English—Jean-Philippe Pellet, 3M2, December 11th, 2000

Literary Essay on Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

• Examine the theme of ‘prisoners’ in the novel.

  Throughout the whole book, we always feel the great impression of constraint on Ethan, Mattie and Zeena. One can distinguish several kinds of constraints—it is clear that Zeena is not affected by exactly the same problems as Ethan or Mattie; nevertheless one feels a constant lack of freedom between the characters. A lot of things play a big role on this situation. I will discuss the following problems, explaining how they relate to each character and what makes them pertinent to the theme of ‘prisoners’ in the novel: the Fromes’ lack of money; Zeena’s sickness and how she uses it to pressure Ethan; Starkfield and the landscape and its surroundings; Ethan’s difficulties in communicating; and finally his marriage with Zeena and his love for Mattie, which represent a constraint for Ethan as well.

  Money is probably the biggest physical constraint (not to mention the psychological ones, yet). The Fromes are poor, and Ethan must work hard and has actually a lot of trouble trying to make his living out of his farm. This problem concerns everybody; each one is sort of a prisoner of the lack of money: Zeena could be cured much better if there were enough money to pay for a doctor. If they had more money, they could move out of Starkfield and settle down elsewhere, where the climate would not be so tough. As far as Ethan is concerned, he had to drop his studies when his mother fell ill—the family couldn’t afford to pay for them any more. Later, he thinks about running away from Zeena with Mattie, but this idea is quickly made impossible by the lack of money: where should he get it from? As far as Mattie is concerned, her lack of money made her dependent on other people’s goodwill, and when Zeena decides to have another hires girl, the absence of money causes Mattie to be got rid of. In general, money is a stark hindrance: it may give you a large (though not unlimited) freedom when you possess a lot of it, but when you lack money, you really feel this need as a strong constraint which prevents you from doing what you want—thus making you feel like ‘prisoners.’

  One’s health is another very important aspect, which can also as well enclose you, and almost literally freeze you when you are ill and I think it is one of the prerequisite conditions to have a feeling of absolute liberty. It is also one of the main themes in the novel: Zeena's sickness represents a big constraint for everyone. As far as she is concerned, we know that she cannot work, or only very little, so she cannot be of any use to Ethan as regards work in the house and around the farm. She is a prisoner of her house: very seldom does she go away or move out of it. But on the other hand, she takes advantage of being sick by using it as a pretext to control Ethan and to dictate to him what he is and what he is not to do—which represents a big psychological pressure for him, once again preventing him from doing what he wants to.
  Mattie and Ethan are also directly concerned by this problem of sickness, for example Ethan’s failure to drive right into the big elm, thus his failure to commit suicide: the subsequent sicknesses (or paralyses) not only prevent Ethan and Mattie from running away from reality, but also force them to endure the current unsatisfactory and oppressive situation without being able to try to change it. Mattie’s sickness sort of ‘seals’ Ethan’s destiny.
  One must also remember that it is Ethan’s mother’s sickness that prevented him from going on with his studies—thus keeping him away from an exit he could have found to avoid the life he has lead so far. Ethan lives in a world of sick people and he is much affected by it.

  Another thing that represents a constraint and that makes the characters feel like prisoners is Starkfield, its climate, its surroundings, and the isolated position of the Fromes’ farm. The landscape is described as rocky, barren, grim-looking, sullen and cheerless. The huge amount of snow in winter has an especially oppressive and desperate effect. We know that the horse has a lot of trouble trying to move forward, pulling the carriage. The characters seem to feel the winter the same way: it is a hindrance for them, they can only move much more slowly. Ethan seems to undergo this situation with pain, but he cannot go away during the winter because of monetary reasons and because he has to care about the farm. The oppressive landscape is another narrator of the sad story.

  Another point about this idea of being ‘prisoner’ is Ethan’s difficulties in communicating. He has great trouble speaking and communicating his ideas, impressions and feelings with other people, which most of the time makes him undergo the situation passively: (p. 32) “He stood there instead of making his presence known to her.” When Edith Wharton describes Ethan speaking, she makes us understand that it really represents a big effort for him: (p.34) “he brought his question out,” for example. He dares not speak with Mattie a lot, nor tell her he really loves her. The language is for Ethan another hindrance—which he will manage to overcome eventually nevertheless.

  The last point I wanted to mention is Ethan’s marriage with Zeena and love for Mattie. If he had not married Zeena, he could probably have married Mattie, and it is said on page 98 why he cannot suddenly decide to leave her, so I think it is clear that he feels like a prisoner.
  On the other hand, I think that his love for Mattie can also be considered a thing that makes him feel like a prisoner. I know that it can appear curious to say that love is a hindrance to freedom; however, can one say that Ethan’s way of acting is not ruled by his love for Mattie? I am not trying to describe love as a strong constraint, I just want to underline that it can be considered another thing on which Ethan depends as far as his actions are concerned. It is by the way not rare to talk about the ‘chains of love.’

  As a conclusion, we might say that constraints are present everywhere in Ethan’s life: the lack of money, the sickness, the oppressive landscape, his problems with communicating, and so on, and it is easily understandable that all those things represent a huge pressure on Mattie and the Fromes, particularly on Ethan in his relation with Mattie. It would now be interesting to find out how he manages to bear all these pressures without falling terribly ill or committing suicide again. Maybe the rich fantasy life in which Ethan lives is the only thing that allows him to survive at all...