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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How does Mattie's past affect her situation in Ethan Frome?

Mattie's background shows how destitute and desperate she is when she arrives at the Frome farm. Mattie was raised rich by parents who ran a "thriving 'drug' business." Unfortunately Mattie's father was a con man who inflated his wealth and was actually bankrupt. Mattie's mother died soon after her father, and with no family to take her in and no inheritance to survive on her own Mattie was forced to move in with Ethan and Zeena on their rundown farm. She knows she has nowhere else to go, so having Ethan around to protect her gives her an added security. For this reason Mattie's motivations in flirting with Ethan are unreliable. The novella never makes clear whether Mattie truly loves Ethan or if she's perhaps manipulating him out of desperation.

What are Zeena's feelings toward Ethan in Ethan Frome?

Zeena's feelings toward Ethan are difficult to understand because she is portrayed as such a negative, stifling force in his life. She doesn't support his desire to move to a big city after they are married, saying, "she would have suffered a complete loss of identity" in a bigger city than Starkfield. She rarely speaks to him except to complain, and she seems to find glee in dismissing Mattie from their lives. Her reaction to the pickle dish is telling, however. When she finds the broken dish, which obviously represents her marriage, she begins to cry, lamenting that Mattie has "took from me the one I cared for most of all." Although she is speaking directly about the dish, emotionally she is talking about her marriage. After the accident though, Zeena shows sympathy in caring for Ethan and Mattie for the rest of their lives, suggesting that her character (and emotions) is far more complicated than the sickly figure initially presented by the narrator.

What role do the townsfolk play in Ethan Frome?

Although their role is very small in Ethan Frome, the townsfolk play an important role in helping characterize Ethan. Most notably the narrator garners all his information about Ethan by gossiping with Harmon Gow and Mrs. Ned Hale. Their anecdotes help piece together the "vision" of events related in the novella. As Ethan interacts with the townsfolk his behaviors give deeper insight into his motivations. Although he is angry and desperate while searching for glue in town, Ethan is respectful, patient, and kind, even with his sworn enemy, Denis Eady: "I'm obliged to you, but I'll try if I can get it [elsewhere]." This suggests his strict adherence to social expectations. Later in life when Ethan comes to town, people leave him alone, which further isolates him in his community. He isn't well respected or understood, as seen in the way people gossip about his painful past and share his stories.

What does Ethan's behavior outside the dance suggest about his character in Ethan Frome?

Ethan acts very strangely toward Mattie outside the town hall dance. First he refuses to enter the dance but loiters around the outside of the building, watching her through the window, judging the dancers' behaviors. His violent anger toward Denis Eady and his chastisement of Mattie's perceived flirtations with Eady show Ethan's impulsive side—in his mind he threatens to horse whip Eady for touching Mattie even though he has no claim over her. Emotionally Ethan is all over the place. He feels swelling joy and crippling depression within a matter of moments: "her indifference was the more chilling after the flush of joy into which she had plunged him." Even though Ethan knows Mattie is expecting him, he refuses to announce his presence, testing to see whether she'll accept a ride home from Eady. It is only after she "passes his test" that Ethan greets her. This suggests a more manipulative or possessive side to Ethan. Notably he is more willing to manipulate Mattie, whom he claims to love, than he is to manipulate the Hales at the end of the novella.

How does money affect the plot in Ethan Frome?

Ethan's life is notably marked by his lack of money. In the prologue Harmon Gow tells the narrator to hire Ethan to chauffeur him around town because he "wouldn't be sorry to earn a dollar." His financial troubles started when his disturbed father "gave away money like Bible texts afore he died," leaving Ethan to inherit a rundown mill and little money to keep it running. The Frome farm has poor soil and the milling industry is nearly extinct, so Ethan struggles to make ends meet, especially when considering his wife's expensive medical needs. Ethan's poverty further isolates and depresses him. The lack of money affects Ethan directly when he realizes he's too poor to elope with Mattie if it means leaving the farm to Zeena: "A moment ago he had wondered what he and Mattie were to live on when they reached the West; now he saw that he had not even the money to take her there." Poverty certainly heightens Ethan's desperation because without money, he has no means of escape.

