Ethan Frome Essay, Research Paper
This is a summary of Ethan Frome. We are now twenty-some years farther back in the past. Young Ethan Frome walks through the heart of town, passing Eady’s new brick store and the grand Varnum house. It is a cold and crisp winter night, and the feeling reminds Frome of a concept he learned from his studies in science. About five years ago, he enrolled in technological courses at a college in Worcester; his father’s death ended Ethan’s higher education, as Ethan had to return home to care for his mother and the farm.
There’s a dance in the basement of the Church, and Ethan positions himself by the window so he can see what’s going on. He is there to pick up Mattie Silver, the cousin of his wife. He strains to catch a glimpse of Mattie; when he finds her, she is dancing with Denis Eady, the son of the Irish grocer. Ethan feels an intense surge of jealousy when he sees the happiness on Mattie’s face and the look of ownership on Eady’s.
Mattie has lived at the Frome farm for over a year. She came to be the help for Ethan’s wife, Zeena; in exchange for her housekeeping, Mattie gets free room and board, but receives no pay. On these nights when she goes for a dance or other social event in town, it is Ethan’s job to escort her back. After a hard day of work the extra two miles to and from town is tiring, but Ethan loves the time alone with Mattie. Like him, she is sensitive to natural beauty; in her, he has found someone to talk to about the beauty of the land and the small bits of science he knows. Her vitality invigorates him. He has fallen in love with her.
He does not know if Zeena has any inkling of his feelings for Mattie. Zenobia is a sickly, whining woman, but she sometimes surprises Ethan by proving more observant than he’d hoped. She’s noticed that since Mattie’s coming, Ethan has been shaving every day. She mentioned the change obliquely, surprising Ethan because he had assumed that Zeena was oblivious to everything but her own endless parade of health problems.
The first glimpse of Ethan Frome as a young man brings into relief the theme of lost potential. We learn that he began studies but had to cut them short after the death of his father. Poverty’s harshness is a recurring theme: because of financial limitations, Ethan had no choice but to return home and care for his mother and the farm. Poverty also brings Mattie Silver to the Frome farm, and after the accident it will force her to stay there. The major events of Ethan’s life have not been choices: things have happened to him, and he has been forced to endure them.
His isolation on the farm has been relieved by Mattie Silver. She seems to share a love for natural beauty, and Ethan finally has someone with whom he can talk. But Ethan is already married, and this first scene establishes Ethan as one who remains an outsider. We see him in the cold, watching the dance from the outside, looking through a window at happiness he does not share. His poverty, circumstances, and sensitive disposition have left him isolated. His marriage is a loveless match with a sick and whining woman. Illicit and frustrated passion is an important theme. Ethan’s feelings can find few outlets. He looks forward to his rare walks with Mattie from town; he shaves every day; he watches Mattie through a window. But as he sees her dancing with Denis Eady, he realizes how difficult his situation is. Wharton gives us no clue about her feelings for Ethan, so we are made to feel as clueless as he.
Wharton also creates a feeling of loss and transience. Many of the landmarks we saw in the narrator’s opening are here. The difference is that in Frome’s youth the buildings are new and handsome, whereas by the time the narrator sees them they are old and faded. The fine mansion of the Varnums is mentioned prominently, as is the new brick store opened by Denis Eady’s father. The first-person narrator of the opening mentioned these building in passing, and now the third-person narrator of Chapter 1 mentions them again. The tone is much more sensual in Chapter 1: there is a sense of the town as a living place, with smells and colors described evocatively. But we are looking at the past, and it is a far cry from the dead world the narrator of the opening shows us. The effect is a very bleak portrayal of the relationship between a small town and the passage of time. In a big city, old buildings become historic, or they are replaced by new buildings. In Starkfield, old buildings simply fall into disrepair. Family fortunes dwindle, and men like Ethan Frome fade and deteriorate as slowly and certainly as the buildings of their immediate environment.