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Ethan Frome | Study Guide

Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What insight do Mattie's and Ethan's responses to the broken pickle dish give about their characters in Ethan Frome?

When the dish gets broken Ethan's immediate response is to ignore it—to push away the problem so it doesn't spoil their romantic evening. He laughs and jokes about what Zeena might say and hides the dish to be dealt with later: "It seemed to him as if the shattered fragments of their evening lay there." By hiding the broken pieces Ethan avoids consequences, deciding to "deal with it" later. Mattie by contrast is devastated and wants to clean up the mess immediately. When Zeena confronts her about the dish later, Mattie is quick to admit that "I got it down from the china-closet, and I'm the one to blame for its getting broken" while Ethan is content to place all the blame on the cat. While Ethan avoids conflict and consequence, Mattie is willing to face her decisions—both good and bad—head on.

In Ethan Frome how does Ethan's confrontation with Zeena in Chapter 7 act as a turning point for his character?

For most of the novella Ethan is content to avoid confrontation with Zeena, perhaps because he pities her in her illness, or perhaps because their communication is so broken down he doesn't think open communication would be possible. When Zeena announces Mattie's dismissal, however, Ethan confronts her directly, accusing her of shirking social responsibility to her family: "You may forget she's your kin but everybody else'll remember it." It is also the moment when Ethan's apathy toward Zeena becomes hatred: "Now she had mastered him and he abhorred her." While he doesn't stand up to Zeena by insisting that Mattie stay, he flatly refuses to allow Jotham Powell to drive Mattie to the train station, despite Zeena's complaints: "I'm going to drive her over myself." He sides fully with Mattie now, even if he is too bound and limited to follow through with his plans.

In Ethan Frome in what ways do Ethan's comments about his vision create verbal irony?

Verbal irony occurs when a speaker says one thing but means another. Ethan's brag about his sharp vision on the coasting hill doesn't become ironic until after the crash. He claims he knows the hill so well he could safely get them down while blindfolded—"I could go down this coast with my eyes tied!" Additionally Mattie praises Ethan's vision when remembering how he found her missing locket the previous summer: "I never saw anybody with such sharp eyes!" Despite his "great vision" Ethan doesn't have foresight. He can't actualize his visualizations of what his life might be like if he pursued his desires because they are forbidden to him in his situation.

Which character, Mattie or Ethan, holds the power in their relationship in Ethan Frome?

Ethan Frome has been in some senses emasculated. He is poor, living in a loveless marriage, and trapped by social expectations that force him to stay on an infertile farm in a depressing town despite his engineering aspirations. Zeena commands his mood through her manipulation and illness, and Ethan is lonely. When Mattie arrives, however, Ethan feels drunk on his power over her: "His soul swelled with pride as he saw how his tone subdued her ... Except when he was steering a big log down the mountain to his mill he had never known such a thrilling sense of mastery." His desire to feel powerful through Mattie's demureness is seen again and again. As he walks her home from the dance and makes her laugh, he "had the sense of having done something arch and ingenious." Physically he wraps his arm around her and pulls her along with him. He "growls" for her to "Come along" and she willingly follows. He loves the idea of Mattie clinging to him, as he requests her to do before the final sledding run. Mattie never questions Ethan's actions or motivations, often sitting quietly and staring up at him through downcast lashes. Despite Mattie's powerless appearance, she actually holds great strength over Ethan. Mattie kisses Ethan passionately on the hill, and Mattie concocts the suicide plan.

In what ways do Mattie and Ethan experience a "living death" in Ethan Frome?

Mattie and Ethan don't physically die during their botched suicide attempt, but they die a spiritual death. Physically both are still alive, but they are forced into a "living death" of paralysis and misery. Mrs. Ned Hale's words at the end of the novella compare them to corpses in a graveyard: they live on a dying farm in perpetual winter, forced to be cared for by Zeena, a woman they both hate. Their fate is irreversible and miserable. In a way they would be better off dead because their emotional suffering would come to a quick end. Instead, their pain drags out year after year. The only thing missing from the imprisonment of Ethan's living death is silence, but his ears are filled with something worse: the "querulous drone" of Mattie's incessant whining.

In Ethan Frome what symbolism can be found in Mattie's last name: Silver?