In Ethan Frome how does Zeena remain a presence in the house even when she's out of town?

Both Mattie and Ethan know their romance is illicit and that it would devastate Zeena. Thus her name carries a sense of guilt and foreboding. Yet there isn't much else for the young lovers to talk about, so her name regularly comes up in conversation: "The name threw a chill between them." When the pickle dish is shattered the night is nearly ruined as both are overwhelmed by guilt and fear of how Zeena will react. Later when Mattie sits by the fire Ethan looks over and sees Zeena's face superimposed on Mattie's, as if Zeena's spirit forces Ethan to acknowledge her presence in the home. When Mattie leaves the chair it keeps rocking, as if Zeena's spirit remains: "as a result of the sudden movement the empty chair had set up a spectral rocking."

Why does Zeena care for Ethan and Mattie at the end of Ethan Frome?

Zeena's motivation for caring for Ethan and Mattie after their "smash up" is never fully explained in the novella, but it's possible to create a strong theory based on her past behaviors. Zeena has always been a caregiver obsessed with health. First she cared for Ethan's mother, then herself, then Ethan and Mattie. As a nurse to Ethan's mother, Zeena found her life's calling validated by Ethan's approval of her "sick-bed duties" and "household wisdom." When Ethan is no longer enamored by Zeena she seeks other ways of catching, and keeping, his attention. She finds that being ill garners a lot of sympathy and attention. Before long she is known as a martyr to her sickness. When Ethan and Mattie are injured it provides Zeena the opportunity of returning to her caregiving dominant role while maintaining her sympathetic role in the community.

How does Zeena's character transform over the course of Ethan Frome?

At the beginning of the novella Zeena is angry and suspicious, yet she remains meek. She punishes Ethan and Mattie in small ways, like "forgetting" to leave the key under the mat after the walk home from the dance even though "both of them knew it was not like Zeena to forget." However meek, Zeena is manipulative. She creates a situation to "test" Ethan and Mattie's relationship by visiting a doctor in another town, leaving Ethan and Mattie alone. When she returns and finds the broken pickle dish, she is validated for all her suspicions and immediately kicks Mattie out. Ethan looks at her in anger and realizes, "She was no longer the listless creature who had lived at his side in a state of sullen self-absorption, but ... an evil energy secreted from the long years of silent brooding." Zeena's character transforms once again after the accident. She makes a surprising recovery and spends the rest of her life caring for Ethan and Mattie.

In Ethan Frome how is Ethan's story symptomatic of its setting?

Ethan Frome is set in late 1800s New England, around the time of the Second Industrial Revolution. During this time cities were exploding as many left their small towns to pursue factory work, education, and big city life. Ethan feels like he's the only one who "never got away." Ethan asks Zeena to move to a big city with him, but she cites her various illnesses as her reason to stay behind. This is interesting because Zeena likely would have had better medical care in a big city (and perhaps making it more likely a doctor would see through her exaggerations). The New England setting is of utmost importance to the story's themes and events. Ethan's story needed to be told in a place that experienced long, isolating, freezing winters. It was also important to tell the story in a time when social and moral expectations were at their peak, fueling Ethan's indecisions.

In Ethan Frome what is symbolic about Ethan's injuries?

After the "smash up" Ethan is left with two significant injuries: he has a "red gash" across his forehead and one side of his body is lame, leaving him to drag himself across town, "checking each step like the jerk of a chain." He is injured after attempting suicide with Mattie, the woman with whom he had an illicit romance. It is significant that the scar on his face is red, a color that symbolizes passion in the novella, because it is an outward mark of his sin. His lameness is a physical manifestation of the way Ethan has been handicapped in his life and the "jerk of a chain" symbolizes the control other people and forces have over him and the weight he feels in his responsibility to Zeena and Mattie.

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