The novel by Edith Wharton “Ethan Frome” tells readers of the life of one family that represents the rural working-class of New England and is based on a true accident that occurred in Lenox, Massachusetts. The town where the action takes place is Starkfield in the turn of the century that strikes “by the contrast between the vitality of the climate and the deadness of the community”. The main characters of the novel are “the ruin of a man” Hitherto Ethan Frome, his wife Zenobia, also called Zeena and her cousin Mattie Silver, “the bright and serviceable creature”.
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Though generally the whole work deals with the observations of the narrator who has to stay at Frome’s house in a storm in winter, the structure of the novel under consideration is a frame story that is a story within a story where an outer story is encircled around the inner one. The readers first meet Ethan Frome and hardly guess anything about his terrible tragedy, the narrator cannot get the details from the native citizens, just Mrs. Hale remarks: “â€¦I knew them bothâ€¦ it was awfulâ€¦ “, that makes the newcomer think that Ethan was a person beyond the common measure. He as well as the readers grow intrigued and Edith Wharton creates the impression that they together with the stranger who came to the Frome’s house in the storm try to find out what the mystery of the family was. At the very end on returning to the conversation with Mrs. Hale in the outer story readers realize what accident forever changed the lives of the three people living under the same roof all “these winters”, that are definitely symbolic in the novel.
Within the inner story there unfolds an extended flashback that takes readers twenty years back and allows them to see what has impacted the lives of the Fromes. Beginning with the second chapter the narration flashes back and the readers witness that the ordinary life of the Fromes was disturbed with the appearance of Mattie Silver, a girl whom Ethan occasionally saw, at once secretly admired and later on would fall in love with, as they hired Matt to help “sicky” Zeena about the house. Firstly it is hard to understand why Ethan became “a part of melancholy landscape” and accumulated so much cold in his heart and the majority of his neighbors were either indifferent to his troubles or considered them quite natural and surmountable. The writer step by step shows the evolution of Ethan’s feelings and where they lead him. They gat to know that Ethan’s father got a kick, his mother grew queer and the one who brought a relief was Zeena with whom he restored his shaken balance and returned to business while she took care of his ill mother. Ethan was grateful to her and responsible for his wife asking himself how she managed the farm and carried the burden of her duties if he escaped with his love Matt. But his strong affection to Mattie changes his life, Ethan strives to be with her, though he sees that it is not he who decides but the external circumstances that rule his fate. Though their feeling is mutual since they first met, Zenobia stands between them and she starts suspecting something, though Ethan has already got used to her “way of letting things happen without seeming to remark them”. Zeena plans to hire another girl and to dismiss Mattie as the doctors advised Zeena that she should stay in bed all the time and do no housework. But Ethan cannot let go the “long-established feeling of intimacy” between them and could not imagine his life without Matt. This time the couple first express the open anger, Ethan quarrels with his wife and for the umpteenth time discusses poverty. Yet Ethan considers he is too young to neglect his dreams and “too full of the sap of living” to give up but he cannot help but admit that “inexorable facts closed in on him like prison-warders handcuffing a convict”. Zeena seems to blame her husband for her state and especially for losing the ground and living in poverty. There rises the conflict between the desire to love and to be loved and the constraints the society places, the moral orders it imposes. Ethan considers himself unable to withstand the calamities of fate and chooses to abandon life together with Mattie, their narrow-mindedness and the hasty sled run turns to be fatal for the whole family. But this is not only passion that makes Mattie and Ethan do that, it is the winter that leaves its traces on the characters of the people who live in Starkfield, so, Ethan is emotionally buried under the snowdrifts of severe winters that he survives in Starkfield. One cannot deny that environment plays a part in shaping the fate of a person, so does it in the case with Ethan who learnt how to “hide his joy under an air of exaggerated indifference” living in “a depth of his moral isolation”. He seems to get a chance to break free from all that and rushes desperately to the light of Mattie Silver like a moth to flame, saying that there is nothing he would not do for her. They run themselves into a tree and Matt remains paralyzed, while Ethan Frome is less injured and remains a cripple after the accident.
Twenty years later the narrator observes the family the way it lives now and everything is actually turned upside down, as Zeena does everything she can for them both, Matt who used to be “so sweet” has soured and Mrs. Hale sadly concludes her story by saying the unbearable thing: “if she’d (Mattie) ha’ died, Ethan might have lived; and they way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes in the graveyard”.
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The novel is constructed so that only the last paragraph gives clues to the whole narration, it fills the last gap of the story and what we come to is the bitter understanding of a great tragedy that has unfolded in the still waters of a small town in Massachusetts. It is a personal drama that has ruined the lives of the young people who could have lived a long and happy life. Or could the “smash-up” they survived be the only prerequisite for them to see the true value of things and recognize “huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things”?
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