Ethan Frome Essay, Research Paper
The hundreds of pages in a typical novel come together to form an intricate web, whose many strands may be united in the minds of readers to form different interpretations. In many cases, authors represent important issues or most relevant themes with symbols or metaphors. Often these small symbols can be overlooked easily in a lengthy novel. But as Edith Wharton brilliantly demonstrates in her novel Ethan Frome, one way to effectively emphasize a book’s key symbol is through the story’s setting. The many universal themes of literature which surface in Wharton’s book are skillfully symbolized in the parallel she creates between the characters in the novel and the winter setting.
Ethan Frome takes place during the winter in the rural town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. Like most New England towns during the 1920s, cold weather and heavy snowfall make Starkfield a harsh environment for several months of the year. During the winter, green plants die and the leaves fall from the trees. The sky turns gray and endless snow covers as far as the eye can see. The Starkfield winter seems to Ethan like an inescapable power. Each year it will kill everything that is beautiful and leave nothing but bitter coldness and gray.
The harsh environment of winter is not the only negative power in Ethan’s life. His wife Zeena is a similar force that controls Ethan and contributes to his unhappiness. Zeena is an ugly, bitter, old woman. She first came to Starkfield to care for Ethan’s sick mother. Ethan’s mother died in the early wintertime, and to avoid being left alone and isolated during the lonely winter months ahead, Ethan asked Zeena to marry him. Later in the novel on page 29 Ethan explains, “It would not have happened if Mother died in spring instead of winter.”
The harsh winter in the story symbolizes Zeena’s effect on Ethan. Like the winter uses wind and snow, Zeena uses lies and manipulation to control Ethan. She fakes sickness and plays upon Ethan’s obligation as a husband in order to trap Ethan in marriage and isolate him from others. Ethan has no greater chance of escaping Zeena than he has of escaping winter. He realizes that he can’t escape fate.
But then one day fate brings a bit of light into the gray skies of Starkfield. Ethan hears that Zeena’s niece, Mattie, will be coming to stay in Starkfield to help Zeena with some of the housework. Ethan prepares for the girl’s arrival by planting some geraniums inside the house. He worries about Mattie’s adjustment to Starkfield and hopes that the flowers will add some warmth and color to the gray outdoors. Everyday Ethan puts the pot of flowers near the window for sunlight, and every night he takes them away from the cold glass. Ethan knows that flowers are not meant for Starkfield winters. He protects the geraniums from the cold because he knows that they will die if exposed to the winter for too long.
Ethan’s geraniums symbolically represent the character of Mattie. Like the flowers, Mattie seems out of place in Starkfield. Her cheery attitude and warm disposition serve as striking contrasts to the dull Frome household. Ethan loves Mattie and the happiness he brings to his life. On page fourteen he describes her as, “the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth.”
Zeena, however, is not happy with Mattie around. Zeena feels that Mattie is taking away the control that she has over Ethan. She feels threatened and fears that Ethan will not give her the attention and control that she demands. As a result, Zeena is cold and harsh towards Mattie. She proves that she still has control over Ethan, by exercising her control over Mattie. When Zeena sends Mattie away, she proves once and for all that Ethan’s inescapable fate is in Starkfield with her. Ethan finally recognizes that Mattie does not belong in the Frome household any more than geraniums belong in the snow.
So after the “smash-up”, when Mattie stays in Starkfield under the care of Zeena, she meets the fate of any geranium struggling to survive in the winter. Mattie dies inside. Her warmth and vibrancy disappear so that only dried, dead branches of her lost youth remain. Ethan too becomes crippled and lifeless. As Mr. Hale describes on page two of the novel, “He’s been in Starkfield too many winters.”
Because winter is such an important symbol in Ethan Frome, it seems that the story couldn’t take place in any other setting. Readers personally relate to the isolated feeling of winter and therefore they relate to the characters on an even more personal level. By creating a parallel between the characters in the story and the winter setting, the author emphasizes some important universal themes of literature. By presenting questions of love, fate, and tragedy the author forces the reader to look at the world in a new way. She allows readers to recognize the hidden tragedies all around them.
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Dover Publications, INC. 1991