The narrative and moral ambiguity in Ethan Frome
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2027
First published in 1911, Ethan Frome is now considered a classic of twentieth-century American literature. A tale of lost opportunity, failed romance and disappointed dreams ending with a botched suicide attempt that leaves two people crippled and dooms another to a life of servitude, Ethan Frome immerses its readers in a world of unrelenting pain and misery. To some, the suffering endured by Wharton's characters is excessive and unjustified; to others, the novel addresses difficult moral questions and provides insightful commentary on the American economic and cultural realities that produced and allowed such suffering. Others still look to the novel for clues about the author's own life. However, no explanation is completely satisfying because regardless of the meaning one chooses to find in the novel, this meaning, like the vision put together by the narrator, will inevitably be shrouded in mystery and ambiguity.
Much of the discussion about Ethan Frome involves the frame story with which the novel begins. Although the framing narrative and the story embedded within it are told by the same unnamed narrator, the reliability of the latter is made problematic by the various and varying sources used to construct it. Also, by introducing his story as a "vision," the narrator makes very clear the fact that what we are about to read is not a factual record of the occurrences leading up to Ethan's accident, but his own impressions of what those occurrences may have been. As several critics have pointed out, the only "facts" of Ethan's story are to be found in the narrative frame; the information contained within the frame cannot be considered reliable because, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff explains, it "bears the imprint of the narrator's own interpretation." His vision is a "hypothesis," one vision among many possible others. Wolff argues that Wharton's novel is not about Ethan Frome, but about the narrator and his reaction to the story he tells. Pointing to the "disconcerting similarities" between Ethan and the narrator, she suggests that the narrator's vision depicts his own "shadow self, the man he might become if the reassuring appurtenances of busy, active, professional, adult mobility were taken from him."
Jean Franz Blackall offers another possibility. Blackall agrees that the narrator's knowledge is based on inference but believes there is evidence in the text to support his story. He finds this evidence in the final pages of the novel, arguing that Mrs. Hale, who was with Mattie on the morning after the accident, corroborates the narrator's intuitive discovery. According to Blackall, the ellipses representing Mrs. Hale's unfinished report of what Mattie told her signifies that she knows about the love affair between Mattie and Ethan and their subsequent suicide attempt. However, it is important to remember that Mrs. Hale never actually tells the narrator what it is she heard Mattie say; a sense of shared secret knowledge between her and the narrator is suggested but never confirmed.
Complicating the debate over the novel's narrative structure even further is Orlene Murad who, believing that a biographical tie exists between Edith Wharton and Ethan Frome, argues that it is the author herself who narrates the "vision." Murad believes there is nothing in the narrator's character that would make him capable of so lyrically articulating Ethan's thoughts and actions. Instead, she believes that Wharton abandons the "engineer-narrator" of the first part of the novel and "continues her story as its omniscient narrator." Murad even suggests that Wharton "becomes" Ethan Frome, explaining that the author can so well enter into Ethan's point of view because she is experiencing Ethan's dilemma herself. By creating a character "who painfully takes on the burdensome care of those for whom he is responsible," Murad claims that Wharton "has fashioned a scapegoat" and has pushed onto Ethan the grueling life that her own marital circumstances might easily have pushed onto her.
Despite the biographical similarities between the author and her fictional character, readers and critics continue to seek additional justification for the interminable suffering depicted in the novel. Biography may provide insight into the inspiration for the characters and their particular dilemmas, but it cannot reveal all of a text's meaning. Consequently, the novel's conclusion leads many readers to ask: Do Ethan, Mattie and Zeena deserve their horrible fate? For many, the answer to this question is no. Lionel Trilling, for example, argues that Wharton is unable to lay claim to any justification for the suffering her characters experience. Moreover, he contends that in Ethan Frome, Wharton presents "no moral issue at all." He thinks the ending "terrible to contemplate," but says that "the mind can do nothing with it, can only endure it."
Other readers find much to do with Wharton's ending. Marlene Springer believes that Ethan Frome explores the possibility that life can offer equally strong conflicting choices. Among the moral choices she identifies are: "perceived duty versus genuine love; personal happiness for two versus righteous loneliness and penury for one; and the pressure of social structures versus the particularly American desire to 'light out for the territory.'" Springer also contends that Ethan Frome offers a "stark realization of what life can be like if you accept circumstances with resignation—refusing ... to look at the variety of moral options to its dilemmas." Read in this fashion, the narrator's vision becomes a cautionary tale about the dangers of inaction and moral paralysis.
