American Character in Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

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Edith Wharton is famous for her writing, which disclosed problems of women living in the Victorian society, and her works were duly awarded with the highest literature prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize. (Lewis 18) However, not all her works were directly related to problems of women or contained female characters. At the heart of Ethan Frome, a novel which she wrote partially aiming to master her skills, a male character is placed. Instead of complex social relations and bonds which usually set the background for the character’s problems and decisions, Ethan Frome features raw beauty of the countryside and isolation of small townships in Massachusetts. (Lewis 165) However, even in this untypical entourage Wharton managed to show the most important and controversial issues – the power and weakness of human spirit, the force of obligations, and, according to many critics, a truly American character. Yet the notion of the latter is very complex in itself, so in the present paper it will be explored through the features assigned to several characters, because otherwise the very sense of it would be lost.

The novel Ethan Frome features three main characters, whose story is indirectly told from the point of view of various observers, both occasional and permanent, who, to a certain extent, had a glimpse inside the life of Ethan Frome and his family. The fates of Ethan Frome, Zeena, and Mattie intersected long ago, , yet the latter brought many troubles to the three of them, and these have only worsened with the course of time. The overall story of Ethan Frome is a tragedy of a person, who had to abandon everything he was longing for, and devote his live to hard work and care for his ailing ‘folks’. (Wharton, 7) The story of Zeena is a typical story of a woman who had to live in the most unfavorable conditions and marry a man whom she did not loved because she did not have any other source of income.  The story of Mattie is similar to that of Zeena, yet it diverges in the point of Mattie’s nature, life circumstances and attitude towards Ethan and everything that happened to her. This trio could be a sample of broken fates in itself; yet as they twist together, more general ideas and problems come to surface.

The distinctive trait of the novel is that every character has faced a lot of problems and hardships, and the latter never ceased to appear; and in the course of conquering them each of main characters showed their inner strengths and flaws. In this respect Ethan’s life is described most vividly: “Sickness and trouble: that’s what Ethan had his plate full up with, every since the very first helping” (Wharton, 15).  Ethan was a young man who dreamt of learning, living in a big city, completing architectural projects. He was gifted enough to succeed through the hard work, and perhaps he would be able to fulfill his dreams, if the fate did not decide everything for him. He had to return home in order to take care for his ailing father, then the mother fell ill, and after their deaths he had neither education, nor a wish to pursue his dreams. The only way out to conquer the absolute loneliness on the farm was to marry Zeena, and by doing this even more troubles appeared. (Wharton 46)

 Ethan solved the problems one by one silently, understanding that it was his task to care, work, earn a living and support the family. A powerful man with very gentle nature, Ethan always felt kind of guilty towards every living being with which he interacted daily. He felt his responsibility towards parents, and towards his wife, no matter what his feeling about her was, and he never contemplated the possibility to abandon his duties in order to pursue his own goals. The internal sense of duty and the commonly accepted social system of obligations, as well as upbringing and general disposal typical for people of his town, predetermined his way. Yet it was his choice to perform his tasks quietly, without complaints, to do his chores on farm and sawmill without blaming his life or circumstances.  Patience and inner determination to do what was required from his may well be described as a sign of truly American character (Springer 55). Americans were the people who conquered the wilderness and built their own state, fought for independence and developed democratic and balanced system. Americans were people who knew that they had duties and obligations, and it was their sacred and inevitable task to fulfill them and not to surrender because of circumstances. (ibid.)

Ethan properly exemplifies how a person can sacrifice everything, valuable from the point of view of an individual, in order to satisfy requirements of moral obligation and the good of people. Young Ethan who quit college and returned to the farm was a wonderful example of what American spirit was. Yet, the long stay in Starkfield did not pass without a trace for him. Severe winters and its precincts were an ordeal in itself, as the town was cut from the rest of the world because of snow for good 6 months and there was no entertainment or intellectual pleasure for a person like Ethan.  People with similar striving for education, interesting work and life filled with new experiences left Starkfield for good. (Wharton 8) Ethan was chained to the place by his family duties, and his more sophisticated nature open to suffering of others and their needs would not bear to commit such a betrayal. As the future events showed, his forced stay in Starkfield finally turned him into a different person. What at first was a willful determination to stay and care for his parents later turned into submission and grim satisfaction with status quo. Severe winters cooled down the curious and gifted soul and leveled it with the grim rocky soil. (Springer 58)

So in the course of narration it becomes visible how a person with good intentions and strong feeling of duty turns into a broken and submissive shadow. Physically, Ethan did not change before the accident, yet his habits and patterns of behaviors gave out changes in his disposition. It is possible to state that this manifestation of persistent and determined American character turned into its full opposition.

The changes in Ethan and his overall silent and reserved manner are all the more striking on the background of Mattie, a sweet young girl, a fighter and survivor in all senses. She was brought up in more beneficial and fruitful environment than Ethan, she led a life of ease with her parents and did not intend to become a self-supported woman. Yet, her parents died, and she was suddenly left in poverty dependant on her relatives who disliked her strongly. As a result, she was sent as a help to Zeena, and found herself in a dreary place unfit for her lively and light nature. In these circumstances she did not give up either, and her presence and energetic encouraging behavior were like a breath of fresh air to Ethan. Mattie serves as a symbol of many new issues in Ethan’s story and as a shift in the life pattern at the farm (Springer 76) Her scarf is cherry colored, her lips are red, her cheeks are blushed, in general she is a full opposition to the bleak life and a full manifestation of everything Ethan missed in life. Moreover, Mattie has proactive attitude to life. Ethan is passive precisely because of his gentle and understanding nature.  He believed that if he left his wife, she would be left destroyed and helpless. He cannot object to her constant demands and nagging because she is said to be ill, and practically all meager earning is spent on her medications. For the same reason he could not object to Zeena’s demand to send Mattie away.  

