Wharton, Edith 1862-1937
Wharton, Edith 1862-1937
(Full name Edith Newbold Jones Wharton) American novelist, short-story writer, poet, memoirist, autobiographer, travel writer, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome (1911) through 2005.
A mainstay of high school English curriculums due to its relative brevity, vivid symbolism, and concise language, among the many factors that recommend it to a younger readership, Ethan Frome (1911) remains among Wharton’s most recognizable and widely read novels. Best known as a novelist of manners, Wharton chronicled the cruel excesses of American genteel society both at home and abroad at the beginning of the twentieth century in works ranging from The House of Mirth (1905) to The Age of Innocence (1920) and The Buccaneers (1938). Her carefully crafted, psychologically complex fiction also reflects a concern for the status of women in society and for the moral decay she observed beneath the outward propriety of the social elite. Noted for its gloomy depiction of wintry, rural New England, Ethan Frome explores the effects of poverty, isolation, and the pressures of conformity on individuals struggling to transcend societal expectations and find love and fulfillment. Though sometimes derided by reviewers as a morally bankrupt and pessimistic book, Ethan Frome has been reassessed by recent critics as a well-crafted and perceptive investigation of the human condition.
Wharton was born into a wealthy New York City family on January 24, 1862. She was privately educated by a series of governesses and tutors both at home and abroad, who schooled her in foreign languages and European culture. As a child, she displayed a marked interest in writing and literature, from which her socially ambitious mother attempte to dissuade her. Nevertheless, Wharton finished her first novella at the age of fourteen and anonymously published some verse in the Atlantic Monthly four years later. As an upper-class initiate, she witnessed the shift of power and wealth from the hands of New York’s established gentry to the Industrial Revolutions nouveau riche, whom she considered to be cultural philistines obsessed with status rather than character and upon whom she modeled many of her most memorable fictional characters and situations. In 1885 she married the Boston banker Edward Wharton, who shared few of her interests or opinions and never understood her affinity for literature. Assuming the public responsibilities of society matron during her marriage, Wharton traveled widely with her husband and maintained fashionable homes in Manhattan, Newport, and Paris. However, she gradually grew dissatisfied with society life and disillusioned with marriage, so she sought personal fulfillment by writing in private. Many of these early poems and stories first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine, and her best fiction of the period was collected in The Greater Inclination (1899), whose critical reception not only surprised her but also steeled her resolve to hone her literary skills. Subsequently, Wharton published the novel The Valley of Decision (1902), the story collection The Descent of Man (1904), and The House of Mirth, which established her critical and popular reputation as a leading writer of the era. Wharton professional success, along with her husband’s eroding sanity and marital infidelity, prompted her in 1907 to take up permanent residence in France and in 1913 to divorce her husband, which greatly pained her. Once she settled in France, however, Wharton produced some of the most notable works of her career, including the short story collections The Hermit and the Wild Woman (1908), Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910), and Xingu and Other Stories (1916) as well as the novels Ethan Frome,The Reef (1912), The Custom of the Country (1913), and Summer (1917). During World War I, Wharton organized war relief efforts for refugees, for which she earned the French Legion of Honor, and wrote propaganda for the Allies as well as the undistinguished war novels The Marne (1918) and A Son at the Front (1923). Following the armistice, Wharton resumed her literary career, and in 1921 she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Age of Innocence, which she followed with The Mother’s Recompense (1925) and the best-selling Twilight Sleep (1927). During the last decade of her life, Wharton continued to write short stories and novels, many of which reflect her growing disillusionment with postwar America and the Jazz Age, most notably the novels Hudson River Bracketed (1929) and The Gods Arrive (1932). In 1934 she published her autobiography, A Backward Glance. Wharton died at St. Bricesous-Foret on August 11, 1937, leaving behind the unfinished manuscript of her final novel, The Buccaneers, which was published in 1938.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
Ethan Frome begins with a frame narrative told by a young, unnamed narrator who has come to the small, isolated New England village of Starkfield to work at a local power station. He notices a man named Ethan Frome and learns that the old man had been crippled by a sledding accident twenty-four years earlier. One night the narrator is stranded at the Frome farm due to severe weather and begins to uncover more about the man’s background. The story flashes back to Frome’s life before the sledding accident, chronicling his unhappy marriage to the hypochondriac Zeena. When the couple hires Zeena’s cousin, the vivacious Mattie Silver, as a maid, Frome develops romantic feelings for her. He soon believes that his love might be reciprocated, and he dreams of running away with her. Zeena suspects her husband’s desires and decides to send Mattie away to an uncertain future. Desperate to stay, Mattie encourages Frome’s affection. The brokenhearted Frome rejects a plan to borrow money and run away with Mattie, agreeing instead to send the young girl away. He suggests to Mattie that they take a sled ride together before parting. Upon reaching the bottom of the hill, they share a kiss. Mattie then proposes that they take another ride down the hill, this time steering the sled into a tree to commit a double suicide. Frome agrees, but at the very last moment he veers away from the tree and avoids a head-on collision. Although they survive the accident, both are permanently crippled. As the story returns to the present time, the narrator learns that Mattie is a demanding invalid, Zeena is her embittered caretaker, and Frome is forced to provide for both women, who resent him.
Themes of repression and isolation play a prominent role in Ethan Frome. The setting of the remote Frome farm during a harsh New England winter reflects the emotional impoverishment, intense loneliness, and profound inarticulateness of the troubled couple, Ethan and Zeena. Because the characters are unable to communicate with one another, they bury their passions and resist self-examination. Bowing to stifling societal expectations, Frome remains in a loveless, soul-deadening marriage and feels guilty when he yearns to break free and escape the isolated Starkfield with the spirited Mattie. Moreover, at the end of the novella, Frome is essentially trapped in the decaying farmhouse with two women who cannot forgive his betrayal and perpetuate his guilt over his impulsive attempt to run away from his obligations. Critics have underscored the symbolic significance of the pickle-dish as representative of Zeena’s emotional repression; the dish had been given to her as a wedding gift, and her reaction to its breaking by the cat and its concealment by Frome is one of the few instances of unadulterated emotion in the story. Commentators have asserted that her grief over the shattered state of her marriage is manifested through her reaction to the destruction of a simple household object. Another major theme of Ethan Frome is determinism. Similar to the strict fatalism of Calvinist doctrine, the concept of determinism arose from the widespread influence of Darwin’s theories in the late nineteenth century. Accordingly, anxiety over the seemingly random power of the natural world is manifest in the depiction of Starkfield, which is often associated with recurring images of darkness and brutal frigidity. That the lives of its citizens are fraught with strife seems to be predetermined by the bleak physical environment that surrounds them.
Upon its publication Ethan Frome was greeted with mixed reviews, and it was later subjected to a scathing assessment by critic Lionel Trilling, who called it a “dead book” with no moral basis. Trilling was so influential at the time that other critics rejected the book as well. Another contemporary of Wharton’s, Frederic Taro, even went so far as to describe it as brimming with such “utter remorselessness” that he characterized the novella as “endlessly gray with blank despair.” Yet over the years, commentators have begun to rehabilitate the novella’s critical reputation, re-examining the story from various perspectives, providing socioeconomic, psychological, and theological interpretations of the novella. In particular, Wharton’s personal interest in Calvinism has been viewed as a crucial element in the story’s construction. Commentators have linked Wharton’s religious views and her relationship with her parents to thematic concerns in Ethan Frome. Recent critics have also discussed the story as a work of modern tragedy. Stylistically, scholars have focused on Wharton’s use of the framing device and the function of the narrator in the story. Regarded as perhaps Wharton’s best-known work of short fiction, Ethan Frome has been perceived as an insightful yet grim depiction of human tragedy.
