Editor's Choice

In Ethan Frome, what three uncontrollable facts keep Ethan a prisoner for life?

Quick answer:

In Ethan Frome, it is the "smart ones" who get away. Ethan stays. He cares for his aging parents and his dependent wife. At the end of the novel, he has been a prisoner of Starkfield for so long that he has become frozen and lifeless, like one who is dead and in hell.

Expert Answers

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

In Edith Wharton's novella Ethan Frome, the first suggestion that readers have of Ethan's figurative imprisonment is in the following description of his appearance:

it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain.

Though Ethan is a figure whose movement is checked by the restraint of lameness, his "careless powerful look" suggests, if not an inward freedom that transcends his confinement, then at least a powerful will that refuses to surrender to it.

Wharton employs an unpredictable narrator to give descriptions of Ethan that seem to conflict with one another. For example, the narrator notes that "he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man," and even exclaims "He looks as if he was dead and in hell now!” The notion that Ethan is imprisoned by stiffness and impending mortality runs counter to the earlier impression of his "careless powerful look." Indeed, Ethan seems ridden with care and to be lacking in power. It is, in fact, Ethan's cares (which include not only his personal concerns but his moral and emotional commitments to those for whom he cares) that confine him to the prison that is Starkfield. Note the portrait of Ethan in the following exchange as one who failed to escape the town in all of its starkness and emptiness:

"Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away.”

“Why didn't he?”

“Somebody had to stay and care for the folks. There warn't ever anybody but Ethan. Fust his father—then his mother—then his wife.”

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The first thing that came to mind were personality traits that Ethan has, but if he really wanted to, he could probably control those aspects of himself, or subvert them to stronger desires.  For example, he is kind to a fault, soft-spoken, submissive and passive.  Those are all personality traits that leave him a prisoner of his circumstances; because of those traits, he lets other people take the reigns of his life without a fight, passively submits to their treatment, never speaking a harsh word or exerting his own will.

However, fact that he cannot control reside outside of himself.  For example, his parents getting ill and needing care in combination with his poverty--that dictated he come home from his studies and take care of them himself.  That was something out of his control, and set up the chain reaction of events that led to his misery later on.  Secondly, his wife is a whining, petulant and manipulative woman who thrives best when she is needed or when she is being cared for herself.  He can't change that; that is who she is, and her nature dicates the state of their miserable marriage and existence when the main storyline is told.  Another fact is his crippled condition after the sled crash; he can't change that condition, and it is his weakened frame that keeps him at the farm, in combination with accepting the consequences of that hasty decision to take that ride with Mattie.

So, his parent's illness, Zeena's nature, and the consequences of his sled ride with Mattie--these are all facts that he cannot control, that determine his current reality when the narrator of the story comes onto the scene. I hope that those thoughts helped; good luck!

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial