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Ethan Frome

Ethan Frome

by Edith Wharton

Freedom and Confinement Theme

Unfortunately, in Ethan Frome, freedom is always just out of reach. Isolated from technology, the inhabitants of Starkfield, Massachusetts, can barely make enough to stay alive, much less leave, or seek out an education. Their poverty is so extreme, and their winters so mean that the characters lose their dreams in the struggle to stay alive. Some of the characters, Ethan's mother for example, are driven insane by the extreme isolation. Yet, there is always the sense that if they had only made different choices the characters could have achieved the freedom they desired. During the doomed love affair presented in this novella, there is a sense of trying to push out from under the situation. Even though it isn't realized, the possibility of escape turns this piece into a cautionary tale, warning us to do whatever it takes to reach freedom. Furthermore, it holds up repression as a great enemy, and examines how people can be repressed by love, duty, circumstances, lack of education, and even by the natural world.

Questions About Freedom and Confinement

  1. Does his appreciation natural beauty provide Ethan with a sense of freedom, even though he seems to be permanently trapped in Starkfield?
  2. What is the number one thing that has Ethan trapped?
  3. In what ways does isolation contribute to the extreme sense of confinement experienced by the characters? What are some ways in which the characters are isolated? In the end, are Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie equally isolated?
  4. Is silence shown as oppressive in the novel?
  5. Is Starkfield repressed? If so, how? Socially? Economically? Morally?
  6. Does the novella define freedom? If so, how?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

At the end of the novella, though Ethan is stuck in a small space with Mattie and Zeena, he is isolated from them. His desire for human companionship has been turned against him.

Ethan's desire to escape Starkfield is repressed by his overdeveloped sense of responsibility for the happiness of others.

The beautiful description of nature in the novella creates hope for an ultimate freedom for the characters in Ethan Frome, though maybe only in death.

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