Verses (poetry) 1878
The Decoration of Houses [with Ogden Codman] (nonfiction) 1897
The Greater Inclination (short stories) 1899
The Touchstone (novella) 1900; also published as A Gift from the Grave, 1900
Crucial Instances (short stories) 1901
The Valley of Decision (novel) 1902
Sanctuary (novel) 1903
The Descent of Man, and Other Stories (short stories) 1904
Italian Villas and Their Gardens (nonfiction) 1904
The House of Mirth (novel) 1905
Italian Backgrounds (memoirs) 1905
The Fruit of the Tree (novel) 1907
The Hermit and the Wild Woman and Other Stories (short stories) 1908
Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verse (poetry) 1909
Ethan Frome (novella) 1911
The Reef (novel) 1912
The Custom of the Country (novel) 1913
Xingu and Other Stories (short stories) 1916
Summer (novel) 1917
French Ways and Their Meaning (essays) 1919
The Age of Innocence (novel) 1920
The Writing of Fiction (criticism) 1925
Here and Beyond (short stories) 1926
Hudson River Bracketed (novel) 1929
Certain People (short stories) 1930
Human Nature (short stories) 1933
A Backward Glance (autobiography) 1934
The Buccaneers (unfinished novel) 1938
Jean Franz Blackall (essay date spring 1984)
SOURCE: Blackall, Jean Franz. “The Sledding Accident in Ethan Frome.” Studies in Short Fiction 21, no. 2 (spring 1984): 145-46.
[In the following essay, Blackall suggests that details of the climactic sledding incident in Ethan Frome may be more reflective of Ethan’s nurturing nature than his repression.]
Ethan Frome and Mattie Silver agree to commit suicide by running their sled into the big elm tree at the bottom of School House Hill. But they argue over who is to sit in front:
“Get up! Get up! he urged her”; but she kept on repeating: “Why do you want to sit in front?”
“Because I—because I want to feel you holding me,” he stammered, and dragged her to her feet.1
Kenneth Bernard says that Ethan’s wanting to sit in front of Mattie on the sled is an indication of his weakness. Ethan sincerely “wants to die being cuddled and comforted, leaving to Mattie the role of protector and shelterer.”2 Cynthia Wolff supports Bernard in this interpretation,3 which accords with her own sentiment that Ethan demonstrates passivity, lack of normal sexual initiative, infantile and regressive behavior. This is a view Wolff otherwise argues by pointing out how Ethan’s vision of living with Mattie is purely domestic; Mattie would be cook and both of them caretakers.4
As regards this domestic ideal, it is instructive to juxtapose other Wharton fictions. In Summer , for example, the overtly sexual character of the relationship between Lucius Harney and Charity Royall cannot be doubted. Yet their scenes together at the abandoned house in the woods emulate conventional domestic rituals. They decorate their room with flowers and leaves.5 They share meals and drink tea together (208-210). Lucius expresses his affection for Charity by bringing her chocolate and cold water from a spring (167). In The Reef George Darrow, whose sexuality is explicit, yet demonstrates a reticence similar to Ethan’s, kissing Anna’s scarf as Ethan kisses Mattie’s sewing stuff rather than touching the woman.6 At the end, when Anna Leath hopes that a life for herself and George Darrow may still be possible, she dreams that she is sitting on the hearth beside his chair (312). It would seem that in such moments Wharton is celebrating the idea of domestic community, of what she spoke of to Charles Du Bos as the desirable condition of ‘“a sharing of all”’ between lovers, not only the sexual relationship.7
Ethan’s wanting to sit ahead of Mattie on the sled can be understood as manifesting a similar nuance in his behavior rather than as a regressive or infantile attitude. Ethan’s idea of love is nurture. He wants to sit ahead of Mattie on the sled so that he, not Mattie, will hit the elm tree first. Perhaps his solicitude is misplaced since their objective in common is to commit suicide. But throughout the scene it is Mattie who has pressed for this choice and Ethan who resists. Yielding to her insistence, he yet holds back by making a protective gesture toward her which is quite consistent with his attitude of caretaking elsewhere, as when he decides to remain with Zeena despite his love for Mattie, when he initially balks at expelling Mattie from the household as Zeena desires, and in these very moments when he worries about his horse’s going without food. Such protective attitudes may not manifest an aggressive sexuality in Ethan, but they can more plausibly be interpreted as adult sentiments than as infantile ones. Ethan’s sensibility affirms the values of home (hearth) and protectiveness.
Corroboration for interpreting Ethan’s choice as being a protective gesture is provided by a newspaper account undoubtedly known to Wharton when she devised this final episode of Ethan Frome. 8 The Berkshire Evening Eagle for March 12, 1904, reports a disastrous sledding accident on Court House Hill in Lenox, Massachusetts, in which Hazel Crosby was fatally injured when she insisted on steering the sled: “Mansuit Schmitt, the only young man in the party, had been steering the sled on its course until the accident. Miss Crosby expressed a desire to guide the sled on one trip, and the permission was reluctantly granted. She took her position in front of the party of coasters.” In this position, according to the Eagle, “Miss Crosby received the full force of the collision and it is a wonder that she was not instantly killed.”9 From this circumstantial account Wharton would have understood Ethan’s choice to sit in front on the sled as one involving greater danger. Miss Crosby, who sat forward, was killed. That Edith Wharton had intimate access to the details of this accident is a matter of local record, as reported at the time of the death of Katherine P. Spencer: “Miss Spencer was the last survivor of the five who were aboard the sled. For five years after the accident, 1904–1908, she was an assistant librarian at the Lenox Library, after which she had to resign because of impaired hearing caused by the accident. During that time, Mrs. Wharton was an associate manager at the library, and knew and consulted Miss Spencer in research for her novel.”10
8. See R. W. B. Lewis, Edith Wharton (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1975), p. 308. Cf. David H. Wood, Lenox: Massachusetts Shire Town (Lenox: Published by the Town, 1969), esp. pp. 109 and 114, n. 2.
10. Richard V. Happel, “Notes and Footnotes,” The Berkshire Eagle, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 1976, p. 20. I am indebted to Margaret M. Kennard, Librarian of the Lenox Library Association, Lenox, Massachusetts, for making xerox copies of these newspaper articles available to me.
Marlene Springer (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: Springer, Marlene. “Setting and Symbolism.” In Ethan Frome: A Nightmare of Need, pp. 76-94. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
[In the following essay, Springer offers a summary of the heavy thematic symbolism found in Ethan Frome.]
Whether Ethan’s story is a vision, a tangled web of different stories, or both, Harmon Gow believes the source of Ethan’s predicament is that “he’s been in Starkfield too many winters.” In her own comments on the novel, Wharton notes that she believed most New England fiction, and especially Sarah Orne Jewett’s, bore little resemblance to “the harsh and beautiful land” as she had seen it. The abundant description “of sweet-fern, asters and mountain-laurel, and the conscientious reproduction of the vernacular, left [her] with the feeling that the outcropping granite” had been overlooked ([Ethan Frome, ] EF , xix). Certainly the setting of the story has a rock-hard atmosphere, but it is also an ironic metaphor for the balancing contrasts that permeate the story.
