April 27, 2008
Frome’s Desire and the Path to the Elm
Of the many themes present in Edith Wharton's tragic novel, Ethan Frome that could be discussed at length, one of these that above all seem to drive the plot of the novel from event to event. This is the theme of desire. Each character in the novel has things that they long for privately and publicly. They make decisions based on these longings and lead the reader on a path from an unhappy marriage and innocent love to tragedy at the bottom of an elm tree.
Wharton's novel shows a variety of private desires within its characters and how this influences the outcome of this story. In his youth, Ethan is a bright young man who has an aptitude for technology and engineering. He is shown to have a deep attachment to nature and often finds comfort in the landscape around him despite its oppressiveness and isolation in winter. Ethan's farm is barren and provides little income for him, yet he often notes the beauty of his natural surroundings and seems to have an interest in knowing more than he can learn in Starkfield. Ethan's interests lead him to desire a life away from his home and the long winter season there. Little is said about his time in Florida but it is implied that he was very happy there and got a taste of what life could be like for him. This time in his life shows him all of the things he does not have later in Starkfield.
The first real taste of misfortune for Ethan comes when his father is kicked in the head by a horse. Wharton writes that after the accident Frome's father gave away money "like Bible text" and slowly left the family in poverty (Frome, p. 7). Later, his mother is afflicted with an illness that causes her to fade both mentally and physically over the course of several years, leaving the Frome's with nothing but their farm. Ethan must return to Starkfield permanently to care for his parents, and the many doors that were open to him are closed. As the Fromes go on, the happiness that once filled the home fades away, leaving only its memory behind. Many of Ethan's private desires relating to his life and later to Mattie come from his family in childhood but are changed or reinforced by the time he spends caring for his parents.
Wharton shows an example of this in the comparison of the Frome house under his mother's care, and then later under Zeena and Mattie's. "The kitchen was a poor place, not "spruce" and shining as his mother had kept it in his boyhood; but it was surprising what a homelike look the mere fact of Zeena's absence gave it" (Frome, 29). In his description of how his mother used to keep the kitchen of their home, it’s shown that Ethan has a desire for the comfort and love that existed there in his youth. The word “spruce” implies a kitchen that was properly organized and cared for. It leads one to imagine a room much used in a home tucked away in the woods and isolated by winter most of the year. In the lines following this text Ethan imagines how it will be to be alone in his house with Mattie for the first time. His desire to recreate the happy relationship that his parents had years ago is not met in his relationship with Zeena. When Ethan is with Mattie he can see a future for himself as happy as the one he lost in Florida.
As a wife, Zeena seems cold and controlling; she does not offer Ethan the warmth that he longs for. When his mother dies, Ethan marries Zeena out of a sense of obligation and perhaps loneliness. The condition of the marriage does not seem to bother him until Zeena's orphaned cousin enters their lives. Mattie is her opposite in almost every way. While described as frail, she is not sickly like Zeena, nor does she have the ever watching negative presence that Zeena projects.
Mattie's character in the novel is loving and light. Despite the death of her parents and her desperate situation, she brings some...