Ethan is our tragic hero, a man of many faces. He lives with two women, his wife and his wife's cousin, with whom he was (and maybe still is) in love. It doesn't sound like such a great situation, does it? We did say tragic hero, didn't we? But tragic hero isn't the only way to look at Ethan. We will also look at him in terms of the transformations he undergoes throughout the novella.
Ethan the Tragic Hero
As writers through the ages, from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Edith Wharton, have known, everybody likes a good tragedy from time to time. How do writers of tragedy capture our attention and emotions? That's easy. They just give us a really fascinating hero or heroine to whom we can relate, and then take away everything he or she loves. Actually the hero usually causes his or her own downfall.
Tragic heroes often fit a certain kind of mold. (Think about Ethan while you read.) The tragic hero is usually gifted with one or more extraordinary talents, abilities, or qualities. The hero also has a tragic flaw, which is most often inextricably linked to one or more of the extraordinary talents, abilities or qualities. Sometimes the hero doesn't really have a tragic flaw. Sometimes he just makes a mistake, or series of mistakes, but they are usually somehow connected to one or more of his talents.
So if Ethan is a tragic hero, what is extraordinary about him? Does he have a tragic flaw? Does he make mistakes?
Though Ethan has many extraordinary qualities (for example, we know he's physically very strong and also quite intelligent), his kind and loving nature stands out. Ethan can't stand to see any living creature in pain. He takes care of both his mother and father until they die, postponing his own education. And he melts completely when he thinks of Zeena abandoned and destitute. His concern for the suffering of others is hammered home during the scene where Ethan and Mattie crash into the elm tree. What is on Ethan's mind just before and after the attempted suicide? He's thinking about the fact that his horse has missed dinner and is hungry.
His concern for others (or maybe his unwillingness to make decisions which might hurt others) proves to be Ethan's tragic flaw (figuratively speaking). He dreams of schools and society and all the things his hungry mind and heart desire. But he believes that although Zeena is unhappy in Starkfield, a move would make her have "a complete loss of identity" (4.7). Later, he worries that if he leaves Zeena "his desertion would leave [her] alone and destitute" (8.52). His concern for Zeena prevents him for fulfilling his own dreams. The tragic part is that in trying to keep Zeena from suffering, Ethan makes them both miserable.
Though Ethan means well, everything turns out badly for everyone involved. In some twisted version of kindness, Ethan decides to join Mattie in a suicide pact. He can't live up to his own ideal version of kindness, and finally explodes under its pressure. Did you notice? Extraordinary talents, tragic flaws, terrible mistakes = Ethan as a tragic hero.
Ethan the Passive Hero
Considering that Ethan is the protagonist and hero of Ethan Frome, he sure doesn't do a lot. Though protagonists usually drive the plot's action forward, Ethan is extremely passive. He doesn't actively make decisions to take control of his life. Instead, he is driven by the events and circumstances of his life.
We are given a number of such life circumstances – Ethan's parents' need of care, the management of the ever-failing farm and mill, the sickly Zeena, Starkfield itself (particularly the winters), and society's expectations of his duties and role as a husband. Ethan doesn't have enough drive to get out from under all that and choose his own life direction. If Mattie hadn't driven the love affair, he probably wouldn't have had one. Zeena's actions are required before he considers leaving with Mattie, and Mattie drives him to attempt suicide. Even then, Ethan sits in the back of the sled and doesn't even drive it into the tree.
Wharton clearly presents Ethan as a passive man. The question, then, is what is Wharton's opinion toward Ethan's passive behavior? Are we supposed to judge him, or consider him a helpless victim of awful life circumstances? What do you think?
When we meet Ethan in the Prologue he is about 52 years old and has already undergone a terrible physical transformation:
The "smash-up" […] besides drawing the red gash across Ethan Frome's forehead, had so shortened and warped his right side that it cost him a visible effort to take the few steps from his buggy to the post-office window […] (Prologue.4 )
Ethan's obvious physical scars leads the narrator to wonder about the non-physical transformations that might have come along with the physical ones, and how they might connect with the accident. Let's take a look at the changes Ethan undergoes over the four days covered in Chapters 1 through 9.
Falling in Love
Ethan realizes that he has transformed from a person not in love, to a person in love – in love for probably the first time in his life. He has fallen in love with Mattie Silver.
Ethan clearly acts like someone in love. When he goes to pick Mattie up from the dance, "his heart [is] beating fast" (1.6). Not from walking the two miles from the farm, but in anticipation of seeing her "dark head under the cherry colored scarf" (1.7). Ethan also begins to feel jealousy. Likely he never felt this emotion where Zeena was concerned. More importantly, though, Ethan is "only gay [as in happy, lighthearted, lively] in her presence" (1.13). Being with her allows his inner happy-guy to come bursting out.
Practically speaking, Mattie and Ethan make a good pair, and in many ways she would be an ideal person for Ethan to pursue his dreams with. They are able to talk to each comfortably and naturally, and quickly form a connection over their strong mutual interest in nature. Mattie is also constantly telling Ethan she is brave and fearless, and is game for anything. These characteristics stand in contrast to Zeena, whom Ethan thinks would fall apart if removed from Starkfield and her current life. Like Ethan, Mattie is active, and almost never complains about anything. Ethan also finds her beautiful. Interestingly, they are about the same difference apart in age as Ethan and Zeena – some seven years – but they both seem to be youthful, whereas Zeena appears aged.
Here's the question to ask yourself: is Ethan really in love with Mattie, or is he in love with the idea of Mattie? Since Mattie is so different from Zeena, she represents the possibility of a different kind of life for Ethan. What do you think? Is he in love with the actual girl, or the life she represents?
In either case, Ethan despairs when confronted with losing the thing he loves (either Mattie or his dream of a different life), and goes along with Mattie's suicide plan.
Because Ethan is secretly in love with a woman who is not his wife, he is now living a life of deceit. When Ethan and Mattie have their night alone together, he concerned with how to keep on seeing Mattie romantically, while making it look like business as usual around Zeena. Ethan is also deceiving himself by pretending that because he and Mattie haven't had sex, they aren't doing anything that Zeena would consider a violation of the marital contract.
"Ethan," we are told, "ha[s] no suppleness in deceiving. He had never before been convicted of a lie […]" (7.42). Apparently, lying to Zeena about getting money from Andrew Hale (so that he could see Mattie) is Ethan's first lie. Lying for this first time in one's life is evidence of a significant transformation.
And now, of course, we are back to the physical. Death wasn't ready to claim Ethan, and left him in the world, broken and marked. But, the narrator doesn't fill in the 24-year gap between the end of Chapter 9 and the beginning of the Epilogue. We can see that Ethan is now no longer living a life of deceit. His life is on show for anyone to see. What we don't know is if he is still suicidal, or if he's still in love with Mattie. What's your take?Ethan Frome Timeline