From the very beginning of Ethan Frome we know that Starkfield (the novella's fictional Massachusetts town) is the land of broken dreams, lost hopes, and empty plans. As the tragic story unfolds, we are gripped with the feeling that it didn't have to happen this way. Ethan Frome could have had the life he dreamed of, a life of education, love, and polite company. Unfortunately, everything from the weather, to the people around him, to Ethan's lack of drive keeps him from realizing his dreams. In the end, some of Ethan's wishes do come true, but only in a dark and twisted form. The novel's author, Edith Wharton, is hard on this character, perhaps in an attempt to remind us that in her book, you follow your dreams, or else.
Ethan doesn't get anything he wants because he is afraid to take risks.
Ethan's love for Mattie is so deep that he would rather be with her as they are at the end of the novel, than not at all. As such, Ethan at least got something that he wanted.
The characters in Ethan Frome are particularly marked by the physical transformations they undergo. These physical changes give us hints of depths of the inner transformations taking place. Through the course of the story, we learn how title character Ethan Frome transformed from a healthy young man with dreams and aspirations into a man with severe spinal injury, a suspicious "red gash" on his forehead (Prologue.4), and no hope for a happy future. Ethan's wife Zeena also makes transformations, going back and forth between being sick and healthy all the time. We also see American society in a moment of major transformation, moving rapidly toward modernity. Starkville, Ethan's fictional town, is set just outside this movement. In fact, technology and modernization are not only kept just out of Ethan's reach, but also contribute to his dire transformation.
Even though Ethan suffers an awful physical transformation and has his dreams crushed, his basic kindness remains intact.
Set around the late 1890s to early 1900s, Ethan Frome's fictional Starkfield, Massachusetts has been as good as forgotten by the spinning word of planes, trains, and automobiles. In fact, the extension of rail service to towns near Starkfield, but not to Starkfield, locks the town in a backward spiral towards deeper and deeper poverty. This has horrific effects on the Frome farm and sawmill, as well as on Ethan and his family. The sudden increase in isolation even drives his mother insane, which eventually leads to Ethan marrying for the wrong reasons. Expressing industrial anxieties of the age, the characters in this grim novella are injured by and isolated from progress. Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie remain cruelly trapped just outside of history, unable to move forward.
Ethan Frome shows that while new technology and modernization allows some communities to move ahead, it forces other to move backwards.
Ethan Frome is a tragic love story. Every romantic moment is fraught with tension and anxiety. Why? Because the characters are stuck in a bitter love triangle from which escape is impossible. Edith Wharton's fresh take on this timeless theme puts love on an unreachable pedestal. It shows how a lack of love can twist and warp human beings almost beyond recognition. In the four days leading up to a suicide pact between Ethan and Mattie Silver, his would-be lover, these two lonely characters get a glimpse of love, friendship, and companionship. And then it all falls apart. Yet, they remain together (with Ethan's wife Zeena) even 24 years later. Do you think any spark of their former love remains?
The most loving thing Ethan could have done was run away with Mattie; by failing to carry out this loving act, he betrays everyone.
By taking care of Mattie after her accident, Zeena shows that she loves her.
Ethan Frome's title character wants education almost as much as he wants love. His fine mind can't reach its potential because he's never been able to concentrate on its development. He sacrificed his education to care for his parents, and ended up stuck on a farm in a backwards town. If Ethan had abandoned his sick parents, he could have gotten that education he desired, but he probably also would have been wracked with guilt. Though more subtly explored than Ethan's lack of education, the lack of education for the novel's women might leave a 21st century reader appalled. Without education, the characters feel they lack options.
Ethan Frome shows how a limited education equals limited options.
The character of Mattie Silver is used to express the problem of education in Edith Wharton's time, particularly where women are concerned.
Ethan Frome is concerned with personal morality and puts forth a number of complicated moral quandaries. For example, should Ethan Frome pursue true love and run away with Mattie, or should he stick it out with his wife Zeena? The characters face numerous conflicts which pit their personal desires against their perceived moral and ethical responsibilities.
Because Ethan loved Mattie and didn't love Zeena, it would have been morally correct for him to run away with Mattie.
In Ethan's moral code, it's more important not to hurt people that it is to find personal happiness.
There is lots of manipulation going on in Ethan Frome. The more desperate the characters become, the more they try to manipulate each other. Often, it's not clear exactly who is manipulating whom, and perhaps even more importantly, what they hope to gain. This is a particularly ugly aspect of the novel, and works with the theme repression. Because the main characters are so repressed in almost every area of their lives, they often fall back on manipulation as a substitute for more direct forms of communication. Zeena, Ethan's wife, is the main embodiment of manipulation, and she uses her health. Her health changes and can be good or bad seemingly depending on her needs at a given moment. But, as Ethan and Mattie Silver fall in love and try to hide it, they also fall into acts of manipulation of both themselves and others.
Because Ethan feels he can't openly ask Mattie how she feels about him, he tries to manipulate her into telling him.
Zeena uses manipulation because she feels powerless to express herself in other ways.
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.
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.