Recalling that Wharton was careful to label Ethan Frome a "tale" instead of a "novel," Elizabeth Ammons searches for meaning by comparing the work to the archetypes of fairy tales. What she finds is a "modern fairy story" that is "as moral as the classic fairy tale" and which functions as "realistic social criticism." Specifically, she believes that a network of imagery in the novel "calls up the fairy tale Snow White", the frozen landscape, Mattie's physical appearance, her role as housekeeper, and her persecution by witchlike Zeena all have "obvious parallels in the traditional fairy tale about a little girl whose jealous step-mother tries to keep her from maturing into a healthy, marriageable young woman." The difference is that in Wharton's "inverted fairy tale," it is the witch who wins. This victory is then amplified by the failed suicide attempt that transforms Mattie into "a mirror image of Zeena." According to Ammons, in Wharton's modern fairy story, witches not only win, they multiply.
Whereas Trilling and other critics have found Ethan Frome to be without moral content, Ammons argues that Wharton's moral "emerges cold and grim as her Starkfield setting." She explains this moral as follows: "as long as women are kept isolated and dependent. Mattie Silvers will become Zeena Fromes: frigid crippled wrecks of human beings...." To her, the fact that Wharton cripples Mattie but does not let her die reflects not the author's cruelty, but the culture's. Without a family or skills she can utilize in the workplace, Ammons believes that Mattie's fate is unalterable—she will live in poverty, will become prematurely old, and her dreams will be shattered no matter what she does. The sledding accident merely accelerates the process, sparing Mattie the "gradual disintegration into queerness that Ethan has witnessed in Zeena and his mother."
Ammons' reading of the novel suggests that witches are made, not born. In Zeena's case, the transition appears to have begun soon after her marriage to Ethan. Like her beloved but never-used pickle dish, Zeena's life was also put on a shelf the day she was married. The lack of communication between husband and wife, the absence of intimacy, and the isolation of life on a farm in a rural community make Zeena's a very lonely existence. To her husband, preoccupied by dreams of Mattie, Zeena has "faded into an insubstantial shade." Blake Nevius draws attention to the scene in which Zeena, face streaming with tears, confronts Ethan and Mattie with the shattered remains of her pickle dish. In this scene, Nevius argues, "we get a terrible glimpse of the starved emotional life that has made her what she is." We also get a glimpse, a vision, of the life Mattie would have known had she replaced Zeena as Ethan's wife.
What makes Ethan's and Mattie's fate so frustrating for so many readers are the many wasted opportunities to invent for themselves a new one. Over and over, Ethan is stormed by feelings of rebellion, words of resistance rise to his lips, instincts of self-defense intensify, but each time, the feelings wane, the words remain unspoken, and the instincts fade away. Ethan's decision not to ask Andrew Hale for the money that would give him and Mattie the opportunity to begin a new life together is particularly troubling. Nevius views this scene as the turning point of the novel. Ethan has been and continues to be "hemmed in by circumstances," but here, it is his own "sense of responsibility that blocks the last avenue of escape and condemns him to a life of sterile expiation." Why does Ethan choose not to ask Hale for the money? The answer to this question might have more to do with Ethan's reluctance to actualize his dreams and visions than it does with a sudden attack of conscience.
Throughout the novel, Ethan continually shifts his attention from his immediate surroundings to another moment, another space existing in his imagination. We are told, early in the novel, that it is when abandoning himself to these dreams that Ethan is most happy. At various times before the accident, Ethan imagines that he and Mattie will one day in the future lie side by side in the Frome graveyard, that they have and will continue to enjoy a long-standing intimacy and, just moments before their impending separation, that he is "a free man, wooing the girl he meant to marry." He even imagines the means through which he might once again become a free man. A cucumber vine dangling from his porch "like the crape streamer tied to the door for a death" leads him to imagine that it is Zeena who has died. The news that she is "a great deal sicker" than he thinks has a similar effect, causing him to wonder if at last her words are true.
Cynthia Griffin Wolff argues that Ethan retreats "from life into a 'vision'" because, to him, the "uncompromised richness of the dream is more alluring than the harsher limitations of actual, realized satisfactions." And indeed, to Ethan, nothing can compete with his own visions of what life with Mattie would be like. On the morning after his evening alone with Mattie, he is glad that he "had done nothing to trouble the sweetness of the picture" he had created in his mind. Consequently, when circumstances force upon him a situation in which he must act and make a decision, he is unable to do so, leaving to Mattie the final decision to sled down the hill into the big elm. According to Wolff, Ethan is "like a man who has become addicted to some strong narcotic, [savouring] emotional indolence as if it were a sensual experience."
