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There are a few different themes that can be seen in Ethan Frome. One of them is the contrast of personal fulfillment as compared to duty to family and society. This is made clear through the characters of Zeena and Mattie. Ethan comes to feel hatred for Zeena, which is coupled with his sense of duty. For Mattie, on the other hand, he feels love and a frustrated feeling of not being free. He does not make any moves to change his situation, saying that he is “the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute.” In addition to sacrificing his chance at love, Ethan is also sacrificing what he wants in terms of education and career for the needs of others. He leaves his classes to care for his parents and then stays to care for Zeena. Throughout the novel we see that Ethan is unhappy partially because he never finds the strength to choose either self or duty, and so everything becomes contaminated.
Another theme is that of frustration. In addition to the frustration of Ethan over self vs. duty, there is also the frustration of Zeena. She is not happy in the marriage either. She feels that talking solves nothing, and so she stops trying and remains frustrated.
There is also the theme of weather, winter in particular. Winter is contrasted with the “deadness of the community.” Ethan is compared to his shed rood that sags under the snow. The winter is even compared to Ethan’s “young manhood.” There are comparisons or frozenness and isolation of the winter and the life and vitality of Ethan, as well as his marriage with Zeena. On the other hand, Mattie is compared to images or spring. For example, “…the coming to his house of a bit of hopeful young life was like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth.”
Illness and disability are also dealt with in the novel in some detail. Ethan was defeated over and over because of the having to take care of his father, mother, and wife. The illness of others and his sense of duty is the end of Ethan and his hopes for happiness and fulfillment.
One of the most important themes that I have seen constantly in the book would responsibility versus desire. It is more prevalent in Ethan Forme, he does so much only to stay in his rotting town. Ethan has given up on his future to take care of his mother and Zenobia. Ethan even fails to give up on his desire to run away with Mattie because he feels that Zenobia would have no one to look after her and take care of the farm.
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