Essay, Research Paper: Ethan Frome By Wharton

Literature: Nathaniel Hawthorne

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When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his novel, The Scarlet Letter, he was praised as
being the father of the psychological novel. Since the completion of his
landmark story, many other authors have taken their work in similar directions,
and have tried to reveal human psychology through their writing. Authors have
been trying to convey truths about human behavior and explain the human psyche,
often unsuccessfully. Edith Wharton’s novel, Ethan From, is an excellent
example of a novel that succeeds in revealing truths. She fills her characters
with nuances that reflect the subconscious and her setting is alive with
reflected symbolism. She is able to interpret the characters actions in a way
that can relate to all humans. Each word and phrase seems to be chosen so that
it reflects a part of the subconscious in the characters. Edith Wharton’s
Ethan Frome is a psychological examination of the human mind, based on her use
of setting to reflect emotion, characterization to show human tendencies towards
chaos and other psychological aspects of the human mind. In Ethan Frome, Wharton
uses the setting to show the feelings and psychology of the characters. Because
the tone of the novel is somber and the characters suffer greatly, Wharton used
the gothic technique of matching the scenery to the characters emotions. The
principal setting of the novel is Starkfield, which is a small farming based
community. The houses are mostly several miles from the “center” of town.
Richard Worth, a literary critic, says of Starkville, “…even the name
suggests utter desolation” (64). The name of the town gives the initial
impression of the mindset of the characters: hopelessness. “The New England
winter… the physical landscape can reinforce psychic tensions oppressing the
people in the community” (McDowell 85). The narrator, Harmon Gow, describes
the setting and says, “…the winter set down on Starkfield, and the village
lay under a sheet of snow, perpetually renewed from the pale skies”(7). During
the entirety of the novel, the Starkfield weather is brutally cold and snowy.
Because winter and coldness are some of the predominant images n the book, it
was first published under the title L’Hiver, which means winter in French. The
snow and cold restate the cruelty of the characters’ situations. The setting,
using the bleakness of winter, “…provides a complicated time scheme through
which the author could dramatically contrast the bleak existence of her
characters in the present with their youthful expectations in the past.”
(McDowell 74). The winter scenery provides testament to things gone wrong,
almost a romantic styled sympathy of nature. The color scheme used to describe
the setting mirrored the desolation of the character’s feelings. “The black
shade of the varnum spruces becomes gray under the stars” (Wharton 34). The
gray of the backdrop symbolized the disturbance between what was right and what
was best for Ethan. . “There is no sharp line between the normal and abnormal
psyche, nor between the real and supernatural. In the vast remote area, covered
by snow, the sharp line between psychic dislocation and spirit world
dissolves” (McDowell 85). The absence of a “sharp line” was shown with the
used of an intermediate gray tone, which was seen recurring thorough out the
novel. There was no right or wrong in his case, hence the blend of the two
colors, black and white, into gray. Wharton even used actual physical objects to
represent characters from the novel, such as “blighted apple trees” which
have bent from the weight of snow. Ethan is symbolically the apple tree because
of his physical deformities as well as the mental burdens he has faced during
his life. Ethan talks in the novel about removing the L shaped projection from
off of his house. “I had to take down the L a while back” (Wharton 22). The
action of Ethan removing part of his house parallels his feelings of loss for
his family and Mattie. It shows his misery. Because of her excellent use of
imagery and description of the setting, Edith Wharton is able to incorporate the
psychological elements of the characters onto the backdrop of the action of the
novel. One of the predominant motifs of Ethan Frome is the feeling of isolation.