Perhaps the most difficult moment for readers to understand is Ethan's lack of reaction when he discovers that Mattie has long shared his feelings and desires. The news gives Ethan a "fierce thrill of joy" but does not incite action. Mattie's love represents the renewal of opportunity, a second chance to become one of "the smart ones [who] get away." But because of the novel's structure, we know that Ethan does not get away. We know there will be a "smash-up," that Ethan will suffer crippling injuries, and that he will spend "too many winters" in Starkfield. Perhaps it is this predictability which reveals the novel's ultimate meaning. Perhaps Wharton reveals Ethan's fate early in the novel so her readers may share the sense of helpless resignation that her characters feel with respect to their miserable fates. Then again, Ethan's unrealized visions of a new life with Mattie—themselves the visions of a man who reminds Ethan of the life he could have had—may be the true source of the novel's tragedy.
Source: Jeffrey M. Lilburn, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999
"Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome and the Question of Meaning"
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2149
In her Introduction Wharton is careful to label her piece a "tale" as distinct from a "novel." The haunting fiction draws on archetypes of the fairy tale—the witch, the silvery maiden, the honest woodcutter—and brings them to life in the landscape and social structure of rural New England.... Ethan Frome is as moral as the classic fairy tale, and as rich. First it works as a modern fairy story, a deliberately inverted one, second it functions as realistic social criticism; third, by virtue of its narrative frame, it dramatizes a particular, and deeply rooted, male fear of woman....
As in most fairy stories, plot in Wharton's tale is simple. After seven miserable years married to sickly Zeena, a woman seven years his senior, Ethan Frome (who is twenty-eight) falls in love with twenty-one-year-old Mattie Silver. She is the daughter of Zeena's cousin and works as the childless couple's live-in "girl." When Zeena banishes Mattie because she knows that Ethan and the girl have fallen in love, the young lovers resolve to kill themselves by sledding down a treacherous incline into an ancient elm. The suicide attempt fails, leaving Ethan lame and Mattie a helpless invalid. The narrator reconstructs this story when he visits Starkfield twenty-four years after the event, Ethan is fifty-two and the three principals have been living together for almost two and a half decades, Zeena taking care of Mattie and Ethan supporting them both.
The numbers that accumulate in Wharton's story suggest natural cycles: fifty-two (the weeks of the year); twenty-four (the hours of the day and a multiple of the months of the year); seven (the days of the week) which echoes in the multiples twenty-one, twenty-eight, thirty-five; three (among other things, morning, afternoon, night). This numerical pattern, though subtly established, is carefully worked out; and its implication of generation and natural order ironically underlines Wharton's awful donnee. Expressed figuratively: in the frozen unyielding world of Ethan Frome, there is no generative natural order; there is no mother earth. There is only her nightmare reverse image, the witch, figured in Zeena Frome.
Specifically, a network of imagery and event in Ethan Frome calls up the fairy tale Snow White. The frozen landscape, the emphasis on sevens, the physical appearance of Mattie Silver (black hair, red cheeks, white skin), her persecution by witch-like Zeena (an older woman who takes the girl in when her mother dies and thus serves as a stepmother to her), Mattie's role as housekeeper: all have obvious parallels in the traditional fairy tale about a little girl whose jealous step-mother tries to keep her from maturing into a healthy, marriageable young woman. Although Wharton is not imitating this well-known fairy tale—rather, she draws on familiar elements of Snow White as touchstones for a new, original fairy tale—still, the implicit contrast between Zeena's victory in Ethan Frome and the step-mother's defeat in Snow White subtly contributes to the terror of Wharton's story. Customarily fairy tales reassure by teaching that witches lose in the end. Children and heroines ("Snow Whites") do not remain the victims of ogres. Someone saves them. Here is part of the horror of Ethan Frome: Wharton's modern fairy tale for adults, while true to traditional models in the way it teaches a moral about "real" life at the same time that it addresses elemental fears (e.g., the fear of death, the fear of being abandoned), does not conform to the genre's typical denouement. The lovers do not live happily ever after. The witch wins.
Zeena's face alone would type her as a witch. Sallow-complexioned and old at thirty-five, her bloodless countenance is composed of high protruding cheekbones, lashless lids over piercing eyes, thin colorless hair, and a mesh of minute vertical lines between her gaunt nose and granite chin. Black calico, with a brown shawl in winter, makes up her ordinary daytime wear, and her muffled body is as fleshless as her face....
