Essay, Research Paper
April 12, 1999
The Use of Tragedy and Symbolism in Edith Wharton?s Writing
Edith Wharton uses symbolism and the many aspects of tragedy of human life as major elements of her writing. She uses different forms of tragedy in her writing. Marriage, society, and other elements all contribute to a theme of imprisonment. Symbolism also creates a mood of disappointment in much of her work.
Edith Wharton uses many aspects of tragedy in her writing. Imprisonment and confinement are just two ways that tragedy is portrayed in her writings (Walton 63). Society is a major form of imprisonment. In many of her novels, society is what limits her characters to a world of lost hopes and dreams. Wharton frequently describes upper-class life to be lonely and bitter (Fracasso 44). Edmund Wilson wrote, ?She combines with indignation against a specific phase of American society a general sense of inexorable doom for human beings,? (Howe 17). Society completely controls the characters in The House of Mirth. It is a novel about the victims of rival classes that were not strong enough to play the game as it should be played (Howe 35). The game should be played roughly and without mercy. It is unaccepted for a person to drop out of society. One must endure and smile properly till the game is over (Howe 38). ?Old New York? is shown as a place of betrayal and failure. Lily Bart has no money; therefore, she is confined to a life of failure (Unger 312). Money is what makes or breaks people in society. Edith Wharton tries to show through Lily that society has
power to destroy those even with character (McDowell 52). It is ironic that a world that could make Lily Bart so beautiful could also make her life so limited.
In The Custom of the Country, Undine Spragg does not have the social background to live as she wants to live. She uses sex to compensate for her lack of wealth, charm, education, and social background (Auchincloss 105). Undine is also divorced which
makes her looked down upon in high society. In Ethan Frome, poverty controls Ethan?s life. It restricts him to a life of limited possibilities (Springer 10). However, not all of Edith Wharton?s novels are given the attitude that society is restrictive. The Fruit of the Tree proves this statement.
Another form of imprisonment in Edith Wharton?s novels is the vow of marriage. In several novels, one character must take responsibility for another, limiting this person?s ability (McDowell 64). This is very apparent in Ethan Frome. In most of her novels the characters are happy in the beginning. However, they find themselves trapped in a situation that is his or her fault. Thomas Hardy?s Jude the Obscure and Wharton?s Ethan Frome are very similar. Both major characters give up school to help with their mothers. Both major characters are imprisoned in marriages that occur out of desperation and loneliness, and both major characters meet better women that they can not have (Springer 43). Grace Kellogg said this about relationships based on desperation:
The inability of humans to achieve self-sufficiency drives them to seek
relationships with other people, and these relationships necessarily compromise
their freedom by subjecting them to the pain of a desire either too great or too
However, in The House of Mirth Lily Bart refuses a marriage proposal to remain free (Walton 56). Lily does not fall victim to the phase ?too late? as many other characters
do (Fracasso 21). Many characters marry for security, social position, or money. They do not marry for the right reason ? love. When a person is involved in a marriage for the wrong reasons, it can sometimes be best described as a prison. In Glimpses of the Moon, Susy must endure ?a long period of probation? to hold her marriage together (Kellogg 266). Mrs. Welland in The Age of Innocence has to find her fulfillment in being a slave to her husband (Auchincloss 128). Some characters go to great lengths to make themselves happy, even if it means torture to their spouse. Tarrant, in The God?s Arrive, enjoys torturing his wife by not granting her a divorce (Auchincloss 175). Edith Wharton uses the beats of the heart to allow the readers know the emotions of the characters. If the heart beats rapidly, it means he is happy; if the heart beats faster than normal, it represents security; and when the heart drops and contracts, it shows suspicion (Frasso 17). This is very helpful in determining the moods of the characters.
Edith Wharton?s vision of life was one of suffering (Lewis 67). All of her novels exhibit some form of suffering that at least one of the characters must struggle with. Edith Wharton believed that whatever the heart desires brings with it a price-and often a large price (Howe 18). In The Fruit of the Tree Bessie Amhurst falls from her horse and receives an incurable back injury. She suffers from a life of agony (Unger 315). Ethan and Mattie are also condemned to a life of agony. These characters must live in a life that reminds them of what they could have had. Undine holds the world responsible for her disappointment. She knows nothing and believes in nothing (Auchincloss 105).
All of Edith Wharton?s poems have the same tone- depressing (Unger 310). ?A Bottle of Perrier? is a tale of hatred and murder in an African desert where an
Englishman lives in his lonely castle with servants and his butler (Unger 316). In Bunner Sisters Wharton?s theme is ?the ironically tragic consequence of unselfish behavior,? (McDowell 71). Edith Wharton once wrote,? Life, is not a matter of abstract principles, but a succession of pitiful compromises with fate, of concessions to old traditions, old beliefs, old tragedies, old failures,? (Howe 17).
