Throughout Edith Whartons novel Ethan Frome, Ethan is forced to make crucial decisions that affect the outcome of his life and others lives. He regrets most of the outcomes of his decisions and wishes he could change them. Yet, when given the opportunity to change his fate, he never seems to fully seize what could become of him. It has been suggested that Ethan was a coward for never taking advantage of seizing his fate, but that is not true. Life, responsibility and reality trapped Ethan. At each turning point in his life, there is nothing he can do without seriously hurting someone elses life.
Ethans parents trapped him and forced him to not fulfilling his education. Later, not only did Zeena trap Ethan into marriage; he stays trapped for the rest of his life. Finally, Ethans love for Mattie forces them both in a permanent state of disability. It is not Ethans cowardice, which kept him from achieving his goals; he is trapped. Ethan was not always trapped. When he was younger, he actually went to college. he [Ethan Frome] had taken a year’s course at a technological college at Worcester (p. 35) it says in the book. In fact, things were looking his way when his father died.
He had to go home and take care of his mother. It would have been very cruel and selfish for him to neglect his sickly mother and stay in school. This was the first instance of Ethan being trapped. No good, honorable son would leave a dying mother all alone, just to help pursue their own goals in life. This may be considered cowardice by some, for they would say that Ethan should have hired some one to take care of his mother, so that he could stay in college and graduate. Leaving his mother would have been a terrible thing for Ethan to do. Ethans mother needed him.
There was nothing Ethan could do; he was trapped and that was only the beginning of Ethans problems. When Ethans cousin Zeena came to help take care of his mother, he did not fell trapped for a little bit. He [Ethan Frome] felt that he might have gone like his mother if the sound of a new voice had not come to steady him. (p. 29) Wharton writes. After some time though, Zeena also traps Ethan. After his mothers death, Ethan felt trapped. He, along with Zeena and her family, felt he should marry Zeena. The common belief was that it was the least he could do for her after helping his mother.
Also, Ethan did not want to spend the winter alone. Once again, he was trapped. One who believes Ethan is a coward, would say, he could have very easily packed his bags and moved on with his life. He did not love Zeena or the farm. In fact, he disliked them both. There appears to be no reason to stay. He could not leave and empty farm, or a perspective wife, so he married Zeena not out of love, but out of convenience. Zeenas entrapment did not end there. The appearance of Mattie in the story even further traps Ethan.
When Zeena took ill, Ethan hired Mattie to help take care of Zeena, much the same way Zeena was called in to help his mother. Ethan then falls in love with Mattie. He is unable to act upon these feelings because he is trapped in his marriage to Zeena. He really wants to run a way with Mattie and head west, but he can not. He is trapped and must stay with Zeena. A person favoring the coward approach would say that there was nothing holding him back. He could get the money and just leave. He was a coward for not doing anything. He could not do that.
In the book it shows Ethans thought process deciding not try his luck out west, he [Ethan Frome] would not have feared to try his chance alone. But with Mattie depending on him the case was different. And what of Zeena’s fate? Farm and mill were mortgaged to the limit of their value it was doubtful if she could clear a thousand dollars on the sale [of the farm] [Zeena] could never carry such a burden alone. (p. 135) That quote shows how trapped Ethan feels. He really wants to run away with Zeena, but reality will not let him. There was nothing he could do.
He was forced to live with Zeena and give up his dreams of a wonderful life with Mattie. His misery and entrapment continued. Since Ethan knew that he was unable to run away with Mattie, they decided to commit suicide–they failed. Ethan ended up with a crippled body and Mattie became paralyzed. This is the most horrific and extreme example of Ethans entrapment. Although he and Mattie are living together, Zeena takes care of them both. It is a fate worse than death. Ethan is no longer able to walk without a severe limp and Mattie will never walk again.
They are both forced to live with the woman they were trying to escape from, until they die. Ethan Fromes life will end in a state of entrapment. Entrapment is a major theme in Edith Whartons Ethan Frome. Some may say that Ethan was a coward for not taking advantage of the opportunities given to him. That is not the truth. He was too trapped to take full advantage of the opportunities. His parents illness and death, Zeena, and his crippled body, have all trapped him at one time or another. Ethans live is filled with entrapment.