Mattie's last name is Silver, a color and precious metal. As a metal silver reflects light; symbolically Mattie provides "light" or hope for Ethan. Light and dark provide an important motif. Many of the novella's important scenes take place at night or in darkness: the walk home from the dance, the shattering of the pickle dish, the fight with Zeena, and the suicide attempt. In this way darkness represents reality and depression for Ethan. In contrast, Mattie, who represents hope and new life, is often referred to as light: "He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished." The morning after Zeena announces Mattie's departure, Mattie finds Ethan alone in the freezing office. She brings him breakfast while he starts a fire: "When warmth began to radiate from the stove, and the first ray of sunlight lay on the kitchen floor, Ethan's dark thoughts melted in the mellower air." Mattie represents warmth and hope, two symbols that are reflected in her name.

In Ethan Frome in what ways is Mattie trustworthy or untrustworthy?

Mattie's trustworthiness in Ethan Frome is questionable. She comes from a broken, destitute family who cannot support her. After her parents' deaths she has no one to care for her. Should she be tossed on the street, she knows a bleak fate awaits her: "what chance had she, inexperienced and untrained, among the million bread-seekers in those cities?" She knows Ethan has feelings for her and that he will protect her, so it's possible she manipulates those feelings to ensure she can stay in his home. Interestingly after Zeena kicks Mattie out, Ethan finds her in his office. When he asks her what she's doing, she answers with a "wavering smile" that she "was just taking a look round—that's all." While her motivations might have been innocent, a few pages earlier Zeena had called her a "bad girl" and a thief: "I tried to keep my things where you couldn't get at 'em—and now you've took from me the one I cared for most of all." The reader is never given access to Mattie's thoughts, so they are open to interpretation.

What does the elm tree symbolize in Ethan Frome?

The elm tree in Ethan Frome likely symbolizes Mattie and Ethan's sexual relationship as a looming force of nature. The sexual tension between Mattie and Ethan, who never consummate their relationship, is palpable. The elm looms as a towering presence throughout the novella, with both Ethan and Mattie regularly pointing it out and saying that they aren't afraid of it. On the way home from the dance Ethan stops beside the tree and says, "Would you be afraid of it, with me?" To which Mattie responds, "I told you I ain't the kind to be afraid." Mattie and Ethan seem to be daring each other to take their illicit relationship further. The sexual nature of the elm is also hinted at in Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum's relationship. They were "almost killed" by the tree around the same time they were caught kissing in the shadows. The shadowy kiss and "danger" of the tree suggest that sexual romance had normally remained hidden in that atmosphere and time. Finally the elm is a looming presence whenever Ethan and Mattie discuss going "coasting." They talk about the danger of the tree hand in hand with their gleeful dares to sneak out to the coasting hill in the dark. They plan to "go coasting" on the night Zeena is out of town, but the broken pickle dish distracts them from the plan. On Mattie's last night they realize it is their last chance to be alone and Ethan asks Mattie to sit behind him on the sled because, he says, "I want to feel you holding me." Mattie and Ethan don't die on the coasting hill just as they never consummate their relationship, but in a morally oppressive society they have come close enough to scar themselves, physically and emotionally, for life.

How does Wharton use imagery to convey the idea of imprisonment in Chapter 7 of Ethan Frome?

Wharton uses imagery throughout Ethan Frome to convey oppression and imprisonment, but nowhere as concisely as in Chapter 7 when Ethan tells Mattie about Zeena's decision to dismiss her. When she hears the news, Mattie's "lashes beat [Ethan's] cheek like netted butterflies." Ethan kisses her passionately, then feels as if he's "dying of thirst for her lips." Ethan is "seized" by "despair" in the "bleak landscape" as they discuss Mattie's future, hinting at prostitution if she fails at work as the only way she'll be able to survive. Both Mattie and Ethan are overwhelmed by Zeena's decision and feel powerless to stop it. This despair grows until Chapter 8 when Ethan finally admits, "There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life."

What do the geraniums in Ethan Frome symbolize?

The geraniums are another object that represent Mattie in the novella. Ethan planted the geraniums when Mattie moved in so she could have some spring beauty in the harsh winter. Like Mattie the geraniums are bright, sweet (smelling), and beautiful. They are also red, a color that holds strong symbolism for passion, love, and temptation throughout the novella. The geraniums are too delicate to survive the harsh winters, so they must be taken in every evening. In the same way Ethan and Mattie seek out warmth from each other in the freezing winter of Zeena's coldness. Zeena, who is aware of Ethan's affections for Mattie, subverts the symbolism of the geraniums at the end of the novella. On the same night that she kicks Mattie out, she snips yellow leaves off the geraniums and chides Ethan, saying, "They pine away when they ain't cared for." Although Ethan planted the flowers for Mattie, Zeena claims them as her own, recognizing the symbolism and suggesting that it is she who has "pined away" since Ethan began neglecting her.

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