What is the archetypal setting in Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton?

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The literal definition of the word “archetype” is “prime example” or the “original form” of something.  When applied to literature, an archetypal character, an archetypal symbol, or setting, is meant to represent a universal idea that is going to be expanded centrally in the plot.

Swiss psychiatrist, and the founder of the school of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, was the first to apply this terminology to literature. His premise was that there are “universal patterns” of representation that apply to people, places, and things. These universal patterns consistently repeat from plot to plot in literature, and audiences are also consistently attracted and connected to these archetypes.

For example, the image of “the hero,” the most important of all archetypes, conjures almost universally similar images across cultures and generations despite of their differences. The image of another archetype, “the anti-hero,” causes the same universal effects for its type.

As stated, there are also archetypes for settings. These are key places that elicit specific imagery and emotions in the readers. Archetypal settings range from the peaceful and plentiful “garden”-type setting, to the barren and desolate wasteland.

In the case of this particular novel, the town of Starkfield reunites all the descriptors that befit the archetypal setting known as “The Wasteland.”

The opposite of “The Garden,” an archetype that elicits Paradise, “The Wasteland” is a place of loneliness and desolation. In this setting, there is also despair, sadness, desperation, isolation, and remoteness.

Notice how Ethan’s life, which is already limited and filled with dead dreams, disillusion, and silence, is made worse by the environment that surrounds him.  Starkfield is described as “barren,”primarily, and “cold.” The winter seems to never stop, and drives people to make decisions out of desperation.  One of these decisions happened when Ethan asked Zeena to marry him for fear of living alone in the farm under those circumstances.  This even led Ethan, later on in life, to wonder if things had been different had his mother died in the spring, and not during winter.  

Some of the most common archetypes for setting also include:

“The Underworld:” Like in The Odyssey  and “The Wilderness (forest):” Central setting in The Scarlet Letter

Other archetypal settings follow the traits of the original (below), but may be differentiated to fit the plot. Regardless of their exact similarity to the original, they keep the premise of what the setting is meant to represent: a) The Crossroads, b) The Labyrinth, c) The Castle or, d) The Tower are some additional examples.

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