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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In what ways do Ethan's actions show he no longer loves Zeena in Ethan Frome?

Zeena is described with entirely negative characteristics throughout the novel, but these descriptions are filtered through the narrator's visions, not Ethan's direct thoughts. Therefore the best way to analyze his feelings for Zeena are through his actions, and he clearly despises her. He refuses to follow her upstairs in Chapter 2 because he doesn't want Mattie to see them together. Once in the bedroom he "blew out the light so that he should not see her when he took his place at her side." He is eager for her to leave town so he can have a night alone with Mattie, and he eagerly invites Mattie to take Zeena's seat at both the table and by the fire. When Zeena returns home from the doctor Ethan believes she is lying about her condition, and when she announces Mattie's imminent departure, "such a flame of hate rose in him that it ran down his arm and clenched his fist against her."

Why is it significant Ethan's home is missing the "L" in Ethan Frome?

When Ethan brings the narrator back to his house during the snowstorm, Ethan states that the house was "bigger in my father's time: I had to take down the 'L,' a while back." The New England farmhouse ell was an L-shaped design plan where buildings were connected to provide shelter during winter chores. When considering the bleak, depressing life Ethan leads, life and love have also been missing from the house for many years. Now the house feels lonely. Structurally it is also isolated, as it no longer has the "L" for support. The removal of the "L" goes against the traditional style of New England farmhouses at that time, much like Ethan's lust for Mattie goes against the traditional "home life." Equally Ethan's home is no longer connected to his barn, cut off from its vital functions, turning it into a kind of prison for those barely living there, which symbolizes how the Fromes' struggle to make their living on the farm. Without the "L" the house is as isolated and rundown as Ethan's spirit.

In what ways does the farmhouse reflect the themes of oppression and silence in Ethan Frome?

When the narrator first sees Ethan's house, he is struck by the "plaintive ugliness" of it. It is solitary and alone, with an "idle wheel" and rundown sheds "sagging under their white load." The description of these buildings mirrors the narrator's initial impression of Ethan, who is always alone in town, limping to and from the shops to his cart. The lonely landscape is broken up by shriveled crops and black, withered shrubs that coil around the doorstep, symbolizing a creeping death sucking all life and happiness from the home. Indeed, when the narrator enters the home at the end of the novella, he sees how the environment has sucked all the vitality from Mattie Silver, who now lives miserably, just like Zeena.

In what ways does the expression "Be careful what you wish for" apply to Ethan in Ethan Frome?

After Ethan walks Mattie home from the dance and realizes that Denis Eady poses a romantic threat to him, he passes the gravestones of his dead ancestors and wishes he could escape their fate. Ethan longs to run away with Mattie but is unsure how, so he prays to his dead ancestors, asking them to "conspire with him to keep [Mattie]." He wishes that they will "go on living here together, and some day she'll lie [in the graveyard] beside me." At the end of the novella Ethan gets his wish, but not in the way he dreamed. When Mattie is paralyzed during their botched suicide attempt, Zeena takes them in and cares for them. Twenty-four years later they are still "living together," albeit in misery. Because Mattie has no other family or friends, when she dies she will be buried in the Frome family cemetery alongside Ethan and Zeena.

In Ethan Frome how does loneliness affect Ethan's character?

The loneliness of farm life is not something anyone in the novella has escaped, much less a crippled man. Ethan claimed to be madly in love with Mattie, yet he knew very little about her. He loved an idealized version of her, a version that spared him the desperate loneliness he felt in Starkfield, particularly in winter. During the winter months Ethan is especially isolated and needy. Mattie's presence in the house offered the communication and laughter he so desperately craved, much in the same way Zeena's presence offered these things after Ethan's mother's death. Ethan shows no signs of maturing as a character, even in the moments before he is crippled—literally and figuratively. Ethan's life will not improve until he learns to cope with the loneliness of a New England winter, yet he is incapable of this transformation.

In what ways is Ethan Frome a tragedy?