The narrator tells us early on that he is struck by the contrast between the crispness of the climate and the deadness of the community: “Day by day, after the December snows were over, a blazing blue sky poured down torrents of light and air on the white landscape, which gave them back an intense glitter. One would have supposed that such an atmosphere must quicken the emotions as well as the blood; but it seemed to produce no change except that of retarding still more the sluggish pulse of Starkfield” (EF, 7).
Crystal clearness is followed by long stretches of sunless cold, and the storms of February only lead to the biting winds of March. With climate so formidable, it is easy to capitulate to routine and to be hypnotized into a “grim satisfaction in the life.” When survival against the cold is all-consuming, it is difficult to nurture intimacy. It is no coincidence that Ethan’s maiming takes place in February, that the vehicle is a sled, that the occasion for the narrator’s glimpse into Ethan’s experience is a blinding snowstorm. And if Jewett’s restful summer evenings and warm breezes can lull one into complacency, so can the raging storms so deaden the senses that monotony goes unnoticed.
Harmon Gow does not say that Ethan has been in Starkfield too long, but that he has been there “too many winters.” In his own taciturn way, Gow is expressing one of the crucial aspects of place in the novel. Everywhere there is snow. The train that the narrator is supposed to take to the plant is blocked by a freight that got stuck in a drift. His first glimpse of Ethan’s house is of a lonely New England farmhouse “huddled against the white immensities of land and sky” (EF, 15); the boundaries of the fields surrounding it are lost under the drifts. As they travel toward the station, the landscape is “chaotically tossed” by gales blowing the new snow. When he returns to have Ethan carry him home, the snow began to fall straight and steady from a sky without wind, in a soft universal diffusion more confusing than the gusts and eddies of the morning” (EF, 17). The narrator gets out of the sleigh and leads the horse through the snow until they come to Ethan’s house, all winded by the bitter cold and the heavy walking.” Even when we return in a flashback to the young Ethan, the chapter opens with the village lay under two feet of snow” (EF, 20).
We enter Ethan’s history in medias res, just as we have earlier entered the narrator’s life when he is middle-aged and passing through. Because of the imagination of the narrator, and because he has both a discerning eye and a love of nature, we know more, or at least we think we know more, of Ethan’s early environment than if we had to rely on any of Stark-field’s inhabitants to tell us the story directly. We know that even when times were better, some things remained the same—the ubiquitous snow of the frame story, for example. In the flashback young Ethan is seen looking in the church, standing outside in a “complete absence of atmosphere,” with the white earth under his feet and the metallic dome overhead” (EF, 21). Contrasting with the frigidity of Ethan’s external world is the scene inside, a room “seething in the midst of heat” (EF, 22), a room that contains Mattie, the girl who has brought heat into his life.
The snowy chill of Starkfield, the blistery winter of the interior story, is the bleak backdrop for the entangled relationships and serves as a foreshadowing of tragedy. When Mattie leaves the church with Ethan, she relinquishes the warmth of the dance to walk back toward their house, down a hemlock-shaded lane, passing a gloomy sawmill, moving through “grey and lonely” country. A farmhouse stands “mute and cold as a grave-stone.” The frozen snow crackles under their feet. Unremittingly, the snow, ice, and sleet twist Ethan’s plans and ultimately become the instrument of his destruction. His mare slips on ice and delays his trip to the village to buy glue; then the logs are coated with sleet, making them doubly difficult to load, and Ethan must give up the trip altogether. After dinner he does get to the village and hopes to beat Zeena home, only to have the sleet and rain delay him again. When Ethan must take Mattie to the train, the setting mirrors his emotions. Instead of taking the direct route to Starkfield, Ethan goes up Bettsbridge road toward Shadow Pond. It is a fantasy trip, and derisively the scenery mocks his vision: “The lane passed into a pine-wood with boles reddening in the afternoon sun and delicate blue shadows on the snow. As they entered it the breeze fell and a warm stillness seemed to drop from the branches with the dropping needles. Here the snow was so pure that the tiny tracks of wood animals had left on it intricate lace-like patterns, and the bluish cones caught in its surface stood out like ornaments of bronze” (EF , 112). But the setting is infused with the same dull melancholy that Ethan felt in his heart.” All warmth is in the past, a memory of a single summer afternoon where Ethan had joined Mattie at a picnic on this spot and had found her lost locket. Now there is only a “fallen tree-trunk half submerged in snow” (EF, 113).
Mattie’s and Ethan’s brief stop at Shadow Pond en route to their separation is a dream-vision—one that Ethan is reluctant to relinquish. The dream goes with the setting of the sun, and the pine boles change from the red of hope and warmth to gray reality. Ethan and Mattie move toward their fateful ride. The sky is swollen with clouds, and Ethan’s eyes are also clouded.
The flashback history of Ethan over, the narrative returns to the present, and the narrator begins to allay Mrs. Hale’s fears that he had been buried in a snow drift in what was the worst blizzard of the winter. On this worst night of the year, the narrator has descended into his hell of cold and snow and has been resurrected with a new understanding of the meaning of the whiteness. Melville tells us in Moby Dick that there “lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood… [Whiteness] heightens that terror to the furthest bounds.” And again, “as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; it is for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a landscape of snows-a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink.”1
Like Melville’s white world, Ethan and the narrator’s is a world of numbing emotional deadness, of cold, of stark, all-consuming isolation, of granite outcroppings. It is hardly the Berkshire country described by Henry Ward Beecher as the “Lake District of America.” Nor is it the spring thaws of Jewett, where even in a story entitled “The Town Poor,” the atmosphere is quite different. The constrasts are striking.
Jewett’s characters, two women who are out visiting, also come upon people whose fortunes are reversed. The two poor women are living on the charity of the town, in a garret room in an isolated farmhouse:
The four cups were not quite full of cold tea, but there was a clean old tablecloth folded double, and a plate with three packs of crackers neatly piled, and a small—it must be owed, a very small—piece of hard white cheese…. Then there was a silence, and in the silence a wave of tender feeling rose high in the hearts of the four elderly women. At this moment the setting sun flooded the poor plain rooms with light; the unpainted wood was all of a golden-brown, and Ann Bray, with her gray hair and aged face, stood at the head of the table in a kind of aureole.2
The story concludes with the two visitors vowing to make amends for the isolation of the two sisters and reaffirming the community’s obligation to the poor. No such good fortune awaits Ethan; nor does he have the “refinement of character and self respect” so integral to Jewett’s more benign New England. Melville’s grim understanding of the absence of color haunts the story, and Jewett’s warm, caring New England is not here.