Much of Wharton?s writing involves descriptions of a prison. She uses phrases such as iron door and barrier of brick and mortar (Fracasso 2). Ethan Frome is a perfect example of a novel that alludes to the prison scene. Edith Wharton once said this about the novel (Springer 46): ?The exorable fact closed in on him like prison- warders hand- cuffing a convict. There was no way out. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished.? Zeena and Mattie are described as two witch-like women that hold Ethan prisoner for life in his depressing world. Ethan is bound to a life that does not satisfy him. He must now depend on Zeena when once it was he that cared for her. Ethan Frome was written on the idea that humans were prone to a life of loss, tragedy, despair, and confinement (Springer 5). This novel encompasses all of these elements and takes us to a deep place in our soul. Ethan Frome stirs up emotions in people that have never been touched until reading this novel. Edith Wharton stated, ?A good subject must contain in itself something that sheds a light on our moral experience (Fracasso 69).? This book definitely sheds light on the issue of being true to one?s self. If Ethan had gone to college instead of marring Zeena out of loneliness, he might have had the opportunity for some type of happiness. His marriage condemned him to a life of misery and regret. Mattie offers Ethan another chance at happiness; however, Zeena finds a way to claim her property and get rid of Mattie.
Zeena?s plan only partially works. Ethan is reclaimed, but Mattie ends up living with them as a constant reminder to Ethan of what his life could have been.
Symbolism plays a major part in much of Wharton?s writing. Through the use of symbolism, we are given hints about the story. Early in Ethan Frome we are told that the large elm tree is dangerous and should cut down. Two other people were almost killed by hitting it while sledding (Springer 82). Trees are used to represent more than just danger. Trees of summer are shown as mocking. They are constant reminders of the good times in the past. Trees of the winter are spruces. Spruces are used to provide shelter for Mattie and Ethan who must hide their love (Springer 84). Trees are usually used as prominent purposes; however, trees in Ethan Frome destroy the lives of Ethan and Mattie (Springer 82).
Winter being used as the primary season for the setting of Ethan Frome is ironic. Winter is used by many authors to depict death and misery. Ethan Frome does just that. The entire novel is centered on Ethan?s suffering. If the novel had taken place in spring or summer, Ethan and Mattie would have lived happily ever after. However, this is not the case. The story was destined to have a tragic ending. In order for the novel to have a tragic ending, it must be set in the winter. All of Ethan?s memories include snow. However, the little portion of the novel that is set in the summer describes good times. Wharton connects Ethan?s and Mattie?s summer happiness with butterflies in the woods. When Ethan tells Mattie that she must go, her lashes ?beat his cheek like netted butterflies (Springer 84).? The butterflies are used to show freedom. Zeena, by making Mattie leave, is the one that netted the free and happy butterflies. Wharton used Ethan Frome to illustrate winter- life on hold. The direct opposite was Summer- life in its fullness. Wharton called these two novels literary twins (Kellogg 221). One
novel is about the joys of life while the other is about the misery of life.
In all of Wharton?s work males fail their women, unless they are father figures (Springer 21). Ethan fails Mattie by not giving her the life that she wanted. Tarrant fails his wife and then refuses to give her a divorce. Ethan is also heroic, but he can not break away from his captive life (Springer 30).
Ethan is characterized by Edith Wharton?s life. He was created to symbolize the pains and heartache that Wharton was going through (Springer 41). Wharton knew what it was like being involved in an unsatisfying marriage, and she used this in Ethan Frome. Ethan and the narrator?s world is a world of numbing emotional deadness, of cold, of stark, all- consuming isolation (Springer 79). Starkfield is a community in which all of its inhabitants are isolated. Stark in Starkfield means loneliness and isolation. Eventually, Mattie becomes bitter toward Ethan and Zeena. When this happens, the personalities of Zeena and Mattie are switched. Mattie goes from being sweet, beautiful, and lively to becoming bitter and indifferent. Zeena was once a hypochondriac, needing care full- time. She was the jealous, possessive, and nagging one. Now she takes care of Ethan and Mattie. She has become giving and sweet, but there is still a little bit of devil in her.
The use of light and dark allude to what situations will develop because of a character?s moral decisions (Fracasso 78). Moral decisions, along with the appreciation of life through art and symbolism of the supernatural, are characteristics of Wharton?s later work (Lovett 9). Moral decisions of a character will determine what type of personality the character possesses and they will determine the future success of the character
In Ethan Frome, many materialistic things possess a different meaning.
The red pickle- dish, when used by Mattie, symbolizes life, warmth, and security. When used by Zeena, it represents distance and envy (Springer 90). The cat is used to represent Zeena. Whenever Ethan and Mattie are alone, the cat always creates a diversion (Springer 89). The ?L? of a house serves as the heart of a home. It protects the occupants from the cold and the snow. The ?L? has been removed from Ethan?s house. Ethan has lost his protection (Springer 83).
In conclusion, the tragedy of human life and all the uses of symbolism make Edith Wharton?s writings unique and special. She combines these two elements and creates extraordinary work. Her novels provide emotional rides as well as a look into a person?s soul. Edith Wharton is truly a marvelous woman.