Ethan Frome Themes
by Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ethan Frome takes place in Starkfield, a village in the Berkshires. The name of the village appropriately suggests the bleak, barren atmosphere of this novella. The three main characters find themselves controlled by the constraints of poverty, Puritanism, and the harsh physical realities of rural New England. In Ethan Frome the season always seems to be winter.

Passion and repression are the main themes of Ethan Frome. The three main characters are passionate beings, their unexpressed feelings sharply contrasting with the austerity of their surroundings and the severity of their manners. In this atmosphere, the most unassuming remark is charged with significance and emotion.

Another important theme concerns the youthful desire for escape and freedom, and the adult acceptance of responsibility and care. As a young man, Ethan Frome had hoped to free himself from the burdens of a family property that could barely support him and his wife, but by the age of twenty-eight he finds himself saddled with a hypochondriacal wife, a mortgage, and an unprofitable business. When he dreams of running away with Mattie Silver, he recognizes that he lacks even the means to purchase the two railway tickets. Nor will he leave his sickly wife with an estate that can not provide a living for her. Like many other Wharton characters, he finds himself trapped in circumstances from which he sees no escape.


(Novels for Students)

The theme of frustration is central to Ethan Frome. Sometimes the frustration is a product of the oppressive environment, and sometimes it stems from their personalities. Ethan's early plans to become an engineer are frustrated by the need to care for his father and mother as well as for the farm. He had always wanted to "live in towns, where there were lectures and big libraries and 'fellows doing things.'" His marriage to Zeena is a study in frustration, not only because of her hypochondria and the fact that they are childless, but because their interests are so different. "Other possibilities had been in him, possibilities sacrificed, one by one, to Zeena's narrow-mindedness and ignorance. And what good had come of it?"

Mattie, in turn, is limited by her poverty and lack of skills. Even Zeena is frustrated. As the narrator of the story tells it, "She had let her husband see from the first that life on an isolated farm was not what she had expected when she married." But though Zeena is contemptuous of Starkfield, she would never have been able to live in a new town that looked down on her, and as a result the couple never moves. The theme of frustration is reinforced by the inarticulateness of all of the characters in Ethan Frome. None of these people are very good at expressing themselves. In fact, Wharton referred to the characters in the novel as her "granite outcroppings." Walking Mattie back to the farm, deliriously happy in her company, Ethan gropes for a "dazzling phrase" to impress her with, but can only growl "Come along." Frustration is evident also in Ethan and Mattie's longing for each other. Their physical contact is passionate but mostly limited to furtive handholding. When Ethan surprises Ned Hale and Ruth Varmus kissing under the Varnum spruces, he feels "a pang at the thought that these two need not hide their happiness."

Individual Responsibility
Related to the theme of frustration is that of individual responsibility, insofar as it is Ethan's sense of duty that chains him to his circumstances. Critic Blake Nevius defined the "great question posed by Ethan Frome" as "What is the extent of one's moral obligation to those individuals who, legally or within the framework of manners, conventions, taboos, apparently have the strictest claim on one's loyalty?" Responsibility interrupts Ethan's studies and brings him home to the farm to care for his parents, and self-sacrifice characterizes his marriage to Zeena, whose "one pleasure ... was to inflict...

(The entire section is 997 words.)