Ethan Frome


Ethan Frome, the main character in the Edith Wharton novel Ethan Frome, is a man who lives in a world of silence. He lives in the New England town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, with his bitter wife and his wife?s cousin Mattie. Over time Ethan is a man who has become trapped in Starkfield due to the number of winters he has endured. The mood throughout the novel is that of Winter. Winter connotes detachment, loneliness, bleakness, bitterness, and seclusion which are all portrayed in the novel. This essay will show how Edith Wharton uses seasonal symbolism to heighten the tragedy in the novel. Ethan is a twenty-eight year old man who feels trapped in his home town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. The novel takes place in the late 1800?s, this was a hard time for all but when you add in the harsh winters of Starkfield things get worse. The novel beings with a description of Starkfield, "the village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners" (Wharton 15) this is a basic picture of Starkfield throughout the novel. Starkfield like Ethan has given into the rigors of the many winter. Ethan is a poor farmer who has to support a "sickly" wife who does nothing but complain about everything. Ethan married his wife of seven years, Zeena, who is a bit older than he, following the death of his mother, in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the silence, isolation, and the loneliness of the life of Starkfield. The setting for Ethan Frome is winter. Edith Wharton , the author, chose winter because it symbolizes the emotional, physical isolation, cold, darkness and death that surround Ethan. Similarly, the name of the town Starkfield is symbolic of Ethan?s life. Stark depicts the many harsh winters causing unproductive, spiritless, and devastation to the people of Starkfield. One citizen may have said it best, "Guess he?s been in Starkfield too many winters" (5). The reader can take this statement one of two ways; that his livelihood has been taken away after the number of winters he has endure in Starkfield, or that his appearance is that of a weather beaten man. "There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face" (3). The key word in that quotation is bleak, that is a word used quite often to describe winter. Ethan at this point has no regard for his physical appearance, it?s as if all he is doing is trying to get through another winter. The narrator notes, " During the early part of my stay I had been struck, the climate and the deadness of the community" (5). Wharton emphasizes the rigor of life in a harsh community with its cold winters and its bleakness. The whole community is lifeless and stark, this is not a town for anyone to prosper in. The snow had ceased, and a flash of watery sunlight exposed the house on the slope above us in a plaintive ugliness. The black wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped form the porch, and the thin wooden walls, under their worn coats of paint, seemed to shiver in the wind that had risen with the ceasing snow (11) This depressing image painted in this quotation describes the environment , as well as Ethan. Just as Ethan?s home was once new but has been torn apart by the many harsh winters in Starkfield, so to was poor old Ethan. Ethan?s home has suffered the loss of it "L": "the long deep-roofed adjunct usually built next to the main home, connecting it, through storerooms and tool-house" (11). Ethan removed this portion of his home in order to make his life easier or better yet as a type of symbolism. Consider, the "L" of ones home "presents of a link with the soil, and enclosing in itself the chief sources of warmth and nourishment" (11). One can compare the destruction of the "L" on his home to his actual life, as the narrator states " this connection of ideas, caused me to hear a wistful note in Frome?s words, and to see the diminished dwelling the image of his own shrunken body" (11). The devastation of winter can destroy both a man?s will to live and the buildings which were build to protect him from that environment. As the narrator explains, " I had a sense