Mattie questions Ethan’s terrified facial expression. In answer, Ethan presses his lips against hers and weeps, “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––” (61). Before, Ethan could only flash rapport and speak of his feelings bashfully. Now, Ethan emboldens and makes his first amorous advance to Mattie. Only now does the mutual passion between Ethan and Mattie ceased to be incommunicative. Ethan’s desperate cry and confession demonstrate all that Zeena had suppressed. Now, he is free from his cage, and he has the courage and confidence to speak his thoughts. For Ethan, Mattie radiates energy into his life. 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. Ethan further displays his newfound valiancy when he stands up to Zeena and gives priority to his feelings over hers. Each minute pushes Mattie and Ethan closer to the moment neither can face. Ethan hoists Mattie’s trunk onto the sleigh. He tries to put off the time when he must say good-bye by deciding that he–not Jotham Owell–will drive Mattie to the train station. Zeena, alarmed, demands Ethan to stay and let Jotham drive Mattie. Ethan, determined and no longer intimidated by Zeena, repeats, “I’m going to drive her myself”(73). Zeena insists that Ethan should stay and fix the stove for the new servant. However, Ethan raises his voice and indignantly flings back, “If it was good enough for Mattie I guess it’s good enough for a hired girl” (73). Ethan no longer cares about what Zeena thinks or feels; nor does not bother him that Zeena is aware of his feelings for Mattie. He openly and clearly importunes that he will drive Mattie. Now, Ethan’s words are final rather than Zeena’s. Ethan, determined to do what he wants, no longer allows Zeena and her illnesses to control him. He sees through her mask now and seeks to control his own destiny. Later that night, Ethan finally moves his relationship with Mattie to a new stage and speaks to her candidly about his feelings. On the way to the train station, they stop by Shadow Pond, the place where they once picnicked together. Seeing the place again warms Ethan’s heart and he whispers into Mattie’s ear: “I want to put my hand out and touch you. I want to do for you and care for you. I want to be there when you’re sick and when you’re lonesome” (78). Although he must face the reality that his fantasy cannot come true, Ethan spills his heart out to Mattie, like a free man wooing a girl he wishes to marry. Despite his loving feelings at the start of the novel, Ethan never told Mattie how much he loves her because he never learned how to express love. Now, he can share the depths of his feelings and declare his love openly. For once, Ethan sings his passion without the restraint of guilt or fear. In short, trapped in a loveless marriage to an uncongenial spouse, Ethan achieves his sweetheart by sloughing off his shyness and building the strength to communicate his feelings.
On the whole, does Ethan Frome ever set himself free from the weakness that traps him in a hopelessly burdened and branded life? Contrary to popular belief, solitude and the human need for passion cause Ethan Frome, the title character of Edith Wharton’s tragic novel, Ethan Frome, to cast off his shy, feeble nature and embolden into an emotional man. At first, Ethan exhibits self-doubt and fears emotional expression. Upon Mattie’s arrival, Ethan realizes the burdens of his depleted life. In the end, his thirst for Mattie’s love encourages him to blossom into a free, strong, passionate man. For Ethan Frome, life cannot be a loveless and tragic trap. At least he hopes so as struggles and succeeds to free himself from his passivity throughout the novel.