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Historical Context in Ethan Frome

The Progressive Era: From the 1890s to the 1920s, the United States underwent a period of industrialization, scientific advancement, and social activism, which is now called the Progressive Era. A main tenet of the progressives was efficiency, which manifested itself as an modernization of transportation infrastructure, such as railroads. Starkfield’s isolation—there is a railroad that comes near the town but not directly to it—is a deliberate contrast to the goals of this movement, a town that has not yet been connected to the outside world. The town’s remoteness serves to isolate its characters from the wider world’s opportunities and advancements, to the detriment of its inhabitants.

Starkfield: As its name suggests, the fictional Starkfield is a barren, desolate area of Massachusetts that encounters about six months of winter per year. Though Ethan once longed to leave Starkfield, his wife and unfortunate circumstance have forced him to remain, losing his agency as year after year he is besieged by the snow and ice. Because of his long imprisonment in Starkfield, Ethan is a passive spectator to forces much more powerful than he is. Like the winter that assails it, Starkfield is a draining force that traps its residents in their rote ways of doing things.

Historical Context Examples in Ethan Frome:


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"popular science..."   (Prologue)

The fact that science, engineering, and technology are the subjects that are finally able to spark conversation between the narrator and Ethan echoes the interests of the time. As Ethan Frome is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, technological and scientific advancements are important and interesting topics. Consider also the hint of surprise when the narrator discovers that Ethan, a rural farmer, is interested in and knowledgeable about these topics.

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"Carcel lamp..."   (Prologue)

A Carcel lamp is a type of lamp invented by Bernard Guillaume Carcel in the 19th century. It was considered a unique and innovative invention for its time, one of the main reasons being its ability to keep oil constantly burning on its own—without human intervention. In this way, the lamp may symbolize both the significant technological progress of the time and a sense of insignificance—as the lamp can now function for long periods of time largely without the help of the human.

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