Morality in Ethan Frome
In The Morality of Inertia, Lionel Trilling argues that Ethan Frome’s inability to make his own ethical decisions ultimately makes his ‘smash-up’ a tragic event caused by the inactivity of morality. The nonexistence of this moral inertia is the explanation, for Trilling, for the outcome of Frome; the lack of moral responsibility in any of the main characters from the beginning of their lives paralyzes their decision making process-- they simply exist and do what is their duty. Trilling’s aspect that Frome was a morally inadequate man is a valid fact affirmed by Edith Wharton’s provided background of him; the idea that he was unable to make choices and is only capable of enduring can be proven inaccurate with his Frome’s actions throughout the story.
The notion that Ethan Frome is incapable of making ethical decisions based on his background can also be countered with his background and actions. Trilling uses Frome’s “duties as a husband” and son as support for his claim that “[c]hoice is incompatible with [Ethan’s existence]” (from Morality of Inertia). However, the reader is exposed to Ethan’s ability to recognize choices, and decisions not to act on them, throughout the story. Frome acknowledges his dilemma of running away with Mattie or staying with Zeena, but is inefficient in seeing past the initial consequences of each choice and exploring other possibilities of escape besides the basic. Ethan’s central decision in the book, to commit suicide with Mattie, is made with free will; although it is Mattie’s idea, Ethan agrees and takes the reins in the front of the sled. Although Ethan Frome is a broken man perpetually frozen in a bleak Starkfield, one cannot disregard his inaction when he is presented and acknowledges choices. He constantly contemplates expressing his love for Mattie, looking for “the all-expressive word,” but fails to, even when alone with her, making “free choice” a moot point (Ethan Frome; from Morality of...
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