In contrast, Mattie Silver seems a fairy maiden, a princess of nature in Ethan's eyes. Her expressive face changes "like a wheat-field under a summer breeze," and her voice reminds him of "a rustling covert leading to enchanted glades." When she sews, her hands flutter like birds building a nest; when she cries, her eyelashes feel like butterflies. Especially intoxicating is her luxuriant dark hair, which curls like the tendrils on a wild-flower and is "soft yet springy, like certain mosses on warm slopes."...
Hurting young people and depriving them of hope and joy is the fairy-tale witch's job, and Zeena does not shirk the task. She constantly finds fault with Maltie, and for seven years she has tortured her youthful husband with whining complaints about her various ailments....
The horror of the story is that the suicide attempt transforms Mattie into a mirror-image of Zeena....
The end of Ethan Frome images Zeena Frome and Mattie Silver not as two individual and entirely opposite female figures but as two virtually indistinguishable examples of one type of woman: in fairy-tale terms, the witch; in social mythology, the shrew. Mattie, in effect, has become Zeena. Shocking as that replicate image may at first seem, it has been prepared for throughout the story. Mattie and Zeena are related by blood. They live in the same house and wait on the same man, and they came to that man's house for the same purpose: to take the place of an infirm old woman (Zeena takes over for Ethan's mother, Mattie for his wife). The two women, viewed symbolically, do not contrast with each other....
As a fairy story, Ethan Frome terrifies because it is inverted. Incredibly, the witch triumphs. Mattie Silver becomes Zeena's double rather than Ethan's complement.
Wharton's moral, her social criticism, emerges logically from this fairy tale. Ethan Frome maintains that witches are real. There are women whose occupation in life consists of making other people unhappy. Ethan Frome includes three. Ethan's mother, housebound and isolated for years on a failing farm, lived out her life an insane, wizened creature peering out her window for passersby who never came and listening for voices that only she could hear. Her frightening silence oppressed Ethan until Zeena joined the household to care for her. But then Zeena too fell silent.... Zeena's hypochondria, her frigidity, her taciturnity broken only by querulous nagging, her drab appearance—these make her an unsympathetic character. They also make her a typically "queer" woman of the region, a twisted human being produced by poverty and isolation and deadening routine....
In reality, Mattie had no future to lose. Ethan asks for assurance that she does not want to leave the farm, and "he had to stoop his head to catch her stifled whisper: 'Where'd I go, if I did?'" There is nowhere for her to go. She has no immediate family and no saleable skills;... Ethan thinks of Mattie "setting out alone to renew the weary quest for work.... What chance had she, inexperienced and untrained, among the million breadseekers of the cities? There came back to him miserable tales he had heard at Worcester, and the faces of girls whose lives had begun as hopefully as Mattie's ... " (final ellipsis Wharton's). Mattie's prospects are grim. She can work in a factory and lose her health; she can become a prostitute and lose her dignity as well; she can marry a farmer and lose her mind. Or she can be crashed in a sledding accident and lose all three at once. It makes no difference. Poverty, premature old age, and shattered dreams comprise her inevitable reward no matter what she does. The fact that Wharton cripples Mattie, but does not let her die, reflects not the author's but the culture's cruelty.... Mattie Silver has been prepared for no economically independent life. The system is designed to keep her a parasite.
Ethan himself is only slightly less trapped.... "He was a prisoner for life." The prison, Edith Wharton makes clear by setting the story at the simplest and therefore most obvious level of society, was the American economic system itself, which laid on most men a killing load of work and responsibility and on most women barely enough variety and adult human contact to keep one's spirit alive ... At least Ethan meets fellow workers when he carts his timber to sale or goes in to town for supplies and mail. Farmers' womenfolk normally went nowhere and did nothing but repeat identical tasks in unvaried monotony. To make that isolation of women stark and to emphasize the sterility of life at the level of Ethan Frome, Wharton gives the couple no children; and the woman's name she chooses for bold-faced inscription on the only tombstone described in the Frome family-plot is also instructive: "ENDURANCE." If Ethan's life is hard, and it is, woman's is harder yet; and it is sad but not surprising that isolated, housebound women make man feel the full burden of their misery. He is their only connection with the outer world, the vast economic and social system that consigns them to solitary, monotonous domestic lives from which their only escape is madness or death.
