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While others are present, there are two strong patterns in Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome: The passage from and to the Frome homestead and the pattern of illness that Ethan's mother begins, Zeena continues, and, finally, Mattie assumes.
Interestingly, the narrator, who is an engineer, hires Ethan Frome to transport him to Corbury Junction where he is sent to troubleshoot. One day this narrator leaves one of his biochemistry books on the seat of the wagon and Frome skims through it. However, Frome tells the narrator, "There are things in that book that I didn't know the first word about," indicating his lost opportunities for his own hope of becoming an engineer when he stopped his own studies because of his mother's illness, an illness severe enough to keep Ethan in Starkfield as a caregiver.
Zeena Pierce, an older cousin, comes to help care for Mrs. Frome. When his mother dies, Ethan is so lonely in the winter that he impulsively asks Zeena to marry him. Somehow, then, she becomes ill and is the second invalid for whom Ethan must care. When Mattie Silver, a relative of Zeena's, comes to care for Zeena, the pattern of caretakers is repeated. Then, after the failed attempt at dual suicide, it is, ironically, Zeena who returns to the role of caretaker and Mattie who then becomes the invalid.
Just as there is a circular futility to the role of caretaker, so, too, is there an unending circle of futile trips to Starkfield and other locations that terminate in the despairing return to the Frome home. For instance, Ethan ventures out into the world to study engineering, but must return home as caregiver; he drives the narrator to Corbury Junction, but returns home; on several occasions he transports Mattie, but when he considers leaving Zeena, he realizes that he cannot afford to do so, and even when he and Mattie try to escape through death, they are returned home. Never does there seem to be any passage out of Starkfield and the Frome homestead.
Ethan Frome is what is called a frame story, which means it is a story within a story. This setup automatically creates a pattern between the narrator and Ethan Frome, and it shows in their personalities. One of the main themes or underlying motif is the freezing cold barren land that is in the town in which they live. In Frome's life, the cold represents a hopelessness that keeps him frozen in his home town, doomed never to leave. The narrator understands this, and, it is possible that his life would end up the same way.
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