Ethan Frome: A Victim of Circumstances
“…[H]e was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the ‘natives’ were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed: it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two” (Wharton 11.) Wharton’s protagonist, Ethan Frome is a farmer in the small gloomy town of Starkfield.
He lives with his wife, Zeena and his wife’s cousin Mattie Silver in an old dilapidated farm house in a lonely corner of Starkfield. He faces many emotional difficulties throughout his life. First, the death of his father and illness of his mother compels him to stay in Starkfield and not pursue his educational goals. Next, he marries Zeena who was caring for his mother but starts to dislike her because she claims to have many illnesses and spends away much of his income. Then, he starts to fall in love with his wife’s lively cousin but is tradition bound and cannot openly express his feelings towards her. He wants to leave with her but does not have the money and is morally unable to dupe his friends.
Although Ethan seems to have made these decisions, he is really a passive victim of circumstances. He is weighed down in life trying to make ends meet as a poor farmer – a profession not of his preference; caring for a wife whom he did not love and unable to deceive his friends bound by his traditional and moral upbringing; and living as a pathetic disabled person after attempting suicide to find permanent release from his miserable life. Ethan struggles with the difficult circumstances of the death of his father, followed by the sickness of his mother and his vulnerability due to poverty. After his father passes away, Ethan returns home to Starkfield to take care of his mother who also falls ill. He asks Zeena to help care for his ailing mother while he farms and sells lumber during winters to pay for the cost of treatments.
Starkfield is a cold, pale town with harsh winters. There is a short growing season, so farming doesn’t earn Ethan much money. He can no longer get back to his studies because there is no other source of income besides his own and there is not enough to pursue his dreams. “He had always wanted to be an engineer, and to live in towns, where there were lectures and big libraries and ‘fellows doing things'” (57). As his luck would have it, his mother passes away.
Ethan dreads being left alone on the farm and asks Zeena to marry him. “…[H]e felt sure that, with a “smart” wife like Zeena, it would not be long before he had made himself a place in it [the world] ” (57). For Ethan this joy of married life is short lived as she is unhappy to live on the farm and complains bitterly and feigns sickness. Zeena “had let her husband see from the first that life on an isolated farm was not what she had expected when she married…
And within a year of their marriage she developed the ‘sickliness’ which had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances” (58). Zeena requires costly medicines and given these circumstances, Ethan has to give up his dream of becoming an engineer and continues to slave at the farm and sell lumber in order to pay for her expenses. “Somebody had to stay and care for the folks. There warn’t ever anybody but Ethan. Fust his father—then his mother—then his wife” (13). Ethan’s obligation to his wife and friendship with the Hales becomes another unalterable reality that contributes further to his misery.
Mattie is a young, happy and lively woman who lives with Ethan and Zeena and helps around the house. With Zeena being “sickly” and cantankerous, Ethan finds Mattie to be refreshing and a source of comfort. He wants to be with her. Zeena does not like Mattie because she is a clumsy housekeeper and asks her to leave when she breaks her favorite pickle dish. Ethan becomes restless at the thought of not being able to see Mattie anymore and contemplates running away with her, leaving Zeena behind. “Ethan was fired by the thought.
Why should he not leave with Mattie the next day, instead of letting her go alone? He would hide his valise under the seat of the sleigh, and Zeena would suspect nothing till she went upstairs for her afternoon nap and found a letter on the bed…” (99). Ethan plans to run away with Mattie and tires to figure out how he could manage to live.
He feels that initially he could find a job but having Mattie might be a burden while looking for one. He also thinks about leaving the farm to Zeena who can sell it and cover her living costs. However, he worries that Zeena is sick and the farm needs a strong person to manage it. The farm is heavily mortgaged and even if Zeena sells the farm, she will have to pay back the loans which will probably not leave enough for her to cover her cost of living. Further, Zeena may not find a purchaser for the farm because Ethan knows how difficult it is to find a buyer in those areas.
