Is Wharton's portrayal of passion in such a sparse and uninviting atmosphere effective in Ethan Frome?

Wharton's portrayal of passion in Ethan Frome is only amplified by the bleak atmosphere throughout the story. The free-flowing, complicated emotions of the characters are a sharp contrast to the rigid, stark setting of the town and therefore become the central focus.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It is precisely because the atmosphere of the aptly-named Starkfield, and of the Fromes' house in particular, is so frigid and unpromising that Ethan's feelings for Mattie stand out in sharp relief. Wharton achieves this effect by investing small matters with great significance. Ethan Frome is the most cautious and diffident of lovers. He thinks long and hard before so much as touching Mattie's hand, though he knows quite well that "most young men made nothing at all of giving a pretty girl a kiss." Ethan's guilt at even the possibility of betraying Zeena, and the depth of his despair at the prospect of losing Mattie, would be far less intense in a more confident character or in a less rigid setting.

The episode of the broken pickle-dish is a fine example of the way in which Wharton creates high drama from the most apparently trivial events. When the dish is accidentally smashed by the cat, Ethan attempts to treat the matter with bravado, saying that only the cat is to blame. Mattie, however, treats the incident as a disaster and bursts into tears. This pitiful reaction calls forth courage and resolution from Ethan. The characters run the whole gamut of tragedy and heroism over a thoroughly mundane occurrence, making the broken pickle-dish a symbol of the Fromes' broken marriage, as well as the focus of strong emotions for Ethan, Mattie and Zeena.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team