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Ethan Frome | Discussion Questions 31 - 40

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Why is it significant that Mattie is often compared to a bird in Ethan Frome?

Mattie is often compared to a bird in Ethan Frome to connect Mattie with nature (which is why Ethan falls in love with her): "The motions of her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird in the branches." Later Ethan watches Mattie sew and compares her hands to "a pair of birds mak[ing] short perpendicular flights over a nest they were building," suggesting the life of domesticity he craves to build with her. Like Mattie birds are delicate creatures, yet they are also independent. Their ability to fly gives them great freedom. After the accident Ethan hears a "twittering" like a bird and is horrified to discover that Mattie is making the noise, at which point any hope for Mattie's freedom or new life has been crushed.

What role does Zeena's cat play in Ethan Frome?

Zeena's cat is involved in only one scene from the novella: Mattie and Ethan's private dinner. With Zeena visiting a doctor in another town, the cat acts as a stand-in for her spirit, which Ethan admits is an "alien presence, an evil energy" in the house. The "domestic" cat serves as a reminder to Ethan of his marital responsibilities, adding to the stifling environment in which Ethan no longer feels it appropriate to kiss Mattie, as he would have in the "open irresponsible night." The cat stifles Ethan and Mattie's romance first by sitting in the chair between, watching "the table with a drowsy eye." Then the cat leaps onto the table during dinner, shattering Zeena's pickle dish. Finally the cat continues to make Zeena's presence known by leaping out of the rocking chair, knocking it so "the empty chair [sets] up a spectral rocking." As a result Zeena's presence lingers over the dinner and neither Mattie nor Ethan ever feels comfortable.

Why is the gravestone epitaph significant in Ethan Frome?

Ethan is drawn to the gravestone in his family cemetery that bears his name: Ethan Frome and Endurance, his wife. Earlier he had fantasized about being buried alongside Mattie, but as he returns from Hale's and reconsiders the epitaph he thinks about Zeena. It is one of the first times Ethan admits to himself (and the reader) that he made a vow to remain faithful to Zeena for life. Seven years already feels like an eternity, and it will be a struggle to "endure" the rest. Marriage is not necessarily happiness and romance; it also can be enduring emotional pain, silence, and suffering. The length of his marriage was also referenced by Mr. Hale earlier in the chapter, strengthening the parallels between marriage and social expectation.

In what ways is the color red an important part of Mattie's characterization in Ethan Frome?

Mattie is given very little physical description. The reader only knows that she is young and beautiful, with dark hair and heavy lashes. The most detail is given to her accessories: the "cherry-colored fascinator" or "scarf" she wraps around her head and the "streak of crimson ribbon" she runs through her hair. The color red reinforces the themes of love, passion, and temptation—all important elements in Ethan's illicit love for Mattie. The color red is also symbolic of life, as it is the color of blood. Mattie is often described as having red cheeks ("her cheeks burned redder") and red lips ("[her face] was part of the sun's red and of the pure glitter on the snow"), reminding the reader that she is full of life, while pale, "bloodless" Zeena is near death.

What is significant about the closing lines of Ethan Frome?

The closing lines, "if she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived; and the way they are now, I don't see's there's much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and Fromes down in the graveyard; 'cept that down there they're all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues" is an interesting way to end the novella. First the words were spoken by Mrs. Ned Hale. It is significant that an "outsider" closes the story because it supports the "hearsay" quality of the gossipy "vision" of Ethan's story. Ruth says that Mattie whispered something to her when she awoke after the accident, but she won't repeat it now. Instead, she says Mattie would be better off dead because then she would have to "hold her tongue." This suggests that Mattie's words placed blame or admitted something terrible (blaming Ethan for the crash, admitting their romance, or something equally devastating). Her words also create situational irony when the outcome is different from what is expected: for his whole life Ethan has avoided silence. He wanted a house filled with noise. Now he has it but the noise is constant complaining, and it's enough to go on ruining his life.

How does Wharton employ foreshadowing in Chapters 1 and 2 of Ethan Frome?

The first two chapters of Ethan Frome are filled with foreshadowing. The most obvious is the reference to the dangerous sledding hill and how Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale were almost killed sledding down it at night: "[They] came just as near running into the big elm at the bottom. We were all sure they were killed." The opening chapters also hint at Zeena's suspicions about Mattie. After catching Ethan mopping the floor early one morning, she "turned away silently, with one of her queer looks." Later she knowingly comments on how Ethan shaves every morning since Mattie moved in. Ethan also hints that Zeena can lash out: "she was given to abrupt explosions of speech after long intervals of secretive silence."

What is the significance of Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale's relationship in Ethan Frome?

The romance between Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale serves as a foil or contrast to Ethan and Mattie's relationship. Ruth and Ned are allowed to openly show their affection, kiss, and plan a wedding. They are the same age as Ethan and Mattie—Ruth is even one of Mattie's best friends—but their relationships are polar opposites. Mattie and Ethan must hide their affection, even from each other. When Mattie kisses Ethan in the same spot where he witnessed Ruth and Ned kissing, her actions suggest that she wants a traditional relationship like her friends. Ruth and Ned's relationship also helps create foreshadowing for the final sledding run. At the opening of the novella Ethan and Mattie discuss how the young lovers were almost killed in a sledding accident, and that their deaths would have been particularly tragic because "They're so happy!"

How does Zeena show her envy of Mattie in Ethan Frome?

Zeena shows her envy of Mattie primarily through manipulation. She is not one to confront anyone directly but to passive aggressively punish people until their behaviors change. The reader first sees this when Zeena "forgets" to put the key under the mat in Chapter 2, leaving Mattie and Ethan to shiver in the cold. The whole time she's waiting in the warmer kitchen, watching them with suspicious eyes. Zeena also shows her envy by attempting to wield manipulative power over Ethan, usually by citing her various illnesses and pains. When he returns home from the dance, for example, she orders him upstairs because she has shooting pains. She is intentionally cruel, criticizing the few things Mattie actually does well (like cooking) to feel superior: "That pie of yours always sets a mite heavy, Matt."

Does Ethan really believe he can be with Mattie in Ethan Frome?

Ethan's love for Mattie, and his dreams of domestic bliss, are nothing more than a fantasy. Ethan is content to "play house" with Mattie while Zeena is away, but he never takes real steps to start a romantic affair with her. He dreams of growing old alongside Mattie, but from the beginning of the novella his associations with eternity are always tied to death. As they walk through the cemetery on their way home from the dance, Ethan thinks, "We'll always go on living here together, and some day she'll lie there beside me." The connection to death continues with the sledding suicide attempt.

What is significant about Mattie's description of the clouds in Ethan Frome?

As Ethan walks Mattie home from the town hall dance in Chapter 1, Mattie exclaims of the cluster of clouds above, "It looks just as if it was painted!" Ethan is so struck by her description that he thinks "the art of definition could go no farther." These lines support the characterization of Mattie as a dreamer, in tune with both Ethan and nature. Ethan's response shows how he idolizes Mattie. In his mind their shared love of nature and beauty make them soul mates—"words had at last been found to utter his secret soul"—more connected than Ethan has ever felt to his wife. Mattie's words also set her apart from other women in the novella, whose words are mostly negative and ugly. Mattie sees the world differently and can appreciate beauty, even in the cold, bleak winter.

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