Ethan Frome, then, is a story of cold, of snow, of a rock-hard existence. The setting becomes a metaphor for the limited possibilities of Ethan’s physical and emotional life. It is a story of frozen passion locked in crippled bodies and devastated minds. But more than mere cold, the setting also captures the pervasive isolation of the citizens of Starkfield. As in most small towns, the inhabitants of Starkfield all know each other. The narrator also assures us that if we had spent even a brief time there we would also find the post office, and then Ethan. We would have asked who he was, and everyone would have known. Yet in Starkfield, acquaintance does not mean community. The inhabitants are not the idealized extended family. Mrs. Hale does go to visit the Fromes—and they were at one time good friends—but now she goes only twice a year. The narrator comes in to the village and quickly learns that he will always be only on the periphery of any real understanding of the inhabitants and that his understanding of the people and place will have to be drawn from scraps of information and his own inferences. He is a connection to the outside world—and his daily trips to the station emphasize this—but his journeys to and from are passed largely in silence. He rides with Ethan two hours a day for five days, but they exchange few words. (Certainly the story would have been a brief one had Ethan narrated it.) The narrator acts as our guide into the cold world, but what he sees does little to dispel our geographic chill.
The persuasive isolation of Ethan’s environment is also marked in ways other than by the weather. Thomas Hardy in Desperate Remedies voices the belief that “there’s a backward current in the world, and we must do our utmost to advance in order just to bide where we be.” Ethan works as hard as he can, but the current is too strong. He notes that “we’re kinder side-tracked here now.” The railroad, a symbol in the development of America for connection, community, and communication, has just the opposite effect on Ethan’s life. Before the railroad was built through to the Flats, people passed in front of Ethan’s house. To the old Mrs. Frome’s good fortune, when they were mending the railroad, Harmon Gow brought his stage by her place, and she had a reason for moving out of herself, at least to get down to the gate to see him. After the road was mended and the railroad built, Mrs. Frome had nothing to draw her out, and nobody came. She never could fully understand why the visits stopped, “and it preyed on her right along until she died.” Ethan attributes the worst of his mother’s troubles to the coming of the railroad, and his troubles parallel his mother’s: his mother sickens, Zeena comes to nurse; his mother dies, Ethan marries Zeena. With brilliant irony, Wharton turns the coming of the railroad, historically the advent of mobility and expansion, into a catalyst for isolation and despair.
Ethan’s situation is also a bitterly wry comment on other aspects of the American dream. Just as the railroad does not bring him wealth and escape, neither does Ethan inherit the upward mobility that is theoretically the American birthright. Instead of an ever-expanding farm, the deserved result of Ethan’s endless labor, Ethan’s house is losing to the current. The narrator first sees the house, and we are told that “the snow has ceased, and a flash of watery sunlight exposed the house on the slope above us in all its plaintive ugliness. The black wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped from the porch, and the thin wooden walls, under their worn coat of paint, seemed to shiver in the wind that had risen with the ceasing of the snow” (EF , 15). It is one of those “lonely New England farm houses that make the landscape lonelier” (EF , 15).
Ethan notes that the house was bigger in his father’s time, but he has had to take down the L (we are never told why). Loss of the L is more than relinquishing closed space; the narrator tells us that an L often serves as the very heart of a house. Moreover, it protects the inhabitants from the harsh winter mornings, as they face their morning’s work. Ethan’s protection from the snow has been given up, and the cold of the climate has come inside.
The inside of Ethan’s house offers little contrast to the barren outside. The kitchen is cold, requiring that inhabitants huddle near the stove. The furniture is rough wood, the furnishings sparse: Three coarse china plates and a broken-nosed milk jug had been set on a greasy table scored with knife-cuts, and a couple of straw-bottomed chairs and a kitchen dresser of unpainted pine stood meagerly against the plaster walls” (EF, 128).
The food is equally unpalatable—the remains of a “cold mince pie in a battered pie dish.” The women blend well with the surroundings. Zeena is wearing a slatternly calico wrapper and has a broken comb in her thin grey hair. Her skin is sallow; her eyes “reveal nothing and reflect nothing.” Mattie is also bloodless and shriveled, amber skinned rather than sallow, her hair also grey. Her eyes, rather than blank, have a bright witchlike stare. Her body has a limp immobility. Even the hearth fire has gone out. The American dream has vanished.
Wharton’s use of a setting here has often been called too heavyhanded, obvious, and unremittingly bleak. There is little question that if one reads the frame alone, the charges have some validity. But the cold squalor of Ethan’s later life gains poignancy through the relief we are offered by the story itself; the pain of his existence is intensified by our knowledge of what has been. Before the L was lost, Ethan’s environment was sparse but not desolate.
Wharton, then, skillfully uses the New England winter as a metaphor for Ethan’s life, both past and present. We are never allowed to forget the chill of his life, and the snow creates the physical atmosphere for the mental anguish of the story. Other elements in the scenery are also used symbolically. Trees, for example, figure prominently, and not only as the ultimate instrument for destruction. We are told early on that the elm is dangerous and should be cut down. Ruth and Ned were nearly the victims: “Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum came just as near running into the big elm at the bottom. We were all sure they were killed” (EF, 35). The prediction of danger proves to be despairingly correct. But in addition to the most obvious use of the elm, references to other natural objects build a pattern of imagery that defines the freedom and passion of Mattie and Ethan when they are outside versus the stifling morality and deadness they suffer when they are inside the house. For example, two black Norway spruces provide the setting for the lovers’ passion and their subsequent death pact. When they join each other, often after the church social, they stand “together in the gloom of the spruces, an empty world glimmering about them wide and grey under the stars” (EF , 34). Though unspoken, their mutual passion is intense, and the dark spruces provide the shelter for their feelings: “It was so dark under the spruces that he could barely see the shape of her head beside his shoulder. He longed to stoop his cheek and rub it against her scarf. He would have liked to stand there with her all night in the blackness” (EF, 34).
Later in the story, in Chapter 9, they again stand together, and though only three days have passed, their love has moved from inarticulated feelings to avowals of passion. Ethan guides Mattie toward the Norway spruces (EF , 120), and they realize that this is the place where Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum had kissed each other, a sight Ethan had happened upon just after Andrew Hale had turned down his request for the money that would have freed him to go with Mattie. Ethan’s initial telling of the incident under the spruces, done on the one evening they spend alone together, does not move them into the intimacy Ethan had hoped for, but this time the mention of the kiss acts as a catalyst for Mattie’s own feelings, and she kisses Ethan and pleads that they not separate. With the dark spruces silently watching, Ethan and Mattie agree to die together.
Even on the rare occasions when the trees bring cheerful recollections, Ethan sees them as a mockery of his situation. The night he ponders leaving Zeena, his emotions go from exhilaration to despair: first he hopes to leave, then he decides that he will never have the money. He moves to the couch, and tears come to his eyes. As he goes deep into himself and his sorrow, he looks out the window to see a “moon-suffused sky. A crooked-tree branch crossed it, a branch of the apple-tree under which, on summer evenings, he had sometimes found Mattie sitting when he came up from the mill.” But rather than these memories giving relief, they only serve to sharpen the pain: “it seemed as though all the beauty of the night had been poured out to mock his wretchedness” (EF, 99).
Trees of summer are mocking; trees of lovers, equally derisive. Constantly, they are remembrances of things past, reminders of the prison he is in, or foreboding symbols of the destruction to come. The big elm threatens death and does maim. The dark spruces provide shelter for Mattie and Ethan who must hide their love, while providing cool shade for Ruth and Ned who can be open with theirs.