Ethan Frome departs from traditional fairy tales by showing that life does not contain happy endings. Good girls do not grow up into happy wives, and good-hearted, worthy lovers do not ride off into the western sun with the maiden of their dreams. For, in Wharton's fairy tale, witches do not get vanquished and disappear. They multiply. First there is Ethan's mother, then Zeena, then Mattie; and they represent only three of the many women gone "queer" in this wintry American landscape. Wharton's moral emerges cold and grim as her Starkfield setting. Ethan Frome mocks the fantasy that witches will disappear and romance with a woods-nymph will liberate man into a miraculous world of masterful love and erotic fulfillment. As long as women are kept isolated and dependent, Ethan Frome implies, Mattie Silvers will become Zeena Fromes: frigid crippled wrecks of human beings whose pleasure in life derives from depriving others of theirs....
The narrator exists to unlock the deepest, the psycho/sexual, level of Ethan Frome. Empathically, he projects himself into young Ethan's situation and sees in it the realization of a specific male fear: the fear that Woman will turn into Witch. The fear that Mother will turn into Witch (love into hate, day into night, life into death) everyone has known.... Precisely this inversion occurs in Ethan Frome, and because the terror is man's it makes emotional and intellectual sense to have a man, and one temperamentally close to Ethan, visualize the sinister fairy tale in which man, in this case Ethan, can be caught.
Women's nightmare shift from a positive to a negative force in man's life is the theme of Ethan Frome. In part Wharton treats fear of maternal rejection. First Ethan's mother abandons his needs and then Zeena, his mother's replacement, does the same. But airy Mattie Silver is not a mother-figure and her transformation moves the pattern beyond fear of maternal betrayal to fear of female betrayal in general. Male fear of woman and perpetuation of the social system that makes that fear well-founded—Mattie Silvers do turn into Zeena Fromes—are the combined focus of Ethan Frome. The tale looks at man's romantic dream of feminine solace and transport and, with a hideous twist, allows Ethan's fantasy to materialize. Mattie Silver does become "his" but with, rather than without, Zeena; and the two witchlike women hold him prisioner for life in the severely limited economy and social landscape which traps all three of them....
Ethan Frome—as a fairy tale, as social criticism, as fictive psychohistory—expresses a coherent moral. In her French draft Edith Wharton explicitly states that Mattie "exemplified all the dull anguish of the long line of women who, for two hundred years, had been buffeted by life and who had eaten out their hearts in the constricted and gloomy existence of the American countryside." In the finished version of Ethan Frome Wharton is more subtle but no less clear. Witchlike Zenobia Frome, a terrifying and repulsive figure archetypally, is in social terms not at all mysterious. It is a commonplace of scholarship about the persecution of witches that many of them were ordinary women bent and twisted by the conditions of their lives as women, their isolation and powerlessness. Stated simply, Zeena Frome is the witch that conservative New England will make of unskilled young Mattie; and Wharton's inverted fairy tale about the multiplication of witches in Ethan's life, a story appropriately told by a horrified young man whose job is to build the future, finally serves as a lesson from the past. Witches do exist, Wharton's tale says, and the culture creates them.
Source: Elizabeth Ammons, "Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome and the Question of Meaning," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 7, No 2, 1979, pp. 127-40
"Imagery and Symbolism in Ethan Frome"
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3154
A common criticism of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome is that it is too contrived. In the last analysis, the characters seem peculiarly unmotivated, put through their paces in a clever, but mechanical, way. Such an opinion can only be the result of a cursory reading. It is true that the book has a kind of stylistic and organizational brilliance. But it is not merely a display; it is invariably at the service of plot and character. The nature of her subject imposed certain difficulties on Wharton, particularly her characters' lack of articulation. How could she, without over-narrating, get at a deep problem involving such characters when they do not speak enough to reveal that problem? Frome's character and his marital relationship are at the heart of the novel, but they are revealed only indirectly. Wharton solved her difficulty in a masterful way by her use of imagery and symbolism. It is in her use of imagery and symbolism that the depths of the story are to be found. Without an understanding of them, a reader would find the characters unmotivated and the tragedy contrived. For easy discussion, the imagery and symbolism may be divided into three parts: the compatibility of setting and character, the uses of light and dark, and the sexual symbolism. A survey of these three parts in the novel will, it is hoped, clarify the real story in Ethan Frome by adding a new dimension of meaning.
