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In her essay,"Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome and the Question of Meaning," Elizabeth Ammons examines the novella as an inverted fairy tale modeled after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as Wharton employs the use of the number seven, the witch, and the innocent maiden. However, whereas the witch is vanquished in the fairy tales, this narrative mocks that fantasy and transforms the witch instead.
From early descriptions of Mattie, she appears to be the silvery maiden whose arrival into Ethan Frome's desperate existence provides love and hope. Mattie is young, virginal, and she is orphaned. Described in terms of nature and fantasy, her expressive face alters "like a wheat-field under a summer breeze," her voice makes Ethan think of "a rustling covert leading to enchanted glades" with "laughter sparkling through her eyelashes." As she sews, Mattie's hands flutter like birds engaged in building their nests; her luxuriant dark hair curls "like the tendrils on a wildflower" and is "soft yet springy, like certain mosses on warm slopes." Mattie, too, seems strong as she tells Ethan "I ain't afeard."
This silvery maiden from the enchanted forest, however, is not unlike her cousin Zeena; for, she, too, is isolated and without any skills that will serve her in the world. And, so, she like Zeena and Ethan both, becomes fatalistic in her perspective, seeking death rather than moving away to become a prostitute, or a factory worker, or a farmer's wife, isolated from the world. So, while she and Ethan wait for the train to take her away, she seems to Ethan "the embodied instrument of fate" as she asks him to take her down the dangerous slope on the sled.
After their unsuccessful crash that leaves them still alive, Mattie transforms. The narrator describes her,
Her hair was as gray as her companion's, her face as bloodless and shriveled, but amber-tinted, with swarthy shadows sharpening the nose and hollowing her temples. Under her shapeless dress her body kept its limp immobility, and her dark eyes had the bright witchlike stare that disease of the spine sometimes gives.
In this inverted fantasy of Ethan Frome's having found the fair maiden, hoping to rescue her from the harships of life, and live happily, he finds himself now taking care of two women. Ammons states that Zeena as the witch triumphs over the maiden, for the two no longer contrast with one another. Moreover, Mattie is now the more dependent of the two, crippled and defeated in irresolvable misery.
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