Trees, too, are Ethan’s main source of livelihood—but it is a livelihood of back-breaking labor after the trees have been cut. The phallic implications of the felled trees are very clear, symbolizing the impotence Ethan feels when he is refused immediate payment for the trees, thus cutting off his only avenue of escape. Equally double-edged is the fact that Ethan connects Mattie’s hair, “soft yet springy” as he presses his lips to it, with the “faint woody fragrance of fresh sawdust in the sun” (EF, 107-08). He longs to tell her that her hair “smelt of the woods” (EF, 114). Ethan is to feel the “soft and springy” hair once again at the bottom of the elm.
In conjunction with the tree imagery that is integral to the setting, Wharton also makes skilled use of butterflies, birds, even small animals, to define her characters and weave a complex structure into the story. For example, Wharton connects Mattie and Ethan’s summer happiness with “surprising” a butterfly in the winter woods (EF , 113). When Ethan has to tell Mattie she must go, her lashes “beat his cheek like netted butterflies” (EF, 89).
The bird imagery in the story is even more pronounced. Mattie is associated in Ethan’s mind with the lightness of birds in spring and with his pos-ssibilities for happiness. As Ethan and Mattie are talking about the dangers of the elms, Ethan notes that “the motions of her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird in the branches” (EF, 35), and he ponders his frustration; he has no right to express his feelings, and he can only guess at hers. Like a bird, she is as elusive as his happiness. When they are sharing their evening together, Ethan again associates Mattie and his happiness with her with birds: “her hands went up and down above the strips of stuff, just as he had seen a pair of birds make short perpendicular flights over the nest they were building” (EF, 69). Later, when Zeena has told Ethan that Mattie must leave, and Ethan is walking into Starkfield, all of his surroundings are alive with her presence. Realizing that his world depends on her, he determines to try to do something: “Once, in the stillness, the call of a bird in a mountain ash was so like her laughter that his heart tightened and then grew large; and all these things made him see that something must be done at once” (EF, 103).
What is done, of course, is much different than what Ethan anticipates here. Each of the bird references in the story is followed closely with a reference to Zeena and to Ethan’s ties to her. When the thread of imagery runs to the fateful sleigh ride, Wharton skillfully binds her story together by references not to birds this time but to another helpless creature in the New England winter, field mice. The language Wharton uses to describe the sounds Ethan hears are reminiscent of the bird associations with Mattie—and, one could say, are more appropriate for birds than mice. After the crash, Ethan hears a “small frightened cheep like a field mouse” (italics Wharton’s). Then he registers that the felt rather than heard the twittering.” Moments later he understands that the “twittering came from her lips” (EF, 125).3
References to trees, birds, and mice, therefore, are all image patterns connecting Mattie, and Ethan’s love for her, with the natural freedom of the outdoors. In contrast, and a natural enemy to both birds and mice, is Zeena’s domestic cat. Always inside, it is a sinister presence that continually appears as Zeena incarnate to remind Ethan of his duty and to act as a perverse counter to Ethan’s happiness. The references to the cat are numerous and almost too obvious. The first mention of the cat occurs when Zeena has left to seek another medical opinion, and Ethan and Mattie are looking forward to an evening together. The kitchen scene is one of comfortable well-being, and the cat is dozing in the chair. When Ethan returns in early evening, the cat is still dozing by a bright fire. The symbolism intensifies as Mattie nearly trips over the cat as it rubs against her leg, and Ethan becomes suddenly jealous (EF, 61). Mattie reassures him that he is the source of her good mood, but the mention of Zeena quickly dispels that. The “cat, unbidden, jumped between them into Zeena’s empty chair,” and the connection is broken. The presence of the cat, next described as “greedy,” quickly throws a pall over their brief happiness and becomes a catalyst for their tragedy: “The cat, unnoticed, had crept up on muffled paws from Zeena’s seat to the table, and was stealthily elongating its body in the direction of the milk-jug, which stood between Ethan and Mattie. The two leaned forward at the same moment and their hands met on the handle of the jug. Mattie’s hand was underneath, and Ethan kept his clasped on it a moment longer than was necessary. The cat, profiting by this unusual demonstration, tried to effect an unnoticed retreat, and in doing so backed into the pickle-dish, which fell to the floor with a crash” (EF, 62).
After supper, the cat continues to plague them and embody Zeena. Mattie first sits in Zeena’s chair, only to realize that she assumes Zeena’s aura when she is in her place; she quickly moves. “The cat, who had been a puzzled observer of these unusual movements, jumped up into Zeena’s chair, rolled itself into a ball, and lay watching them with narrowed eyes” (EF, 66).
The scene before the focus shifts to the cat is one of steadily building, though always unspoken, passion. Ethan and Mattie talk around their day, both independently aware of the warm tensions they share. They discuss briefly Zeena’s attitude toward Mattie, then flee into avoidance, not thinking about it anymore. Ethan builds his courage and continually reaches for the “stuff” Mattie is working on, seeking a physical connection to her. She does not move her head as the emotional currents travel down the material, until the cat jumps to catch a mouse: “The cat had jumped from Zeena’s chair to dart at a mouse in the wainscot, and as a result of the sudden movement the empty chair had set up a spectral rocking” (EF, 70). Ethan’s mood is broken; he returns to the harsh reality of his life, and Mattie feels the shift. Rather than try to reestablish the connection, something both of them realize is hopeless, Ethan begins to put out the fire (both literally and figuratively), and Mattie drags the cat’s bed toward the stove. Zeena has triumphed.
The next morning, Ethan feigns indifference to Mattie in front of Jotham Powell, and this time he throws scraps to the cat, who, instead of purring, is “growling at the weather” (EF, 73). But Ethan has symbolically made his choice. The next scene appears derisively calm. The table is carefully laid, the fire is burning, and the cat is dozing; but Zeena is home.
We next see the cat after Zeena has told Ethan that Mattie must leave. Ethan returns to the kitchen, and the cat, which had been curled up on Mattie’s lap, leaps away and abandons Mattie, in favor of Zeena. The cat ingratiates itself now with Zeena, and Zeena throws it a scrap of meat from her plate (EF, 91), imitating the exact gesture Ethan had made when he had been pretending indifference to Mattie in front of Jotham.
The cat continues to be the structural connection throughout this crucial scene. Ethan and Mattie are in a desperate dance of desolation over their impending separation, the kitchen warmth only exacerbating their pain. Zeena leaves to look for medicine, and the cat returns to its fateful place in Zeena’s rocking chair, assuring the couple of Zeena’s presence even in her absence. Zeena returns to the room with the broken pickle-dish, and Ethan, with more truth than he knows, blames the destruction on the cat trying to catch a mouse that had been in the kitchen all last evening. Zeena credits the cat with intelligence but not enough to repair the broken dish. Mattie confesses, Zeena cruelly berates, Ethan retreats.
As the moment for Mattie’s departure draws nearer and nearer, Zeena’s behavior with her cat continues to reinforce the sense of her determination and, by association with Ethan’s parallel gestures, his corresponding lack of it. Zeena gets up on the morning of Mattie’s departure full of “unusual alertness and activity” (EF, 101). She feeds the cat, once again with leftover scraps, this time symbolically from the pie that Mattie had baked. When we last see Zeena before Ethan leaves to take Mattie to the station, she is in her rocking chair by the stove, a place she settles into after feeding the cat. When she reappears, almost 24 years later, the cat is gone; the battered pickle-dish remains.
