Ethan Frome By Wharton They say that if you give a man the necessary tools and supplies, he will build himself a trap. This trap is made unconsciously; therefore, it cannot be escaped; the solution cannot be found. The only solution that suffices is to live with this trap, sadly, for life. But is it the only solution? In Edith Wharton’s romantic, yet tragic novel Ethan Frome, the need for affection causes Ethan Frome to gradually shed his taciturnity and bring his emotions to life. Early in the novel, Ethan’s passiveness and lack of self-confidence, allow his wife Zeena to emasculate him, as well as make him emotionally inarticulate toward Mattie.
Once Mattie Silvers enters Ethan’s life, she awakens in Ethan the bitterness of his youth’s lost opportunities, and a dissatisfaction with his joyless life and empty marriage. Gradually, Ethan strengthens and gathers the courage to defy Zeena and confess his love for Mattie. At the start of his journey, Ethan surrenders himself to the forces of isolation, silence, and his depleted life. Soon his desire for love, in a situation where only abject coldness exists, transforms him into an emotional and confident man. Because of his emotional weakness, Ethan loses opportunities to reveal his passion to Mattie and also acquiesces to his wife’s demands, while shunning out his own needs.
After suffering so long with the sickly Zeena, Ethan fears unveiling his passionate feelings to Mattie, for he is bound as a husband and tradition to Zeena. Years earlier as a younger and more hale man, Ethan felt trapped in his hometown Starkfield. Mistakenly, he marries Zeena, a gaunt, sallow nagging hag, as compensation for her nursing Ethan’s sick mother. Ethan and his morose, invalid wife Zeena live in a trapped, unspoken resentment on Ethan’s isolated and failing farm. Driven by a perverted need for attention, Zeena claims to have numerous ailments and employs her destitute cousin to help with the chores. Over the course of the years, Ethan, lonely and miserable, finds himself falling in love with Mattie, drawn to her youthful, animated energy.
As he walks through town one night, he stops by the church to watch Mattie dance. As he marvels at the young girl’s beauty he thinks, “But hitherto the emotion had remained in him as silent ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He did not even know whether any one else in the world felt as he did, or whether any one else in the world felt as he did, or whether he was the sole victim of this mournful privilege”(17). Ethan lives in his own world of silence, where he replaces his scarcity of words with imaginations and fantasies. For years Ethan and his wife live in silence and seclusion.
Ultimately, the total lack of communication between the silent couple significantly contributes to their miserable marriage as well as Ethan’s inability to act out his emotions. Ethan, accustomed to his silent relationship with his wife, flutters when he meets Mattie and loses complete faith in himself. Fear and doubt overwhelms because love is a new concept to him; a journey he scarcely ventures. Every time Ethan tries to converse with his wife, all he ever hears are her complaints and demands. Thus, he would rather not communicate with her at all. Also, since Zeena looks down on Ethan, he feels that he also must not be worthy enough for Mattie. He believes Zeena’s criticisms and they taunt him when he attempts to court Mattie.
Ethan further displays uncertainty and shyness by restraining himself from kissing Mattie. The morning after Ethan escorted Mattie home, Ethan’s thoughts turn back to last night. As the memory of Mattie’s warm shoulder comes back to him, he regrets his failure to kiss her when he had the chance. Ethan, frustrated, asks himself, “Why had he not kissed her when he held her there? . .
. a few minutes earlier, when they had stood alone outside the house, he would not have dared to think of kissing her” (29). As a cold, isolated, and grim figure, Zeena embodies her surrounding. She creates a loveless, desolate home for Ethan where he never learns to express his love and affection. When the moment to manifest his passion to Mattie in the form of the kiss arrives, he becomes nervous, and shies out like a scared lamb.
Even more, Ethan lacks the confidence and courage to stand up for himself against Zeena, who manipulates Ethan and uses her frail health to justify her bitter personality. When Zeena returns from her visit to the doctor, Ethan cautiously greets her as she sits in the darkened bedroom. She coldly informs him that her illness is worse than he thinks and even blames him for her illnesses. Although, since Mattie’s arrival, Zeena does very little housework, such a recommendation is most welcome because it provides her with an excuse to get rid of Mattie, of whom she has become increasingly jealous. Ethan calmly endures her harsh accusations, and helplessly replies, “But you know it.
I’m sorry, but it can’t be helped. You’re a poor man’s wife, Zeena; but I’ll do the best I can for you” (57). Overcome by his enormous sense of responsibility for others, Ethan never tries to pursuit his own pleasures. A life without pleasure characterizes Ethan’s painful silence and despair. The monotonous routine of life’s daily responsibilities and selfdoubt hold Ethan captive to his farm and frigid marriage. Ethan feels guilty that he fancies Mattie, and as a result, he feels it is his duty to submit to Zeena’s wishes, even though they are against his.
He fails to realize that his failing marriage is not his fault, but because Ethan feels responsibility for everything, Ethan senses he has no right to defy Zeena. In summation, Miraculously, Mattie, like a veritable angel, sheds light onto Ethan’s miserable life and shows him his weakness as he permits Zeena to control his emotions. At this point, Ethan begins to see Zeena as the root of his unhappiness and inexpressiveness. Zeena announces to Ethan the doctor’s recommendation for surgery. After hearing the news, Ethan is suddenly tossed between waves of jubilation and pity.
Zeena wants his sympathy, and as usual, Ethan right about gives Zeena the vicarious emotion she lusts, but suddenly, Ethan notices Zeena’s hardness and callousness like never beforean antipathy of Mattie. Angered and dismayed, he stops himself and ponders at his discovery: “Wrath and dismay contended in Ethan. He had foreseen an immediate demand for money, but not a permanent drain on his scant resources. He had no longer believed what Zeena had told him of the supposed seriousness of her state: he saw in her expedition to Bettsbridge only a plot hatched between herself and her Pierce relations to foist on him the cost of a servant; and for the moment wrath predominated”(56). Now, Ethan begins to see what he failed to see before: Zeena removes herself from society and uses her feigned illness to control him.
By being a semi-invalid, she can tell Ethan what to do. He decides that he no longer wants Zeena’s harshness and pretended ill-health beating him down. Ethan reveals to be still unsure and fears speaking his mind. However, the mere acknowledgment of Zeena’s true nature reveals a transfiguration in thought, soon to be put in action. Ethan no longer blames his bleak, depressing marriage on himself.
In fact, Ethan preoccupies more about the treatment, which will cost him money, than about the diagnosis, exposing the degree to which he despises Zeena. After realizing with Mattie what true love is, Ethan begins to reflect on his own bereft marriage. Clearly, Zeena manipulates him like a toy and does not give …