The beginning of this new dimension of meaning is the first mention of the New England village—Starkfield. On many levels the locus of the story is a stark field. The village lies under "a sky of iron," points of the dipper over it hang "like icicles," and Orion flashes "cold fires." The countryside is "gray and lonely." Each farmhouse is "mute and cold as a grave-stone." This characterization of Starkfield is consistent throughout the book. Frome, in all ways, fits into this setting. On several occasions his integration with it is described. The narrator, upon first seeing him, sees him as "bleak and unapproachable." Later he says of Frome, "He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him bound fast below the surface ... he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access." Frome, unhappily married to Zeena, and pining for her cousin Mattie, is indeed parallel to the Starkfield setting. Everything on the surface is hard and frozen. His feeling, his love, for Mattie cannot break loose, just as spring and summer are fast bound by winter's cold...." Finally there is Frome's inarticulateness. Not only are his feelings locked, frozen; his very speech is also, beyond the natural reticence of the local people. Neither he nor the landscape can express its warm and tender part. "Again he struggled for the all expressive word, and again, his arm in hers, found only a deep 'Come along.'" He is truly a man of "dumb melancholy."
The separation of feeling from its expression, the idea of emotion being locked away, separated, or frozen, just as Starkfield is bound by ice and snow, is demonstrated also by the Frome farm. The house seems to "shiver in the wind," has a "broken down gate," and has an "unusually forlorn and stunted look." More important, though, is the "L.pond"... Frome casually mentions to the narrator that he had had to take down the "L." Thus Frome's home is disjointed, separated from its vital functions, even as he is... Just as Frome is emotionally trapped, just as Starkfield is frozen in the winter landscape, just as Frome's home is cut off from its vitals, so too is he cut off physically from his former strength, trapped in his crippled frame. Images of being caught, bound, trapped are frequent. "He was a prisoner for life." "It seemed to Ethan that his heart was bound with cords which an unseen hand was tightening with every tick of the clock." Thus the setting of the novel, the landscape and the farm, is parallel to Frome's condition and serves to illuminate it. But Wharton does not stop at this point.
There is hardly a page throughout the book that does not have some reference to light and dark. Wharton uses all of them with effect. The supreme light image is Mattie Silver, as her name implies. She is in contrast to everything in Starkfield; her feelings bubble near the surface. Frome, on the other hand, is all dark. He lives in the dark, especially emotionally. At the beginning of the novel, when he has come to meet Mattie, she is dancing gaily in a church filled with "broad bands of yellow light." Frome keeps "out of the range of the revealing rays from within." "Hugging the shadow," he stands in the "frosty darkness" and looks in. Later he catches up to her "in the black shade of the Varnum spruces," the spot from where they finally begin the attempted suicide that cripples them. He stands with her in "the gloom of the spruces," where it is "so dark ... he could barely see the shape of her head," or walks with her "in silence through the blackness of the hemlock-shaded lane." Blackness is his element. As they walk back to the farm he revels in their closeness. "It was during their night walks back to the farm that he felt most intensely the sweetness of this communion." Their love is a bloom of night. "He would have liked to stand there with her all night in the blackness." He does not see Mattie so much as sense her: "... he felt in the darkness, that her face was lifted quickly to his." "They strained their eyes to each other through the icy darkness." Frome's favorite spot is a secluded place in the woods called Shadow Pond. On their last visit there "the darkness descended with them, dropping down like a black veil from the heavy hemlock boughs." Frome cannot seem to get out of the dark. And often, as in quotations above, the dark is pregnant with suggestions of death and cold. Frome's kitchen, on their return from the village, has "the deadly chill of a vault after the dry cold of night." As Ethan settles in his tomblike house, Mattie's effect on him dies away. He lies in bed and watches the light from her candle, which
sending its small ray across the landing, drew a scarcely perceptible line of light under his door. He kept his eyes fixed on the light till it vanished Then the room grew perfectly black, and not a sound was audible but Zeena's asthmatic breathing.
Without Mattie's "light" he is left with the ugly reality of his wife. In numerous small ways also Wharton makes the light and dark images work for her. When Mattie relieves Ethan's jealousy at one point, "The blackness lifted and light flooded Ethan's brain." When Mattie is told by Zeena she must go, and she repeats the words to Ethan, "The words went on sounding between them as though a torch of warning flew from hand to hand through a dark landscape." Before their suicide plunge, "The spruces swatched them in blackness and silence." A bitter argument between Ethan and Zeena is "as senseless and savage as a physical fight between two enemies in the darkness." After, Zeena's face "stood grimly out against the uncurtained pane, which had turned from grey to black." The cumulative effect of all these images is to tell us a great deal about Frome and his tortured psyche.