The presence of the cat, then, is an important structural device for the story. While associated with warmth and well-being when on Mattie’s lap, it is only a temporary resident there. It is Zeena’s cat and is Zeena’s essence. When Ethan throws it food, he does so deliberately to feign indifference to Mattie. Its sudden movement causes the dish to break and becomes the vehicle for catching Ethan in a lie. It chases a mouse and causes Zeena’s chair to rock, recalling her presence and foreshadowing the crippled mouselike figure that wakes at the bottom of the elm.
Wharton has numerous other image patterns in the story, less dominant than the cat-mouse imagery. Flowers and plants, for example, though usually a symbol of bountifulness and nature’s replenishment, in this novel of “granite outcroppings” only serve to emphasize the harshness of the land and of the lot of the people on it. When Ethan walks Mattie home, aglow with the warmth of her presence, his euphoria, his feeling of walking “as if they were floating on a summer stream” (EF, 38), is broken as he approaches the house and sees that a “dead cucumber-vine dangled from the porch like the crape streamer tied to the door for a death” (EF, 39). Ethan quietly wishes it were a wreath for Zeena and has a vision of her corpselike, her mouth open, her teeth out, as he walks by the “rigid gooseberry bushes” and tries to find a key into his own barren house.
Geraniums, too, figure prominently as reflections of the personalities of the two women in Ethan’s life and are always noted in the presence of the cat, Zee-na’s surrogate. When aligned with Mattie, they underscore Ethan’s happiness with her: “The sun slanted through the south window on the girl’s moving figure, on the cat dozing in a chair, and on the geraniums brought in from the door-way, where Ethan had planted them in the summer to ‘make a garden’ for Mattie” (EF, 50).
Later, Mattie and Ethan are enjoying their evening together, while the cat is “watching them with narrowed eyes,” the “faint sharp scent of the geraniums mingled with the odors of Ethan’s smoke” (EF, 66). However, the “sharp scent” turns increasingly sour, as Mattie, now depressed that the evening is over, moves the cat’s bed and lifts “two of the geranium pots in her arms, moving them away from the cold window. He followed her and brought the other geraniums, the hyacinth bulbs in a cracked custard bowl and the German ivy trained over an old croquet hoop” (EF, 71). What had been a pleasant summer garden now becomes the winter of their discontent.
After Zeena has returned from her trip, the setting is the same, but the scene is much different. With the cat in the rocking chair, the “heat of the fire was beginning to draw out the faint sharp scent of the geraniums” (EF, 92), recalling their former evening of joy. But now, Ethan and Mattie are clinging together desolately, and Ethan is dragging himself wearily to his feet, as Zeena returns with the broken pickle-dish.
When Mattie is packed and leaving, Zeena makes the final comment on the underlying symbolism of the flowers. Walking over to the window, she snips two or three yellow leaves and comments, “Aunt Mar-tha’s ain’t got a faded leaf on ’em; but they pine away when they ain’t cared for” (EF, 102). Ethan’s careful planting and his and Mattie’s moving them away from the window could not protect them from Zee-na’s withering touch.
Another integral part of the symbolic scenery of the novel is the object of the cat’s destruction, the pickle-dish. Pickles, which come from cucumber vines, reminding us of Ethan’s crape streamer, with their connotations of shriveled sourness are first mentioned by Zeena when she asks Mattie to save her empty medicine bottle and get the taste out of it for pickles (EF, 49). With more prescience than she knew, Aunt Philura Maple had given Ethan and Zeena a red glass pickle-dish for their wedding. Sadly, Zeena cherishes it in the only the way she knows how, by putting it on top of the china closet, out of reach, and out of harm’s and life’s way. Like the rest of her soured and stifled life, she only takes it down during spring cleaning, and then she “always lifted it with my own hands ‘so’s’ t shouldn’t get broke” (EF, 93).
Mattie, conversely, has not lived her life on a shelf and, even while knowing she is touching forbidden fruit, takes the dish down to make a special table for Ethan. When the cat knocks the dish off, Mattie realizes immediately the importance of the breakage, while Ethan, significantly, does not even remember that the dish was a wedding gift. Ethan replaces the dish, broken but fragilely pieced together, and reassures Mattie that he has a plan for fixing it. He will get glue and repair it tomorrow, trust that Zeena will not notice it until next spring cleaning or at least for several months, and in the meantime will find a replacement in Shadd’s Falls or Bettsbridge. Like all of his other dreams, this one too is fated to fail, and even more painfully so since he comes so close. He gets the glue but only after going to several stores, a delay that costs him the opportunity to repair it before Zeena returns. Zeena, looking for powders for her illness (again linking medicines with the pickles), finds the broken dish and, pathetically explaining its significance to her, links its fate with that of Mattie. Holding the shattered dish, she makes it a symbol for the wreckage of her life and what she intuitively knows is the loss of Ethan to Mattie: “‘You’re a bad girl, Mattie Silver, and I always known it. It’s the way your father begun, and I was warned of it when I took you, and I tried to keep my things where you couldn’t get at em—and now you’ve took—from me the one thing I cared for most of all.’ She broke off in a short spasm of sobs that passed and left her more than ever like a shape of stone” (EF, 94). The “shape of stone,” like the granite outside, carries the broken glass out of the room “as if she carried a dead body.”
The sexual significance of the pickle-dish also cannot be ignored. In his excellent analysis of the meaning of the dish, Kenneth Bernard argues that the dish is emblematic of Ethan’s and Zeena’s sexual life (Bernard, 178-84). The dish is Zeena’s most prized wedding gift. She relegates it to ceremonial, not functional use. She has never yet found the occasion for ceremony. Mattie uses the pickle-dish, with its phallic contents, and it gets broken, never to be the same again. Zeena, understanding this intrusion for the irrevocable sacrilege that it is, cries out her own loss but never accepts the blame. For Zeena, the source of the sterility of her marriage will always lie in other people. She, in giving the empty medicine jar to Mattie to use for pickles, symbolically, albeit unwittingly, passes her sexuality on to Mattie—but Ethan’s impotence makes the gesture a useless, broken one. The cucumber vine at the entrance to Zeena and Ethan’s house is indeed a very dead one.
The red pickle-dish, then, when used by Mattie symbolizes life, vitality, warmth, security; in Zeena’s hand it is repression, distance, covetousness, manifested in cold glass. This symbolic contrast of the two women is used by Wharton in several other image patterns throughout the novel. The red of the pickle-dish, which only comes to life with Mattie, is clearly Mattie’s color. Ethan can easily discern which of the church dancers she is by the “cherry-colored” fascinator on her head (EF, 23). Or, when they arrive home that night to meet the resentful Zeena, Mattie has the “colour of the cherry scarf in her fresh lips and cheeks” (EF, 40). On the evening of her arrival, she had first appeared with a ribbon at her neck, eliciting a sarcastic stare from Zeena (EF, 58). Mattie also wears a streak of crimson ribbon the night of her dinner with Ethan; the ribbon “transformed and glorified her.” At the only other time of real happiness for the couple, the summer picnic, Mattie has on a pink hat; and on her moving day, during the sleigh ride, Mattie has on her red scarf. At all the major events of their courtship—the meeting, the picnic, the dinner, the last ride—Mattie has on red; Zeena by contrast wears ugly yellow flannel (EF, 42). When the narrator sees the two women more than 20 years later, Zeena is still in a “slatternly calico wrapper.” Mattie’s red ribbons are gone; her hair is grey.
