Tone in Ethan Frome

Tone Examples in Ethan Frome:

Prologue 1

"Starkfield, Massachusetts..."   (Prologue)

While Starkfield, Massachusetts is a fictional town, it resembles a kind of typical late 19th- or early 20th-century rural town in New England. The name of the town captures and emphasizes the “stark” or brutal landscape of any New England winter, a motif that crops up again and again in Ethan Frome. Although Starkfield is modeled after a realistic place, the name makes it possible to imagine Starkfield as any rural town in which people can feel trapped in.

"watching them with narrowed eyes...."   (Chapter V)

Ethan’s perceiving the cat “watching them with narrowed eyes” allows readers to sense his anxieties about his love affair. The choice of the wording contributes to a tone of suspicion and places us into Ethan’s paranoid state. For Ethan, the cat is not only aware of their “unusual movements,” but it also sits in Zeena’s chair—almost as if the cat is “on her side” rather than the side of Mattie, “the intruder.”

"antipathy..."   (Chapter VII)

The term “antipathy” is a “deep feeling of dislike or hostility.” Note the many ways that Ethan voices his “antipathy” towards Zeena in this paragraph: Ethan “looked at her with loathing” and “abhorred her.” Such words make the tone of this passage hateful, brooding, and dark.

"I ought to be getting him his feed…..."   (Chapter IX)

Recall that just as Mattie and Ethan were considering crashing the sled into the tree, Ethan paused at the sound of the horse’s whinny that Ethan noted meant that the horse was, “wondering why he doesn’t get his supper.” The fact that the novel ends on this line is interesting to note because it suggests that the thought that stands out in Ethan’s dazed mind even during the aftermath of his crash is that he has a duty to fulfill. The horse must get his dinner, that is the routine, and Ethan must follow it.

"They might have been in their coffins underground. ..."   (Chapter IX)

In this sentence, it feels as if Ethan and Mattie have already died. The trees have already enveloped them in “blackness and silence,” and once again, it is as if their futures have already been decided.

"So ’t we'll never come up any more..."   (Chapter IX)

Mattie asks Ethan to take her sledding and deliberately crash into the big elm tree so that they can die together rather than go on living apart. Note the tone of swiftness and darkness here as well. This is a decision that has been made hastily and a plea that has been asked in desperation. Recall that Mattie has nowhere to go and no plans in order for how she is going to live. Part of her haste may be that she is terrified of what comes next and has made the impulsive decision to take her life. Mattie might not want to have time to think this over more.

"jogging down the hill..."   (Chapter IX)

Notice the abundance of active and fast-paced wording here. Wharton starts using words like “sprang,” “jogging,” and earlier, “flung,” that signal Mattie and Ethan’s haste to spend as much time together as possible before it dwindles away. This wording contributes to the overall “dizzying” tone of the passage—the two are desperate to make the most of their last moments together.