A tragedy is a story dealing with events that have an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character, or a story in which the main character's desires are thwarted. As Harmon Gow says in the novel's prologue, "Sickness and trouble: that's what Ethan's had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping." At the opening of the novella Ethan is depressed. He is isolated, lonely, poor, and miserable in his marriage. He has one ray of sunshine however: his relationship with Mattie Silver. Mattie's presence in Ethan's life, particularly her conversation and laughter, bring Ethan more joy than he has ever experienced. Through a series of unfortunate events, however, Ethan and Mattie must be separated. Even their single night of romance is shattered by the broken pickle dish. Their suicide attempt is botched, and by the end of the novella Ethan's life is even worse than it was at the beginning. The villain (Zeena) is in a position of power while the sympathetic characters (Ethan and Mattie) are left to suffer.

In Ethan Frome which aspect of marriage to Zeena does Ethan find most insufferable?

Zeena has a multitude of negative qualities—she is unattractive, obsessed with her health, judgmental, and self-centered—but the one aspect of his marriage Ethan finds most difficult to cope with is Zeena's silence. Silence has been something that bothered Ethan ever since his once-talkative mother fell ill: "Sometimes, in the long winter evenings, when in desperation her son asked her why she didn't 'say something,' she would lift a finger and answer: 'Because I'm listening.'" It isn't just conversation that Ethan misses; Zeena often wants to talk about her ill health or hiring servants, but Ethan isn't interested. He misses sharing experiences with someone, so when Mattie arrives he delights in the way his words can elicit laughter or a smile: "Ethan had the sense of having done something arch and ingenious. To prolong the effect he groped for a dazzling phrase." If Zeena were more interested in Ethan's desires, he likely wouldn't have felt such a strong connection with Mattie.

In Ethan Frome for what reasons does Ethan marry Zeena?

When Zeena first arrived at the Frome farm, she was young and full of energy, much like Mattie Silver. She seemed to know everything about running a house, which amazed and shamed Ethan: "Her efficiency shamed and dazzled him. She seemed to possess by instinct all the household wisdom that his long apprenticeship had not instilled in him." With enviable efficiency she cared for the house, Ethan, and his sickly mother, which alleviated the guilt and stress in Ethan's life. When his mother died and Zeena was to move away, he felt required to marry her as thanks. Even Zeena says, "My folks all told me at the time you couldn't do no less than marry me after [your mother died]." It's unlikely Ethan ever loved Zeena but was propelled into a bad decision.

In Ethan Frome what is Ethan's fatal flaw or weakness?

Ethan's fatal flaw or weakness, or the trait that leads to his downfall, may be his indecision, which combines with the naturalistic forces around him to spell doom. He doubts himself, his abilities, and his right to happiness. When decision time comes he is overwhelmed by self-doubt, guilt, and social expectations, resulting in weak actions and hastily made (often poor) decisions. The reader first sees this when he agrees to marry Zeena, a hasty decision so he won't have to be alone during another Starkfield winter. His difficulties with decision making are seen again when he bounces back and forth between eloping with Mattie and staying with Zeena on the farm. Finally Ethan makes the hasty decision to commit suicide with Mattie because it seems easier, less messy than running away. In the final moments before the sled hits the tree however, he is once again conflicted and he "made an instinctive movement to brush [his doubt] aside. The sled swerved in response," crippling Mattie and him.

In what ways is Naturalism evident in Ethan Frome?

Naturalism is the literary movement in which characters' fates are influenced by strong forces in their lives. In Ethan's case his fate is predetermined by his poverty, caring for his sickly wife, and the relentless New England winters. These forces make it impossible for Ethan to rise above or change his fate: he is so limited, emotionally and financially, that he is always doomed to unhappiness. As soon as Ethan returned to Starkfield from his optimistic stint in college, the winter isolation addled his mood and he became depressed. His depression led him to marry Zeena, which led him to meet Mattie, which led him to attempt suicide, which led to his disfigurement. While Ethan would have been offered a glimmer of hope had he eloped with Mattie, his extreme poverty makes "running away" impossible.

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