The gray hair that Mattie and Zeena share at the end of the novel is a blending of the color patterns that have appeared throughout the story. Always there is a contrast between the light, bright, hot, red world of Mattie, and the grey, dull, cold world of Zeena and Starkfield. The opening paragraph of the internal story sets this stage: “The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations” (EF, 20). What could offer the clarity of black and white in Ethan’s world always blends to grey. The black shade of the Varnum spruces becomes grey under the stars (EF, 34). The open country stretches “grey and lonely under the stars” as Ethan and Mattie wind their solitary way homeward (EF, 37). As Ethan looks out the window on Mattie’s last day, he sees the grey fields (EF, 100).
It is this greyness that permeates all of Ethan’s environment and reflects his inability to see clearly or act decisively. The opaqueness turns to clear black only when Ethan and Zeena first openly express their anger. As Ethan lights the candle in his bedroom, “Zeena’s face stood grinning out against the uncur-tained pane, which turned from grey to black.” But the clarity is too late, the habits of inertia too strong, the implications of this anger too terrifying to face. The greyness wins; Zeena and Mattie are blended together when the narrator meets them, Zeena with “her thin grey hair … drawn away from a high forehead,” and Mattie, “her hair as grey as her companion’s, her face as bloodless and shriveled” (EF, 127).
The grey atmosphere of Starkfield is occasionally broken by red dawns and hearth fires, but rather than warmth and hope they offer only a disdainfully ironic comment on Ethan’s life. The “cold fires of Orion” outline the dimensions of Ethan’s dilemma, as his existence seems stifled by the oxymoron that is his life. Standing outside the church, Ethan can only observe the “volcanic fires” of the heaving dancers. Mattie’s coming to his house is “like the lighting of a fire on a cold hearth.” Ethan and Mattie return from the dance to a fire that has been out long ago; it becomes warm and inviting again only when Ethan and Mattie are alone before it. When the narrator is invited into Ethan’s kitchen, the fire is out, and Mattie is whining about the cold.
Just as the hearth fire promises only illusionary warmth, so the sun gives little consolation. The sunset is “cold red” (EF, 26). The sun does rise bright in the sky, and Mattie’s face becomes a part of the sun’s red, but her reflection only intensifies the lonely helplessness Ethan feels. Finally, he awakes after his night of mourning for Mattie, and the chill of the winter dawn is in the room—the red sun is on the grey rim of the fields, rising on what is to be Mattie’s last day (EF, 99-100).
Watching over all of Ethan’s world is another recurring symbol that Wharton uses to comment on Ethan: Orion. Already noted is the reference to Orion’s cold fires, and it is Orion that Ethan explains to Mattie as he subconsciously courts her on their walks together: “That’s Orion down yonder; the big fellow to the right is Aldebaran, and the bunch of little ones—like bees swarming—they’re the Pleiades” (EF, 26). Orion is an apt symbol for Ethan, with its connotations of failure and lost dreams. Ethan’s guardian star, according to mythology, was originally a great hunter, a young man of huge stature and impressive beauty. He fell in love with the daughter of the king of Chios. The king promised him his daughter but kept delaying the match until Orion, frustrated and drunk, attacked the maiden. For his rashness he was blinded, but his sight was later restored by the rays of the sun. Another element of the myth has Orion pursuing the Pleiades, the daughters of Atlas, but always being thwarted. Zeus took pity on the women and made them stars. Orion, as a constellation, has persistently continued his unsuccessful chase.
Aldebaran, the second star Ethan mentions, is equally foreboding. While it is the brightest star in the constellation Taurus, it also follows the Pleiades in useless pursuit. To complete the ominous star pattern, Wharton also has Ethan look straight into the heavens immediately after the crash and vaguely try “to reckon whether it was Sirius,” the brightest star in the sky and the dog star who celestially follows the ill-fated Orion.
Orion and his followers, then, form a symbolic cluster that overshadows Ethan’s life. He describes them to demonstrate his learning to Mattie, with a poignant echo of his thwarted hopes for an education. Orion is his guardian as Ethan looks into the church that bright winter night (the time when the constellation is most prominent), once again an observer to the possibilities within; and Sirius stares at the maimed bodies at the front of the elm. In a deft touch Wharton ties the fate of the constellation to the fate of the lovers by naming Mattie’s father Orion, whose failure and death bring Mattie to the Frome farm in the first place. Mattie and Ethan are indeed star crossed.
Mattie, Ethan, and Zenobia also have significant names. Mattie’s name is the feminine of the Hebrew name Matthew, literally “gift of Jehovah”—exactly what Ethan sees her presence in his life to be. Zeno-bia, by contrast, derives from the Latin meaning, “pertaining to Jupiter” or Zeus. According to legend, she was the daughter of Zeus. She was also a third-century queen of Palmyra who conquered Egypt. Her ambition outran her prudence, and she was defeated and brought as a prisoner to Rome. Her name has now become a symbol of ruthless arrogance. Ethan’s own name is bitingly ironic. Like Mattie’s, it comes from the Hebrew and means “firmness and strength”—the two qualities that could have given Ethan his “gift from Jehovah.”
Last names, too, are emblematic: Ethan’s “Frome” reminds us of Ethan’s need to escape, to be “from” Starkville but not “in” the bleak town. Zeena is aptly from the Pierce family, a name connoting sharpness and wounding. Mattie, of course, is Silver—twinkling, promising, sparkling. Again, the underlying irony enhances the tragedy.
Wharton uses all of these symbols to weave a tight structure for her story, holding together the disparate characters and strengthening the sense that they are inescapably entangled in a tragic web where every attempt at escape is only a fierce struggle that further entangles, further traps. Ethan wants to go to school, to escape the boredom of Starkfield; his mother’s illness and death rein him in. Mattie offers him a glimpse of what could be, only to become what might have been. The narrator sees what is and will be until the principals are dead.
Helge Normann Nilsen (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Nilsen, Helge Normann. “Naturalism in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.” In Performances in American Literature and Culture: Essays in Honor of Professor Orm Øverland on His 60th Birthday, edited by Vidar Pedersen and Eljka Švrljuga, pp. 179-88. Bergen, Norway: University of Bergen, 1995.
[In the following essay, Nilsen reflects upon how the literary theory of naturalism may have informed Wharton’s creation of Ethan Frome.]
Both as a theory about reality and a literary practice, naturalism presents a materialistic and agnostic world view. As a philosophic doctrine it has been defined
as the theory that the whole of the universe or of experience may be accounted for by a method like that of the physical sciences, and with recourse only to the current conceptions of physical and natural science; more specifically, that mental and moral processes may be reduced to the themes and categories of the natural sciences. It is best defined negatively as that which excludes everything distinctly spiritual or transcendental.
(Baldwin 1960, 137-38)
In other words, nothing exists but physical matter, movement and change without human meaning or end. Life itself is a chance product of the environment. The world, society, human beings, events; all can be explained in terms of material causes and conditions. Mechanistic determinism reigns, and the various kinds of social and moral con-ditioning that people are subject to are also a type of observable, determining forces.
