Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome is a domestic tragedy. The three main characters are Ethan Frome, Zeena Frome, and Mattie Silver. The uselessness of poverty, mean spiritedness, and grim silence are all present in the tragedy of Ethan Frome. The story takes place in a stark winter landscape, Starkfield, Massachusetts, where the lives of all the characters are constricted. At each turn the circumstances of rural poverty, mixed with the bitterness of isolation and failure, lead the main characters to lives of tragic resignation.
As a result of their miserable existence, they grow hard and mean-spirited, rarely communicating except with complaints and anger. The townsfolk tend to avoid them and are even reluctant to speak freely of the ruined lives of Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena. The tragedy of their existence is appropriately captured in their physical beings. Mattie is paralyzed, and Ethan is a shriveled, silent man whose face is set in grim despair. In the beginning of the “flashback,” Zeena, Ethan’s wife, who is also his distant cousin, is thin and hard. Before the action of the story begins, she has come to the farm to nurse Ethan’s mother in her last days.
Zeena ends up marrying Ethan and staying on the farm. She becomes sickly and is as unhappy, sharp, and looking constantly for cures to her vague ailments. Wharton uses the setting to help reinforce the coldness of Zeena. The foremost colors in Ethan Frome are white and red. While the snow is primarily white and cold and hopeless, as are the souls of the characters, the decorations of human life are red. Mattie, when she appears as womanly, available, and happy, is always decorated with a red scarf or a red ribbon, which Ethan prizes; but her redness cannot eliminate the bright whiteness of the cold and barren snow.
Zeena’s most coveted possession is a red glass pickle-dish, which becomes broken when Mattie is using it. Red is, of course, the color of blood and the heart, and the story is a tale about the heart. But like the pickle dish, the heart gets broken and they never get repaired Zeena never changes in the novel. She starts off as a mean, cold, pathetic figure, and she is the same way as she takes care of Mattie and Ethan at the end of the novel. The isolation of the Frome’s farm is shown by the isolation of Zeena, and Ethan. Then the isolation of Starkfield itself is shows how it is cut off from the rest of the world.
An example of this isolation inside the Frome house is after the pickle jar is broken, Ethan and Mattie wanted to keep it a secret but suspected that Zeena will find out from the store merchant that sold him the glue. Ethan Frome is a very dismal story that tells about the terrible tragedy of three lives. Throughout the novel, Edith Wharton describes the spiraling hopelessness of poverty, isolation, and small-mindedness. Through reinforcing the mood and traits of the characters with the setting of this novel, Wharton lets the reader better relate and really get into the novel as a whole.