Ethan Frome Setting Essay
The connection between the land and the people is a recurring theme of the novel. The narrator is amazed by the harshness of the Stark field winters, and through his experience of the winter he comes to understand the character of the people. In her introduction to the novel, Wharton talks of the "outcropping granite" of New England, the powerful severity of its land and people. This connection between land and people is very much a part of naturalism; the environment is a powerful shaper of man's fate, and the novel represents this relationship by constantly describing the power and cruelty of Stark field’s winter.
Determinism is an important theme in this novel and in many of Wharton's other books. Starting with late-nineteenth century American literature, exposure to Darwin and thinkers like Huxley and Spencer began to have a strong influence on American novelists. Naturalism, the school of thought that makes individuals subject to forces of heredity and environment, was a new philosophical force in novels and plays. Individuals have little or no agency, and the environment destroys or nurtures as it sees fit. A person is either born to adapt or made to fail. In Ethan Frome, the influence of this Darwin-inspired outlook is undeniable. Wharton links it to an older form of determinism, the harsh philosophy of New England's old Calvinists, by choosing Stark field, Massachusetts as her setting. The historical backdrop of Puritanism is for atmosphere rather than for religious instruction: there is little God in Wharton. The environment, which can be natural, cultural, or situational, is the force that decides men's fates.
Rural New England in winter is a land under siege, with tiny towns and tinier farms separated by vast expanses of cold and snow. The isolation is both physical and emotional. Ethan feels from a young age that he is alone in his sensitivity to natural beauty and his curiosity about science. By...
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