Ethan Frome: Fantasy is an Escape from Winter
Uploaded by Admin on Nov 21, 1999
Ethan Frome, the title character of Edith Wharton's tragic novel, lives in his own world of silence, where he replaces his scarcity of words with images and fantasies. There is striking symbolism in the imagery, predominantly that of winter which connotes frigidity, detachment, bleakness and seclusion.
Twenty-eight year old Ethan feels trapped in his hometown of Starkfield, Massachusetts. He marries thirty-four year old Zeena after the death of his mother, "in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the silence, isolation, and loneliness of life" (Lawson 71). Several years after their marriage, cousin Mattie Silver is asked to relieve Zeena, a gaunt and sallow hypochondriac, of her household duties. Ethan finds himself falling in love with Mattie, drawn to her youthful energy, as, "The pure air, and the long summer hours in the open, gave life and elasticity to Mattie" (Wharton 60).
Ethan is attracted to Mattie because she is the antithesis of Zeena. "While Mattie is young, happy, healthy, and beautiful like the summer, Zeena is seven years older than Ethan, bitter, ugly and sickly cold like the winter" (Lewis 310). Zeena's strong, dominating personality emasculates Ethan, while Mattie's feminine, effervescent youth makes Ethan feel like a "real man." Contrary to his characteristic passiveness, he defies Zeena in Mattie's defence, "You can't go, Matt! I won't let you! She's [Zeena's] always had her way, but I mean to have mine now -" (Wharton 123). To Ethan, Mattie is radiant and energetic. He sees possibilities in her beyond his trite life in Starkfield, something truly worth standing up for. Her energy and warmth excite him and allow him to escape from his lonely, monotonous life.
While Zeena is visiting an out of town doctor, Ethan and Mattie, alone in the house, intensely feel her eerie presence. The warmth of their evening together is brought to an abrupt end by the accidental breaking of Zeena's prized dish. Zeena's fury at the breaking of an impractical pickle dish exemplifies the rage she must feel about her useless life. "That the pickle dish has never been used makes it a strong symbol of Zeena herself, who prefers not to take part in life" (Lawson 68-69). Ethan's response to Zeena's rage was silence.
Just as Ethan lives in silence, so too does his wife. The total lack of communication between the "silent" couple is a significant factor in Ethan's miserable marriage. Ethan kept silent in his dealings with his...