Ethan Frome: Torn Between Two Worlds
The novel Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton, is set in turn-of-the-century New England, in the fake town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. During this time, both men and women were torn between duty and morality, and personal desire. People were expected to follow the societal norms, which although plagued them, were deemed as correct and proper. This social constraint placed on individuals cause them to make the decision of whether to be accepted by society, or whether to be happy. During this time, society was trapped in a web of their own formed ideas and opinions. It is this constant struggle between desire and what is socially acceptable that drives the main theme of Edith Whartons novel. In the novel Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome is faced with conflicts that cause him to make a decision between social morals, and the fulfillment of his desires to establish Whartons theme that society and conformity acts as a restriction on happiness.
Ethans sense of responsibility first comes into conflict with his strong desire to leave Starkfield and pursue a career in engineering. But with the recent death of his father, he is forced to return to Starkfield and run the family farm while continuing to provide for his ailing wife. This becomes apparent in the prologue, when the Narrators discovery of his interest in the sciences indicates that Ethan had dreams that were never fulfilled. His inner need for knowledge and learning, almost frozen under a shroud of a life of simplicity and staticity, is without a doubt a consequence of ... too many winters.(13) spent in Starkfield. This negation of his aspirations causes him to live with a sense of regret that plagues him, and drastically effects his future decisions. During the prologue, Harmon Gow tells the Narrator that Most of the smart ones get away. (13), and immediately starts to wonder as to why Ethan Frome is still residing in Starkfield. The truth is that Ethan, being as intelligent and as motivated as he is, did try to leave Starkfield in the pursuit of a fulfilling career in engineering, but was trapped by the harsh grasp of conformity in the form of the Frome Farm. This failure to accomplish his ambitions gives his persona a tone of remorse, and by extension, the entire novel. The conflict strengthens the theme in the way it shows that if he would have followed his dreams of studying engineering, his life would have played out much differently. It is best put in the words of the famous poet John Whittier (1807-1892) when he said For of all the sad words of tongue or pen/The saddest are these: It might have been!.
Ethan Fromes conflict between running away with Mattie and staying and caring for Zeena is the main factor that drives Whartons theme that conformity to society acts as a restriction on happiness. Wharton depicts Zeena as old, cold, and insensitive while Mattie is warm, loving, kind, and most importantly, a much more fitting wife for Ethan. Symbolism is used in the form of Matties red scarf to give Mattie a sense of life and loving warmth, while at the same time giving Zeena a colder appearance. Therefore, Wharton makes Ethans desire to leave his ghastly wife for another woman considerate in the eyes of the reader. Yet, just like in the case of his engineering career, Ethan cannot bear to leave Zeena, on the account that society would severely frown upon a husband that abandons his sickly wife. He is torn between following what he knows is the right thing to do, and following what he knows will make him happy. It is important to note that his love for Mattie never faltersThe conflict is external, not internal. He is afraid of what people would think, and not whether or not he loves Mattie. Although he has one night alone with Mattie, he cannot stop thinking about all of the responsibilities placed on him. His strong desire for Mattie eventually leads to the shattering of his marriage, which is symbolized by the shattering of Zeenas prized wedding red pickle dish.
Time and time again, Wharton shows how society has oppressed Ethan to neglect his aspirations. Even when Ethan has the opportunity to elope with Mattie to the west, his morals keep him from lying to his neighbors to secure the sufficient amount of money to go. These failures in following his own desire weaken him, and force him to live a life of submissiveness to the wills of society. His desire to conform restricts his happiness. He felt as if he would never be able to escape the clutch of society, and be with Mattie. In the end, Ethan can no longer deal with the troubles of life and makes the rash decision to abandon life entirely when he decides to go Right into the big elm (130) with Mattie. As they are coasting down the side of the slope, he becomes mentally encumbered with all of the responsibilities that he would be leaving behind, and becomes distracted. Again, implying that even Ethans greatest attempt to escape from the clutches of society has failed. Instead, he severely cripples both himself and Mattie, forcing them to return to the farm and live like Zeena. In a way, he did succeed in killing both himself and Mattie. Mattie got her wish to go down in the sled Sot well never come up any more (130), because they did not come up anymoreAt least not in spirit. Society did not allow them to die that day, instead, suffer through a forming of living death that will never grant them the happiness they desired in death.