Again this is a theme that is reflected by the setting, but it is also seen in
the characters actions as well. “The setting also captures the pervasive
isolation of the citizens of Starkfield” (Springer 80). Starkfield it’s self
is a means of external isolations, as it is a small town village that receives
little to no news of the outside world. With in Starkfield, the placement of the
Frome house further isolates the characters. The house is on the fringe of the
town and has no neighbors within at least 5 miles. Even if Ethan was closer to
town and could establish communications with people other than Zeena, he would
still have feel separation. “The Frome household is cut off from the community
of Starkfield both literally and in terms of the depth of its suffering” (Goodwyn
76). Ethan had a life time so filled with tragedy and disappointments that it
would have been impossible for the average farmer of Starkfield to relate to him
or understand Ethan’s position. Within the house, Zeena and Ethan are clearly
isolated from each other, due to Zeena’s illness and Ethan’s unhappiness.
“Its inmates are even isolated from each other in the extremity of their
need” (Goodwyn 76). The ultimate irony of the novel is when Ethan and Mattie
are isolated from each other due to Mattie’s injuries. The aspect of isolation
portrayed through the setting and actions of the characters contributes to the
establishment of Wharton’s Ethan Frome as a psychological novel. The
characters of Ethan Frome seem to crave disorder and use it as a means of
security. The characters put themselves into situations that present confusion
and chaos. Zeena is a prime example of a character that is unable to face
reality and uses imaginary illnesses to compensate for the things that her life
lacks. She spends her life caring for others to compensate for her own personal
shortcomings and insecurities. When Zeena had no one left to care for, she then
came down with a series of illnesses. “Zeena’s absorption in her ailments,
whether real or imagined, is her chosen form of physical gratification” (Fedorko
64). Zeena gives herself an imaginary illness, which requires her to travel to
quack doctors and buy exotic, as well as expensive, wonder drugs. Zeena’s
illness gives her an escape and some have even proposed that it gives her a
sense of identity. In this aspect of needing chaos, Ethan is no better than
Zeena. When Ethan’s mother becomes ill, Zeena arrives at the Frome farm to
nurse her back to health. After Mrs. Frome dies, Ethan marries Zeena out of a
sense of obligation and appretation. After the death of both of his parents,
Ethan could have started his life over, concentrating in engineering, his
passion. Because of his obvious insecurities, he clung to Zeena for comfort and
support. Ethan needed something in his life to stop him from becoming his own
person because of his insecurities. Another example of Ethan’s need for chaos
is his haphazard romance with Mattie. Had Ethan carefully planned out their
escape, or at the least, just waited a few months longer, he and Mattie could
have lived happily ever after. He was close to over coming his perverse need for
chaos, but then his subconscious surfaced again and caused his plans to be
ruined. The characters could have simply waited until spring to escape, and gone
west as Ethan’ original plan stated. Ethan’s life would have been near
perfect, but his insecurities stopped him. He lacked the confidence and faith in
his actions to take a stand. He was able to have security in making plans, and
the relief in knowing that he would never follow through. The psychological
aspect of Ethan and Zeena’s need for chaos established Ethan Frome as a
psychological novel. Mattie Silver is, in ever aspect, the symbol of hope in
Ethan Frome. She is the faint glimmer of light that Ethan holds on to that makes
his life bearable. Because of Edith Wharton’s excellent use of imagery and
description, Ethan Frome is a masterfully written example of a psychological
novel. By just the use of description of setting, Wharton sets the tone and
mental conditions of the characters. The novel is rich in analysis of the psyche
and this is projected into the minds and actions of the characters. Edith
Wharton’s Ethan Frome is a timeless classic that subtly and creatively lets
readers understand the hidden depths of the human mind through psychological
aspects present in the novel.
Bell, Millicent. The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. New York:
Cambridge …..University Press, 1995. Fedorko, Kathy. Gender and the Gothic in
the Fiction of Edith Wharton. Tuscaloosa: …..University of Alabama Press,
1995. Goodwyn, Janet Patricia. Edith Wharton: Traveler in the Land of Letters.
New York: …..St. Martin’s Press, 1990. McDowell, Margaret. Edith Wharton:
Revised Edition. Boston: G.K. Hall and …..Company, 1991 Springer, Marlene.
Ethan Frome: A Nightmare of Need. New York: Twayne …..Publishers, 1993.
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Penguin Group, 1993. Worth, Richard.
Edith Wharton. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
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