Ethan Frome: Fantasy Is An Escape From Winter Essay, Research Paper
Ethan Frome: Fantasy is an Escape From Winter
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
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
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, he pretends that they are married.
Often when they are together, he fantasizes that Zeena is dead and that he and
Mattie live together in 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
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
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.
Howe, 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,
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Charles Scribener’s Sons,