He agitatedly weighs the possibilities and his obligations, and finally decides to run away with Mattie. He thinks having some cash would help ease that burden. He plans to borrow money from the Hales who are extraordinarily kind and sympathetic to him. “…[I]t occurred to him that Andrew Hale, who was a kind-hearted man,might be induced to reconsider his refusal and advance a small sum on the lumber if he [Hale] were told that Zeena’s ill-health made it necessary to hire a servant. Hale, after all, knew enough of Ethan’s situation to make it possible for the latter to renew his appeal without too much loss of pride;…” (104). Armed with this thought, Ethan approaches the Hales.
He speaks to Mrs. Hale who sympathizes with him regarding Zeena’s health. This empathy bolsters Ethan’s plan to ask them for money because he now feels that the Hales will not refuse his request. As he approaches Mr. Hale, he suddenly feels a rush of uneasiness. His moral obligations as a husband and a friend flash before him and he realizes that running away with Mattie demolishes the very values in which he strongly believes.
“With the sudden perception of the point to which his madness had carried him, the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he could have done so only by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him. He turned and walked slowly back to the farm” (106.) Ethan was brought up and lives in a society with traditional and moral values which strongly influence his behavior and actions. In such a society and under such circumstances, abandoning one’s wife for another woman and cheating friends to obtain money were actions that were inconceivable to Ethan. His decision to run away with Mattie is yet again controlled by this reality.
Ethan and Mattie’s unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide is another circumstance that continues Ethan’s miserable inescapable life in Starkfield. Despite not being able to express his love for Mattie openly, Ethan is frantic to spend more time with her on the day she had to leave his home. He cannot picture his home without Mattie’s presence and yet finds no way to stop her from leaving. He finds a way to help her with her trunk and insists against Zeena’s wishes to take her to the train station himself. On the way to the train, Ethan and Mattie declare their love for each other despite there being no chance of any future together.
They realize that they had not gone coasting like they had promised each other. Ethan insists that they sled down the hill by the elm tree at least once before Mattie leaves. After the first run, Mattie feels desperate and suggests that they crash into the elm so that they could remain together forever after their death. They hold and kiss each other. Ethan wants these moments to last forever and decides to steer the sled into the elm when they go down the snow for the last time. “The big tree loomed bigger and closer, and as they bore down on it he thought: ‘It’s waiting for us: it seems to know.
‘ But suddenly his wife’s face, with twisted monstrous lineaments, thrust itself between him and his goal, and he made an instinctive movement to brush it aside. The sled swerved in response, but he righted it again, kept it straight, and drove down on the black projecting mass. There was a last instant when the air shot past him like millions of fiery wires; and then the elm…
” (125). After the smash up they are both severely injured but still alive. When Ethan and Mattie decided to kill themselves, they did not consider the possibility that their attempt might fail. Ironically, when Ethan decides at last to take matters into his own hands and die with Mattie, both he and Mattie unexpectedly survive the crash and have to live a crippled unhappy life with Zeena. Ethan is now stuck in Starkfield forever – a living death. Ethan Frome’s life was tragic because he was a helpless victim of his circumstances.
The cold weather in Starkfield is sad and gloomy which prevents Ethan from escaping poverty and pursuing his dreams of becoming an engineer. His farming profession gave him no more than a meager salary with which he could barely manage life on the farm with his wife. His traditional and moral upbringing in society prevented him from duping his friends and leaving his wife for another woman. Even after trying to commit suicide with his lover to escape his miserable life, he fails, and has to continue living as a disabled person in the care of his wife. It was ironic the way Ethan wanted liveliness and laughter to come into his house.
However, in the end he gets a life, not from joyous laughter and happiness, but from querulous anger and disappointment. As Ethan’s friend Mrs. Hale so aptly describes, “…the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues” (132). Circumstances imprison Ethan Frome to a miserable life in Starkfield. ? Works Cited Wharton, Edith.
Ethan Frome. Lodi: Marco Book, 2003. Print.