The narrator spends his winter in Starkfield, where he is attracted to Ethan Frome, a local resident. Initially, the narrator thinks that Ethan, whose face is disfigured and scarred from an accident he had suffered ten years earlier, is unapproachable and silent.
Subsequently, he gets curious about Ethan’s facial characteristics and his isolated existence that he decides to seek for clarification from the local residents. During his investigation, the narrator learns that Ethan is a decent and sensitive man who loves nature, but lacks the emotional stamina. The narrator further employs imagery and symbolism to bring out highly unmotivated and morally bankrupt characters.
One of the characters is Ethan, the narrator’s main character, who is compelled by poverty, marital duty, and conventional morality to remain unhappy in his entire life. His sorrow, however, results from his inability to act, and when he finally acts, he makes a decision that ruins him, his wife and his wife’s cousin.
Accordingly, Ethan is left unease and sleepless because he does not tell Mattie about his feelings for her on their way home from the village church. On this particular night, Ethan is on a mission to fetch Mattie Silver, his wife’s cousin. He then learns that at the basement of the church there is a dance.
Viewing through the window, Ethan gets attracted to a young girl whose scarf was cherry-colored. Ethan’s morality is put under test when he decides to hang back at the end of the dance to find out the identity of the young girl, who turns out to be Mattie. On their way home, Ethan has a chance of expressing his immoral intentions towards the young girl but he fails to do so.
On the contrary, he allows the presence of Mattie to raise more tension between them, which unfortunately ends when they arrive at home. Here, the narrator has made it apparent that Mattie is healthy and attractive unlike Zeena, Ethan’s shrewish and sickly wife. The dressing of Mattie symbolizes blood, which means she is lively and strong. However, Mattie is the kind of person Ethan is to be careful with. This is because blood also symbolizes evil. Nevertheless, Ethan spends a miserable and thoughtful night (Edith 37).
Furthermore, Ethan does not verbalize his passion for Mattie when they spend a night together. Factually, Ethan would have slept happily had he acted freely with Mattie. On this particular day, Zeena has decided to go to a distant journey in search for treatment. Fortunately, she promises not to come back as she would spend the night with her relatives.
This plan excites Ethan who assents to it immediately, with high expectations of spending a night alone with his desired woman. However, tension between the two lovers grows higher that Ethan fails to consummate his passion for Mattie. At this point, the narrator employs symbolism to reveal the difficulty involved when immorality is due.
On the other hand, the cat, which represents the presence of the official wife shatters Zeena’s marriage pickle dish. This signifies the collapsing relationship between Ethan and Zeena (Canby 34). Later that day before they retire to bed, Ethan gets closer to demonstrating his love, but again he fails to do so. By losing this special opportunity, Ethan’s misery is definitely on the rise. Perhaps, he hopes to extend his extramarital intentions soon enough before Zeena reports back. Like the previous day, Ethan spends another sad night.
Moreover, Ethan’s inactivity concerning the planned exit of Mattie leaves him hopeless. Torn between morality and social norms, Ethan keeps on postponing the revelation of his feelings to Mattie at the expense of his happiness. As the head of the family, Ethan has all the rights to make decisions. Unfortunately, his wife dominates over him that he has no say at all in regard to family matters. Besides, the narrator makes it clear that Ethan is not fully settled on whom to love.
This is seen when he runs into town to get some glue for fixing the smashed dish. Here, Ethan gambles between the pleasure presented by Mattie and the obstacles created by his wife. When Ethan returns that evening from town, he is deeply frustrated when he realizes that his wife is back. Additionally, the wife wants attention from him since her health is on the decline. Therefore, Mattie is to be replaced with a younger and more efficient girl.
This latest development angers Ethan very much but as usual, he decides to remain quiet and hurt. Instead of Ethan opening to Mattie about his feelings, he goes ahead to tell her how Zeena intends to replace her with another girl. This is definitely another area where he fails to act and finds himself unhappy, now that Zeena has become suspicious of his relationship with Mattie. Consequently, his docile nature coupled with the demands of Zeena leaves him hopeless (Canby 40).
Additionally, Ethan’s inability to act independently is seen when he is trying to finance his planned escape with Mattie. It is now evident that Ethan’s miserable life is contributed by his inability to make firm decisions. Moreover, poverty as an impediment to achieving personal satisfaction is clear as Ethan cannot escape with Mattie.
On the day of the escape, Ethan has a good plan of asking for an advance on a lumber load that he had delivered recently to Andrew Hale. However, he meets the wife of Hale who greatly praises the way he has taken care of Zeena. The sweet words make Ethan feel guilty of his plan that he returns home to his wife. Precisely, getting back home does not guarantee him any comfort as later he is seen escorting Mattie to the station. Ethan takes Mattie to the village hilltop to fulfill a promise they had once made of sledding together.
They do a successful run downhill for the first time that Mattie asks for a second run, which is intended to end at the elm tree. It is until now that Ethan acts and makes a decision that ruins his future life. Here, the narrator explores the external pressures that contribute to Ethan’s decisions, which frequently leaves him more desperate.
Eventually, Ethan acts by following the suicide pact suggested to him by Mattie. In the entire book, this is the only time that Ethan shows his desire to be happy through an active decision making process. Now, Mattie is seen as an impulsive and melodramatic adolescent who does not appreciate Ethan’s feelings for her.
She persuades Ethan to make a hasty decision that leaves him disfigured for the rest of his life. Besides, it handicaps Mattie and leaves Zeena helpless with her chronic ailment. Perhaps, this is the fate that Ethan and Mattie always wanted. Their desire to remain together forever has come true, though they can no longer enjoy the love they wished for. At the same time, Ethan, who did not intent to separate with Zeena, ends staying with her too under the same roof.
Zeena’s desire for dominance is achieved, however, with some repercussions as she must take care of the paralyzed Mattie. Had Ethan exercised his ability to act, and act appropriately, then he would not have brought his family this burden. Again, the narrator uses the outward signs to portray Ethan’s inner reality that he is in a state of decline and destitution (Dodson 22).
From the foregoing argument, it is noted that the conflict between morality and social convention is explored throughout the narrative. The narrator makes it apparent that Ethan is in love with Mattie, but fails to tell her so. Somehow, Ethan admits spending all the years in loneliness and solitude that he has become a reserved man. He goes ahead to confess that the tying relationship he has with Zeena has worsened his loneliness, and he would otherwise be better without her.
Therefore, his intentions to commit immorality with Mattie become clearer as the narrative progresses, but this action is against the social norms. Perhaps, this is why Ethan takes too long to act towards achieving his happiness. However, Ethan eventually decides to forever be with his only love, Mattie. Unfortunately, this decision leaves him crippled and Mattie invalid. Overall, Ethan, Mattie and Zeena achieve what they always wanted.
Canby, Vincent. “Liam Neeson in Lead of Wharton Classic.” The New York Times 8.2 (2007): 21-50. Print.
Dodson, Samuel F. “Frozen Hell: Edith Wharton’s Tragic Offering.” Edith Wharton Review 16.1 (1999): 20-31. Web. 09 October 2011.
Edith, Wharton. Fiction of Edith Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner, 1922. Web. 09 October 2011.