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Themes in Ethan Frome

Obligations as Desire’s Obstacles: For Ethan, his wants are constantly at odds with the duties—mainly to Zeena—he believes he is bound to carry out. Before his marriage, Ethan was an ambitious, intelligent man who hoped to study engineering or science, and Zeena was a talkative, caring young woman. Ethan’s studies are cut short when he must return to care for his ailing parents. Soon after marrying, the necessity of staying in Starkfield, due to their poverty and unsellable farm, overwhelms both of them as they lapse into frustrated silence. Though neither is happy, neither is willing to do anything out of the ordinary to alleviate their suffering. Throughout the story, Ethan’s path to happiness is clear: leaving Starkfield with Mattie. However, constant reminders of his marital obligations to Zeena—Andrew Hale’s wife praising Ethan’s care of Zeena, for example—keep Ethan from acting on his desires.

Passive Indecision as Imprisonment: Throughout the novel, it is clear that Ethan is unable to take control of his life’s direction. Rather than actively pursue happiness and change, Ethan wavers between options, always choosing to maintain the status quo. As a result, the tone of the Fromes’ marriage is bleak acceptance and frustrated miscommunication rather than marital bliss. Nowhere is Ethan’s indecision more obvious than in the novel’s climactic sled run. Mattie seems to have convinced Ethan to take control of his life back by ending both of theirs together; however, as they hurtle toward the tree, the memory of Zeena’s face causes him to swerve off course. Instead of dead, they are maimed, together but confined to one another’s miserable company.

Themes Examples in Ethan Frome:


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"found myself anchored..."   (Prologue)

Outside forces have determined that the narrator stay in Starkfield, and we get the sense that the narrator is frozen in time and space. Due to the strike, the narrator is forced to stay in Starkfield to complete his engineering work. In this sense, duty holds him back from moving forward.

"“It used to.”..."   (Prologue)

Note that Ethan’s declaration that he used to be interested in engineering and technology suggests a kind of defeated resolve. He may have at one time held onto grand ambitions outside of Starkfield, Massachusetts, but he is frozen in all senses of the term, and has largely accepted this.

"been in Starkfield too many winters..."   (Prologue)

Harmon’s comment suggests that the harsh winters of Starkfield have the capacity to profoundly influence perception and personality. This supports a larger theme in Wharton’s novel as well: While nature is indifferent to human concerns, humans are in turn deeply influenced by nature, affecting our outlook on the world and the decisions we make.

"insubstantial shade..."   (Chapter I)

Recall that the moments that Ethan spends with Mattie Silver, as well as Mattie Silver herself, are often described using color and light. In this instance, Ethan describes Zeena as having “faded into an insubstantial shade.” The term “insubstantial” means “intangible” or “illusory.” In contrast to Zeena, Ethan correlates Mattie with the reality that he desires and pushes Zeena into the background of his mind as something less than wholly real.

"creature to whom he could say..."   (Chapter I)

It is important to note the delight that Ethan gets from teaching what he has learned. Consider further that he is teaching Mattie, who has also not been able to further her education (regardless of whether she wanted to or not.) This might speak to the fact that women during Wharton’s time were largely expected to stay at home rather than pursue studies.

"cold fires..."   (Chapter I)

Wharton’s use of oxymoron (a literary device in which the author uses two contradictory terms in conjunction) highlights conflicting dualities throughout the novel such as determinism versus free will, nature versus man, and duty versus passion. Here, the oxymoron emphasizes the effects of a bitter winter on the human spirit. Consider the word “cold” in relation to the constellation Orion’s distance. This might signify an ominous event looming in the distance.

"empty expanse..."   (Chapter II)

Ethan often describes the wintery surroundings using terms like “empty” and “void.” Recall too, that in the previous chapter he used the physics term “exhausted receiver” to describe the winter air. These words help illustrate that nature, and arguably nature’s most frightening season, is often a void for Ethan, something that both perplexes and overwhelms him.

"“drug” business..."   (Chapter III)

Notice that Wharton places the word “drug” in quotations marks, suggesting that the business that Mattie’s father inherited might be crooked or questionable. Consider further, how Mattie’s father’s “drug” business furthers the motifs of medicine, sickness, and the loss of promising careers. Ethan forfeits the prospect of a promising future career by ending his studies prematurely due to his father’s illness. Mattie misses opportunities to hone useful skills due to her father’s failing “drug” business and her illness which forces her to get a job in a department store instead.

"blew out the light so that he should not see her..."   (Chapter III)

We can read this line in a few different ways. If Ethan does not see Zeena, it might be easier for him to ignore his feelings of guilt about the affair. It could also be read as signalling Ethan’s desire and attempts to keep Zeena “in the dark” about this affair. Either way, note again that Zeena is connected with darkness and Mattie with light.

"But that had been out-of-doors, under the open irresponsible night. Now, in the warm lamplit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order..."   (Chapter V)

Note that Ethan feels that he and Mattie are more free to express their attraction outdoors than inside the home, even though Zeena is still away. Ethan compares the freedom of the outdoors with the indoors and “all its ancient implications of conformity and order.” Traditions and duties once again produce feelings of confinement for Ethan, and the place in which these are most apparent for him is home.

"He was a prisoner for life..."   (Chapter VIII)

Wharton has suggested that Ethan feels imprisoned for much of the novel, but at this moment she uses a metaphor (a comparison without the terms “like” or “as”) to make it extremely clear for the reader. Consider also that this metaphor comes directly after Ethan internally struggles with leaving Zeena to go West, abandoning duty and honor, or staying in his current situation. Even when he decides that he can leave, Ethan is trapped by his low earnings—he cannot even afford a train ticket.

"He went about his task without knowing what force directed him, or whose hands and feet were fulfilling its orders...."   (Chapter IX)

Ethan feels his actions are being directed by an unseen “force.” Throughout the novel, Wharton has highlighted the forces of nature and revealed the impact that they can have on the characters’ lives regardless of their actions. Recalling that this story is set in a frame narrative, consider how Ethan’s lack of free will is examined by Wharton here. He feels that his “hands and feet were fulfilling” these unseen “orders.”

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