The most important thing the images of light and dark reveal about Frome is that he is a negative person. Frome is a heroic figure: nothing less than the entire landscape can suffice to describe him effectively; his agony is as broad and deep as that of the winter scene. But he is not tragic because he is a man of great potential subdued and trapped by forces beyond his capacity. His tragedy is entirely of his own making. He is weak. His character never changes. Both before and after the accident he is the same. Like his environment he has a kind of dumb endurance for harsh conditions. There are several indications of his weakness besides his identity with darkness. Frome married Zeena because she had nursed his mother through her final illness. He was twenty-one and she twenty-eight. He married her less because he loved her than because he needed a replacement for his mother. Certainly it is Zeena who cracks the whip in the household, and Ethan who jumps. What Zeena says, goes. Frome "had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter ..." When he and Mattie are about to attempt suicide, Mattie sitting in front of Ethan on the sled, he asks her to change places with him. She asks why. Quite sincerely he answers, "Because I want to feel you holding me." He wants to die being cuddled and comforted, leaving to Mattie the role of protector and shelterer.
Throughout the book, Frome recognizes his futility and accepts it rather than trying to fight his way out of it. He does not ever realistically reach for a solution. His love inspires little more than dreams. He thinks of another man who left his wife for another woman and invests the event with fairy tale qualities: "They had a little girl with fair curls, who wore a gold locket and was dressed like a princess." Once he imagines Zeena might be dead: "What if tramps had been there—what if..." When he spends his one night alone with Mattie, instead of thinking of a way to achieve permanence for their relationship he "set his imagination adrift on the fiction that they had always spent their evenings thus and would always go on doing so..." Ironically, this is just about what he achieves by crippling instead of killing himself and Mattie. He did not, however, envision that Zeena would be a necessary part of the arrangement, as a nurse to Mattie.
The negation, the blackness, in his character is revealed also in his funereal satisfactions. When Mattie says she is not thinking of leaving because she has no place to go, "The answer sent a pang through him but the tone suffused him with joy." He rejoices in her helplessness; he is pained and thrilled at the same time because she has nowhere to go, because she too is trapped... Frome's aspirations do not finally go beyond darkness. His final acceptance of suicide is the culmination of his negative instincts: death is the blackest blackness.
Although the meaningful use of light and dark is pervasive in the book and is illuminating, it is the sexual symbolism that cuts deepest. The sexual symbolism is more dramatic than the two elements already discussed because it revolves around the key scenes in the book, Ethan and Mattie's night together and Zeena's return. It is also more significant because without an understanding of it the source of Zeena and Ethan's estrangement and antagonism remains unknown. After all, what is the deep gulf that lies between them? There is no explicit revelation in the book. In part, Wharton's use of symbolism to clarify the book's central problem is compatible with the inarticulateness of the characters. But perhaps also it represents a reticence or modesty of the author's. Ethan and Mattie's night together is ostensibly a mild affair. Wharton might well have revealed then the true relationship between Frome and his wife and demonstrated overtly Mattie and Ethan's transgression. But was it really necessary for her to do so? Even as it is, the evening progresses with the greatest of intensity. Every action, every word, even every silence quivers. It is because these apparently innocent actions and words exist in such intensity that they must be scrutinized. There are disproportions of feeling, particularly centering around the pickle dish, that are revealing. A proper understanding of the events of that evening sheds light throughout the book, and particularly makes the light and dark imagery more meaningful.
Barrenness, infertility, is at the heart of Frome's frozen woe. Not only is his farm crippled, and finally his body too; his sexuality is crippled also. Zeena, already hypochondriac when he married her, has had the effect of burying his manhood as deeply as everything else in him. In seven years of marriage there have been no children. Within a year of their marriage, Zeena developed her "sickliness." Medicine, sickness, and death are, in fact, rarely out of sight in the book. The farm itself, with its separation of its vital center, its regenerative center, suggests of course the sexual repression. The name Starkfield also connotes barrenness. However, Ethan and Zeena's sexual relationship is suggested most by the incident of the pickle dish, a dish which, unless understood, lies rather unaccountably at the very center of the book.