The fiction of Edith Wharton is strongly colored by this world view. Her friend Egerton Winthrop intro-duced her at an early age to the thinkers whose works lay behind the naturalistic movement in literature. In this way she was introduced to
the extraordinary world of Darwin and Spencer, Huxley and Haeckel. It was to Winthrop that she owed such understanding as she reached not only of the theory of evolution, but of the naturalist theory of the implacable power of the environment. Those fictional figures of hers who struggle pathetically and unsuccessfully against their stifling surroundings are belated offspring of the tutelage of Egerton Winthrop.
(Lewis 1957, 56-57)
Later in her life Wharton visited churches and seemed to harbor religious sentiments:
Those who had known her from old in tight possession of another doctrine, her brain swept clear of any cobwebs of mystification, in all the severity of her rationality—it was natural for them, marking these signs of change, to take them as betokening a slipping and sliding of her assurance that could only end in one way, at one point of rest.
(Lubbock 1969, 235)
The point of rest refers to Christianity, but Lubbock insists that Wharton, in spite of having tender sentiments towards churches, never abandoned her naturalistic world view.
In her fiction she takes mechanistic determinism as her starting point and sets about demonstrating how the theory works in practice, what happens to her characters and the reasons why. Her approach is in keeping with the theory of the experimental novel developed by Zola, the father of naturalism. Here, the novelist works like a scientist, introducing characters into a given physical environment and “observing” what happens to them. Under the chosen conditions a set of outcomes, usually tragic, are shown to be inevitable. In Ethan Frome Wharton may concern herself more with the presence and influence of nature than Zola would have done, but the method is the same. Given their time, place and circumstances, the characters in the novella cannot avoid their fate. In classic naturalistic, pessimistic fashion they become victims who cannot control their own lives. The plot itself is deterministic, and effect follows cause in an unbroken downward curve ending in disaster. The characters may have a free will in principle and be differently equipped for the struggle for survival, but they are ultimately subject to the workings of outside forces and not free agents in any meaningful sense.
In addition to determinism it has been suggested that three features are essential to a definition of American literary naturalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These are survival, violence and taboo (Walcutt 1956, 20 ff.). The Darwinian survival struggle is represented in the muted but fierce battle of wills between Ethan and his semi-invalid wife Zeena. As for violence, it does not occur on the personal level, but is very much present in nature. Impersonal forces and blind chance are violent in themselves, as seen in the upheavals of nature and climate and in the catastrophic sledding accident at the end. Taboos are broken, though not in the most typical naturalistic way of describing the squalid and seamy sides of life. Wharton’s coolly disillusioned presentation of nature and life is a different, but quite as shocking violation of the Victorian taboo on atheism and agnosticism.
Carefully observing cause and effect, the author assembles the evidence and builds her case. Three forces dominate: the natural, the economic and the social, and Wharton demonstrates how her characters have no hope of rising above their circumstances. The first chapter opens with a paragraph that sets the tone for the whole story, presenting the overwhelming impact of nature in winter:
The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.
The harsh climate oppresses people and limits their options severely. The universe itself is neutral or hostile towards human concerns, as suggested by the imagery of iron, ice and cold. In relation to this, the activities and lives of mere human beings become insignificant and pathetic. The destinies of the main characters illustrate perfectly Wharton’s somber vision. Moreover, her determinism embraces all of the characters, also those who might be regarded as winners in the Darwinian struggle. The young Dennis Eady is the son of a successful grocer and stands to inherit a thriving business, but the story also contains a glimpse of him as an old man. In the end he, like everyone else, will succumb to old age and death. The author’s emphasis is never on freedom or choice, but always on limitations and constraints.
In a tale such as this the plot demonstrates the inexorable march of cause and effect. It originates in the struggle for self-preservation of Zeena when she realizes that she may lose her husband to Mattie, a young woman and relative who lives with them and helps with the housework. This plot, driven by Zeena’s indomitable will, is hinted at in the beginning when we are told that she is the one who has suggested that Mattie should go to church dances. Zeena’s motive here is that the girl thus might meet a man and no longer be around to tempt Ethan.
Zeena’s strategy for getting rid of her rival and keep her provider is skillful and decisive. Her arguments appear to be reasonable and well-founded when she maintains that Mattie is too inexperienced to do the housework properly. She also points out that she cannot trust the girl to take care of her because she may marry Dennis Eady and leave the Frome farm. Zeena is a hypochondriac who uses her illnesses, real or imagined, to further her own interests. That her sickness is largely imaginary becomes evident after Ethan’s and Mattie’s accident, when she turns out to be stronger than one would have expected. From the start she has made up her mind about Mattie and has arranged for a new, hired girl to take her place. The two others, who fall in love with each other, are taken by surprise and are outmaneuvered.
Zeena’s meanness is very real, but Wharton makes it clear that she cannot really be blamed for securing her own interests, given her situation, with no other means of support except her husband. This is in keeping with the general situation for women at the time. The alternatives for Zeena are unthinkable: destitution and charity. As for Mattie, she has to rely on the goodwill of relatives and ends up as an unpaid maid in Zeena Fromes’s household. Both women are victims of the traditional female role, which the story shows as another burden or determining force.
Wharton’s dramatic irony is an important vehicle for the expression of her pessimism. When Zeena goes away to Bettsbridge to see a new doctor, the arrival of Mattie’s replacement, the hired girl, is imminent, but Ethan and Mattie are blissfully unaware of this fact. The happy evening that the two spend together in the house is only a moment in a fool’s paradise, serving to emphasize the tragedy that follows. The love between them is also frustrated because of Ethan’s passivity, scruples and misplaced conscience. He is no match for Zeena and her scheme of pleading serious illness to gain her ends.
Throughout the story the author keeps contrasting Ethan’s and Mattie’s hopes for love and joy with the implacable forces arraigned against them. Together they appreciate the beauty of nature and enjoy walking home after a church dance. But the world around them is not very promising: “They stood together in the gloom of the spruces, an empty world glimmering about them wide and grey under the stars” (85). Even more eloquently, the headstones in the little Frome graveyard mock Ethan’s aspirations. They seem to tell him that his efforts are futile, that he will never get away from or manage to change his circumstances for the better. He is indeed trapped, like those who have gone before him.
In a similar way, Zeena herself assumes the proportions of an unavoidable fate blocking his way as she stands in the doorway, a forbidding presence for the two lovers arriving at the house this winter night:
Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast, while the other held a lamp. The light, on a level with her chin, drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wristbone of the hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face under its ring of crimping-pins.
The presence and influence of this deceptively frail woman are just as imposing as nature itself or the existing economic restraints. The ominous nature of her decisiveness is further underlined by the description of the kitchen, which seems like a cold vault, an abode of the dead. These references foreshadow the disastrous denouement of the tale. Wharton also emphasizes the ironic contrast between the beauty of nature and its very real menace to human well-being and happiness. The next day the winter morning is crystal clear, the sun is burning in a pure sky, and the shadows are dark and blue and “beyond the white and scintillating fields patches of far-off forest hung like smoke” (91).
The economic and social determinants are also fateful enough. Mattie has been left penniless after her father died a criminal and a bankrupt and her mother died of the shock and scandal. These events hint at the brutal economic forces at work in early American capitalist society. Mattie has also not received any education that could have enabled her to acquire a decent job. Similarly, Ethan and his mother have been victimized by socio-economic circumstances and illness. His father died in an accident and Ethan had to take over the Frome farm. He was made poor, however, by the fact that his father had become half-mad and had given away his money before he died. …