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Even though the narrator of Edith Wharton'sEthan Frome,as well as the main character, are males, the novel could fall under the genre of Feminist literature due to its presentation of women as individuals with particular wants and needs, but without any possibility to fulfill them.
This is an alternative use of first wave feminism, which treats the topic of the inequality among women in the UK, USA, and Canada at the dawn of the 20th century, within a male-dominated society that lacks the resources and services that women need to live a quality life.
Regardless of whether the narrator and the main character are males, it is the female characters of Zeena and Mattie who serve as the agents of change that move forward the events that transition Ethan's life, from chaotic, to nearly catastrophic.
Moreover, the women's influence on Ethan occurs as a result of the women's dissatisfaction with their own lives.
First, there is Ethan' wife, Zeena; here we have a woman who has consumed her entire youth into the service of others, including Ethan's dying mother. It seems as if Zeena has never had any other choice in life, but to serve. Her duty is "rewarded" by Ethan with a mediocre marriage proposal that leaves her equally empty and unhappy. As a result, she manifests her misery in marriage through illnesses that seem to be desperate attempts to be cared for in return. In the end, she again fulfills her caretaker duties by nursing a deformed Mattie, and even Ethan, himself.
Then there is Mattie. Her innocence makes her desperate when she faces the reality that she can never aspire to much in life than to live in a remote place doing nothing to nourish her dreams. Ethan is her caprice, not really her love interest. She longs for the safety of marriage, as well as for the attention of a good man.
"The first time was at Shadow Pond."
“Was that why you gave me my coffee before the others?”
“I don't know. Did I? I was dreadfully put out when you wouldn't go to the picnic with me; and then, when I saw you coming down the road, I thought maybe you'd gone home that way o’ purpose; and that made me glad.”
When she proposes the suicide pact that will, instead, render her and Ethan disabled, she is not thinking of anything but escaping her reality as a woman, not really about spending eternity with Ethan. Why should a young, vibrant woman limit herself in such a way? Hence, she basically seals the deal in making Ethan's life miserable. After all, she ends up stuck in his house, depending on Zeena's care, and whining non-stop, to the narrator's shock.
Therefore, the influence of the female characters on Ethan reflects their own inability to live lives that would have made them productive, and happy. In the end, they all lose. Society has failed them all.
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