The red pickle dish is Zeena's most prized possession. She received it as a wedding gift. But she never uses it. Instead she keeps it on a shelf, hidden away. She takes it down only during spring cleaning, "and then I always lifted it with my own hands, so's 't shouldn't get broke." The dish has only ceremonial, not functional, use. The sexual connotations here are obvious. The fact that the wedding dish, which was meant to contain pickles, in fact never does, explains a lot of the heaviness of atmosphere, the chill, the frigidity. The most intense scenes of the book, the most revealing, center around this dish. For example, Zeena never does discover an affair in the making between Ethan and Mattie, nor does she ever say anything, except for one hint not followed up, that reveals such knowledge. Her only discovery (and it is the discovery of the book) is of her broken (and used) pickle dish. It is this which brings the only tears to her eyes in the entire book. When Zeena is gone for a day, Mattie, significantly, brings down and uses the pickle dish in serving Ethan supper. Only if the dish is properly understood can it be seen how her violation is a sacrilege, as Zeena's emotions amply testify. The dish is broken, and Ethan plans to glue it together. Of course the dish can never be the same. This kind of violation is irrevocable. Zeena does not discover that the dish is broken until she gets, again significantly, heartburn, the powders for which she keeps on the same private shelf as the pickle dish. The scene following is a symbolic recognition of the fact that Mattie has usurped her place, broken her marriage, and become one with Ethan, though in fact it was the cat (Zeena) who actually broke the dish. The fact that Zeena never truly filled her place however ceremonially, and she resents what has happened.... The evening that Mattie and Ethan spend together, then, is not as innocent as it seems on the surface. That Mattie and Ethan's infidelity is so indirectly presented, whether because of Wharton's sense of propriety or her desire to maintain a minimum of direct statement, does not at all lessen the reality of that fact. If the overt act of infidelity is not present, the emotional and symbolic act is. The passage is full of passion; the moment, for example, when Frome kisses the piece of material Mattie is holding has climatic intensity.
The sterility of their marriage, Frome's emasculation, is represented elsewhere For example, just before Zeena leaves for the overnight trip to a doctor, she finishes a bottle of medicine and pushes it to Mattie: "It ain't done me a speck of good, but I guess I might as well use it up .. If you can get the taste out it'll do for pickles." This is the only other mention of pickles in the book. Significantly, it is the last word in the chapter before the one devoted to Ethan and Mattie's night together. The action might be interpreted as follows: after Zeena has exhausted the possibilities of her medicine for her "trouble," she turns to sex—but she passes on that alternative to Mattie. Mattie may use the jar for pickles if she wishes. The action is a foreshadowing of Mattie's use of the pickle dish. In a sense, Zeena has urged her to that act, for she is abdicating the position of sexual initiative.
Again, in Ethan Frome each word counts. But there are some descriptions, obviously very particular, that do not fit in with any generalizations already presented. However, in the light of an understanding of the pickle dish incident, they are clarified. When Frome first points out his home, the narrator notes "the black wraith of a deciduous creeper" flapping on the porch. Deciduous means shedding leaves, or antlers, or horns, or teeth, at a particular season or stage of growth. Frome has indeed shed his manhood. Sexually he is in his winter season. Later, another vegetation is described on the porch: "A dead cucumber vine dangled from the porch like the crape streamer tied to the door for a death..." A cucumber is no more than a pickle. The pickle dish is not used; the cucumber vine is dead. That it should be connected with crape (black) and death is perfectly logical in the light of what has already been discussed about Frome. Frome's sexuality is dead. There is, of course, in all this the suggestion that Frome could revive if he could but reach spring, escape the winter of his soul. Mattie is his new season... Mattie, as Zeena never does, makes Ethan feel the springs of his masculinity. But he never overcomes the ice of accumulated Starkfield winters. His final solution is to merge himself with winter forever.
Thus Ethan Frome, when he plunges towards what he considers certain death, is a failure but not a mystery. His behavior is not unmotivated; the tragedy is not contrived. The very heart of the novel is Frome's weakness of character, his negation of life. Behind that is his true, unfulfilled, relationship with Zeena. Wharton's economy of language in the novel is superb. There is hardly a word unnecessary to the total effect. Her final economy is the very brevity of the book. It fits the scene and character. There were depths to plumb; her people were not simple. To overcome the deficiencies of their natural reticence (and perhaps her own), to retain the strength of the severe and rugged setting, particularly the "outcropping granite," she resorted to a brilliant pattern of interlocking imagery and symbolism, three facets of which have been outlined here, to create a memorable work.
Source: Kenneth Bernard, "Imagery and Symbolism in Ethan Frome," in College English, Vol. 23, No 1, October, 1961, pp. 178-84