Mattie, although in more desperate and difficult position, is not afraid to hold the initiative and takes steps which she considers to be right, no matter what the consequences might be. She understood that it was her life, and if she did not lead it in proper direction, then no one would do it for her. Both types of characters and behavior may be explained be personal traits of Mattie and Ethan, yet final choice is still made by both mind and soul.  Mattie rejects Eady as a potential husband because she seems to love Ethan, and to act in contradiction to her true wish and feelings would be impossible. She did not passively accept Eady’s courtship, she clarified what her choice was, and obviously her intention was to pursue her true passion – Ethan. Here the very delicate issue arises: Ethan is married, and in the time when the events take place divorce was not a common and quietly accepted thing. (Springer 80) So Mattie knowingly opts for an illegal affair which probably would not have a happy-end.  As the scene of sledging showed, Mattie was thinking about the future and tried to plan things, although in a very specific way. She confessed to Ethan that she dreamed of life with him for quite a long time and explained that she would rather die than live without him. Taking into consideration the circumstances – Ethan’s unsuccessful marriage, Mattie’s poverty and practically homelessness, scarce opportunities of jobs and socializing offered to single women – it is possible to infer that Maggie contemplated suicide for quite a long time and it was not a spontaneous decision. (ibid.)

It is impossible to tell for sure if she truly decided to commit suicide some time ago, yet one thing about Mattie becomes obvious – she is active to the extent to which Ethan is inactive. On the other hand, she lacks his striving for education, personal development and life filled with something more than just light pleasures. Mattie embodies the other side of American character – decisiveness, readiness to take actions and to carry responsibility for it, and demonstrates understanding that happiness in life is achieved by a person, and cannot be granted from heaven or delivered by someone as a gift. Ethan’s sense of duty and Mattie’s active position in life are two sides of one phenomenon. If these qualities were united in one person, then it would be a perfect exemplification of a brave strong American, ready to pursue set goals and to act in order to get the desired. The sense of duty might also help along the way. Yet these features are distributed between two people. It seems these qualities are distributed in reverted manner: usually female characters, and real life women, have a strong sense of duty and are ready for self-sacrifice for the good of others. Instead, men are decisive and pursue their aims with determination, sometimes without regard to the feelings of others. In case of Ethan Frome the female character is prone to plan and act, and the male character is led and governed on his way, whether by people or by his inner beliefs.

Practically, every character in the novel can be viewed as representing American spirit – Harmon Gow, Mrs. Ned Hale, her husband, even the narrator himself. Everyone has to conquer his or her own hurdles, problems and carry on. They do it, and they also preserve their compassion and sympathy to others along the way. Harmon Gow is sympathetic with Ethan, he values the sacrifice he has made and he tells the narrator about it. Mrs. Ned Hale saw both Ethan and Mattie right after the ‘smash-up’, probably guessed about the real background of events and still valued them as good people. All characters who are immediately participating in the narration are characterized by their own manner of speech and attitudes expressed towards Ethan and his life. They are typical Americans of the countryside, of remote villages and towns, not very well educated (Gow’s specific accent is contrasting with Ethan’s and the narrator’s more elaborate manner of speech), sometimes tough-looking, but they preserve their human soul and good attitude to people despite their own difficulties. It is interesting to contrast these characters to Mattie’s close relatives who persecuted her for the supposed guilt of her father. This is a perfect example, which helps to underline who real people are and what traits and principles they should display. It is also shown how Mattie’s character ‘soured’ after the accident and how Ethan almost completely retreated into himself, yet these transformations are perfectly logical in the framework of all woes which have befallen this unlucky couple.

The novel is well written and it brilliantly displays how people may be broken or transformed by their fate or tragic events, yet these transformations happen to people who under somewhat milder conditions could have reached significant heights and deserved success and happiness. Both Ethan and Mattie in different circumstances would make a perfect match, and their united traits of character would help them to function better and more happily than they would have done it alone. They would be a good sample of truly American character and success – self-achieved, deserved by hard work and talents development. However, the over-tough environment took its toll. It is impossible to name a character in the novel  that would signify America in its completeness and diversity, except for the nature, probably, because it embodied the force and rough beauty throughout the narration. Yet the latter in the novel is the important background, and it is people who act and make readers think on the meaning of their actions. All in all, Ethan and Mattie deserve sympathy and understanding, and their lives till definite moment may well serve as examples of proper and dignified behavior in the face of strokes of fate.

Works Cited

Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975.

Springer, M. Ethan Frome: A Nightmare of Need. Twayne's Masterwork Studies. New York City: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

Wharton, E. Ethan Frome. Published by: C. Scribner's Sons, New York: 1922. Digitized edition. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/ethanfromeedith00wharrich#page/n7/mode/2up.

July 18, 2022
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