Everyone, at some time in life, will experience fear. But, often fantasies are created in one’s mind to escape that fear. Ethan Frome uses his fantasy as an escape to the entrapment of his marriage and the fear of public condemnation. Ethan Frome lives in the winter town of Starkfield, Massachusetts where “the storms of February…pitched their white tents about the devoted village and the wild cavalry of March winds…charged down to their support; and …Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter” (Wharton, 5).
The narrator, upon meeting Ethan Frome for the first time, thought “he seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface. ” He “had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, but had in it…the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters” (Wharton, 9). Frome finds he is unable to escape the dreariness of the town of Starkfield. Each day while passing the headstones on his property he feels as if they are mocking him, claiming: “We never got away—how should you?
Whenever he went in or out of his gate he thought with a shiver ‘I shall just go on living here till I join them. ’ ” Ethan Frome marries Zenobia (Zeena) after the death of his mother in “an unsuccessful attempt to escape the silence, isolation and loneliness of life” (Lawson, 71). But, after time, he finds his life again becoming silent, as it was with his mother. Their lack of communication is continually making the marriage more miserable. When they do communicate “he had first formed the habit of not answering her, and finally thinking of other things while she talked” (Wharton, 53).
Four years after their marriage, Zeena fell in and hired her cousin, Mattie Silver, to come care for her. Ethan Frome finds silence falling between him and Zeena and the dreariness she carries. He noticed one night, in particular, “the pale light reflected from the banks of snow made her face look more than unusually drawn and bloodless, sharpened the three parallel creases between ear and cheek, and drew querulous lines from her thin nose to the corners of her mouth. Though she was but seven years her husband’s senior, and he was only twenty-eight, she was already an old woman (Wharton, 47).
Ethan Frome, in an attempt to escape the entrapment of the failing marriage finds himself falling in love with her the youthfulness she carries, as, “the pure air, and the long summer hours in the open, gave life and elasticity to Mattie” (Wharton, 60). Mattie, being young and single, often went to gatherings in town. Ethan always took it upon himself to meet her afterward and escort her home. One evening while waiting to pick her up from a dance he is drawn to the window and watches the young couples dance. He picks her out of the crowd and watches her dance with another young gentleman of the town.
As they turn about, she continually tosses her head back with laughter, the way he loved and so often recreated in his mind, and “to him, who was never gay but in her presence, her gaiety seemed plain proof of indifference. …The sight made him unhappy, and his unhappiness roused his latent fears” (Wharton, 25). While escorting her home he wants to tell her his feelings and thoughts, but “the fact that he had no right to show his feelings, and thus provoke the expression of hers, made him attach a fantastic importance to every change in her look and tone.
Now he thought she understood him, and he feared” (Wharton, 34). But during the walk home he continues thinking of her staying to live with him and care for his ill wife. If he was to be doomed to remain in Starkfield forever, at least he would have Mattie with him. “He was never so happy with her as when he abandoned himself to these dreams” (Wharton, 36). Zeena, upon convincing herself she has become more ill, decides to visit a doctor in the neighboring town.
Ethan dreamed of them being alone together, spending the evening sitting by the fire, as if they were married. “The sweetness of the picture, and the relief of knowing that his fears…were unfounded, sent up his spirits with a rush, and he, who was usually so silent, whistled and sang aloud as he drove” (Wharton, 50). Their evening together began just as Ethan had dreamed and he “was suffocated with the sense of well-being” (Wharton, 59). He often imagines he is married to Mattie, escaping his entrapment to Zeena.
Their evening is disrupted by the eerie sense of Zeena’s presence, and the breaking of Zeena’s prized red dish. Zeena’s fury over the broken dish represents the fury of her useless life. “That the pickle dish has never been used makes it a strong symbol of Zeena herself, who prefers not to take part in life” (Lawson, 68-69). This event brought more silence to their diminishing marriage and Ethan feels an even stronger sense of his entrapment. Ethan and Mattie realize their mutual feelings, but Zeena’s return forced them back to dreadful reality.
The return to reality was as painful as the return to consciousness after taking an anaesthetic. His body and brain ached with indescribable weariness, and he could not think of nothing to say or do that should arrest the mad flight of the moments” (Wharton, 93). Zeena’s visit to the doctor was not only a great expense for the trip, but she had been convinced that she needed a full time caretaker, meaning she intended to dismiss Mattie. Ethan is convinced that the town people will think less of her for dismissing her own blood.
Zeena only replies “I know well enough what they say of my having kep’ her here as long as I have” (Wharton, 84), hinting that she and the whole town of Starkfield are fully aware of their feelings and actions toward each other. Zeena is able to manipulate her husband by using her health to justify her actions and personality. Ethan begins to fear he will lose Mattie forever. Upon realizing that Mattie’s leaving was to be a reality, Ethan tries desperately to discover a way for them to escape together, but discovers with a harshness the true reality of his entrapment of his marriage to Zeena.
The couple determined that if their love cannot carry on now, it will continue on in death. However, their unsuccessful suicide attempt forces them to live a life of physical suffering. It is ironic that Mattie, who had been the source of so much joy and an escape to his fears and reality, through his fantasies, now brought him more suffering. The former invalid, Zeena, was now forced to care for them both. Perhaps Edith Wharton’s reason for writing Ethan Frome, was that it so vividly reflected her own dreary life.
Abandoned of any love as a child from her mother and trapped in a marriage similar to that of Zeena and Ethan, Wharton found herself relying on illicit love. This illicit love was also her favorite topic of writing, which helped her to escape her own tragedies. She spent many nights in the arms of other men searching desperately for the love she believed existed, but had never felt, which is evident in all of her writings. Ethan Frome is not only an excellent piece of writing, and moving story, but also causes a reflection that we, too, create vivid fantasies and hopes to escape our fears.