Ethan Frome Questions and Answers
by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome book cover
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How does the description of Ethan Frome's house in the novel Ethan Frome symboliza his own condition?

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It is in the prologue of Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome where we find the description of both Ethan and his place of residence. The prologue serves as a wonderful conduit to help us realize the current state of Ethan, both mentally and physically. It is precisely his condition that makes Ethan such a recognizable person in town, and it is his current state that sparks the curiosity of the first narrator, a visitor, who is told about Ethan's story by Harmon Gow.

We find that Ethan's house is described with the same amount of sadness, and instilling a similar amount of misery.

That's my place,” said Frome, [..] a flash of watery sunlight exposed the house on the slope above us in all its plaintive ugliness. The black wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped from the porch, and the thin wooden walls, under their worn coat of paint, seemed to shiver in the wind that had risen with the ceasing of the snow.

This shows that, like Ethan, the house is an eyesore where there are very little strengths, where the winter seems to dominate its thin and weak frame, and from where things tend to "creep out". Similarly, Ethan's bent spine and overall deformity render him vulnerable, weak looking, and defenseless.

Moreover, the house lacks its essential needs. It has no shutters, so its inner misery its constantly exposed to the eye of passers-by. However, the most poignant description tells us that the house that belongs to Ethan Frome has gone from poor, to poorer.

the unusually forlorn and stunted look of the house was partly due to the loss{..} the “L”: that long deep-roofed adjunct usually built at right angles to the main house, and connecting it, by way of storerooms and tool-house, with the wood-shed and cow-barn.

The words "forlorn" and "stunted" certainly speak endless words about Ethan's own condition, for he is a man whose fate becomes stunted by circumstances and, for this reason, his dreams are "forlorn". The loss of the "L" is a way to explain that Ethan has become emasculated just like the home has lost its sense of "purpose", as it can no longer be connected to storerooms: the Fromes have nothing, just like Ethan has nothing to give to the world. The narrator agrees with this latter statement.

Whether because of its symbolic sense, the image it presents of a life linked with the soil, and enclosing in itself the chief sources of warmth and nourishment, or whether merely because of the consolatory thought that it enables the dwellers in that harsh climate to get to their morning's work without facing the weather, it is certain that the “L” rather than the house itself seems to be the centre, the actual hearth-stone, of the New England farm.

Therefore, Ethan's home is a reflection of Ethan: it is poor, needy, lost its sense of purpose, feels forlorn, and has become stunted, much like Ethan's life has become stunted as well. There is no sense of nourishment, for Ethan's life (like his home) is barren, and cold. It also has gone from bad to worse, just like Ethan's house has, as well.

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udonbutterfly | Student

You can tell Ethan is pretty much feed up with the farm to the point where he looks for ways to either further disown it or even brighten up his surroundings. And those ways would be through the presence of both Zeena and Mattie. In the novel whenever Zeena is around the farm becomes bleak, desolate and cold which only makes Ethan think more about hoe dull and incomplete his life is see here in this quote:

Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast, while the other held a lamp. The light, on a level with her chin, drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wrist of the hand that clutched the quilt

Then there is when he's around Mattie and all of sudden life becomes more meaningful and the atmosphere is casted in a sunny cheerful hue. See quote here:

Ethan tried to hide his joy under an air of exaggerated indifference, lounging back in his chair to throw scraps to the cat, growling at the weather, and not so much as offering to help Mattie when she rose to clear away the dishes.