Ethan From, the main character in the Edith Wharton novel Ethan From, is a man who lives in a world of silence. He lives in the New England town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, with his bitter wife and his wife's cousin Mattie. Over time Ethan is a man who has become trapped in Starkfield due to the number of winters he has endured. The mood throughout the novel is that of Winter. Winter connotes detachment, loneliness, bleakness, bitterness, and seclusion which are all portrayed in the novel. This essay will show how Edith Wharton uses seasonal symbolism to heighten the tragedy in the novel. Ethan is a twenty-eight year old man who feels trapped in his home town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. The novel takes place in the late 1800's, this was a hard time for all but when you add in the harsh winters of Starkfield things get worse. The novel beings with a description of Starkfield, "the village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners" (Wharton 15) this is a basic picture of Starkfield throughout the novel. Starkfield like Ethan has given into the rigors of the many winter. Ethan is a poor farmer who has to support a "sickly" wife who does nothing but complain about everything. Ethan married his wife of seven years, Zeena, who is a bit older than he, following the death of his mother, in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the silence, isolation, and the loneliness of the life of Starkfield. The setting for Ethan From is winter. Edith Wharton , the author, chose winter because it symbolizes the emotional, physical isolation, cold, darkness and death that surround Ethan. Similarly, the name of the town Starkfield is symbolic of Ethan's life. Stark depicts the many harsh winters causing unproductive, spiritless, and devastation to the people of Starkfield. One citizen may have said it best, "Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters" (5). The reader can take this statement one of two ways; that his livelihood has been taken away after the number of winters he has endure in Starkfield, or that his appearance is that of a weather beaten man. "There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face" (3). The key word in that quotation is bleak, that is a word used quite often to describe winter. Ethan at this point has no regard for his physical appearance, it's as if all he is doing is trying to get through another winter. The narrator notes, " During the early part of my stay I had been struck, the climate and the deadness of the community" (5). Wharton emphasizes the rigor of life in a harsh community with its cold winters and its bleakness. The whole community is lifeless and stark, this is not a town for anyone to prosper in. The snow had ceased, and a flash of watery sunlight exposed the house on the slope above us in a plaintive ugliness. The black wraith of a deciduous creeper flapped form the porch, and the thin wooden walls, under their worn coats of paint, seemed to shiver in the wind that had risen with the ceasing snow (11) This depressing image painted in this quotation describes the environment , as well as Ethan. Just as Ethan's home was once new but has been torn apart by the many harsh winters in Starkfield, so to was poor old Ethan. Ethan's home has suffered the loss of it "L": "the long deep-roofed adjunct usually built next to the main home, connecting it, through storerooms and tool-house" (11). Ethan removed this portion of his home in order to make his life easier or better yet as a type of symbolism. Consider, the "L" of ones home "presents of a link with the soil, and enclosing in itself the chief sources of warmth and nourishment" (11). One can compare the destruction of the "L" on his home to his actual life, as the narrator states " this connection of ideas, caused me to hear a wistful note in From's words, and to see the diminished dwelling the image of his own shrunken body" (11). The devastation of winter can destroy both a man's will to live and the buildings which were build to protect him from that environment. As the narrator explains, " I had a sense that his [Ethan] loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had it in the profound accumulated cold of many winters" (7). One can interpret this as Ethan's life is tragic, in the sense that it's not what Ethan wanted for himself, and is continually looking for a way to get away from Starkfield. The three main characters in the novel Ethan From, Zeena From, and Mattie Silver all seem at one point in time to take on the properties of the season most prominent within the novel, winter. Winter is a season that can be lonely, bitter, and bleak and Zeena represents this to the fullest. It all started when young Ethan's mother became sick and he needed some help around the house, not only for his mother but for himself as well. The house was to quiet and this was driving him insane. Soon after Ethan's mother death he married Zeena, out of fear of being alone. "After the mortal silence of his long imprisonment Zeena's volubility was music in his ears. He felt that he might have gone like his mother' if the sound of a new voice had not come to steady him" ( 35). With the long, cold and lonely winters of Starkfield, one needs companionship. Zeena appeared to be perfect, but he married Zeena under false pretenses. "Zeena had always been what Starkfield called "sickly" "(18), and this was just another one of Ethan's many problems he could not allude. The winters seemed to bring out the best in Zeena illness or what she may call her "complications". Over time Ethan began to question his marriage to Zeena. He often wondered if, "it would not have happened if his mother had not died in the spring instead of the winter
" (35). He is saying he married Zeena only as an escape of the loneliness of winter. It is as this time that Ethan makes a reference to the fact that winter is a time when the worst things in his life happen. Like the black vine that hangs on his porch which represents death and winter, Ethan can not allude either of them. Like when, Ethan and Mattie attempt to preserve their happiness and remain together the only way they see it possible, death. Now it is Mattie who becomes, inadvertently, the cause of Ethan's tragic life. Like the many tragic episodes of Ethan's life, the death of his mother, his marriage to Zeena, and now the attempted suicide all coincide with winter. Ethan had many dreams which he had hoped to reach with his marriage to Zeena. He had hoped to move west or to take an engineering job in Florida to escape the winters of Starkfield. "Most of the smart ones get away" (6), and that's what Ethan had planned to do. But his dreams fades with the passing of each cold winter. The best way to explain Ethan's dreams are "all snowed under" (8). Like the snow that accumulates in Starkfield on top of the soil Ethan's dreams have in a sense been snowed under, which made them hard to reach and eventually unattainable. Although Ethan's dreams have become in a sense snowed under he does find a way to escape his cold wife and bitterness of winter. The arrival of Mattie is like the warm clean air of a new spring that has brought excitement into Ethan's life. Mattie was his release and helped him forget all his ills in Starkfield. Unlike his private time with Zeena, Ethan looked forward to his private moments with Mattie, for example when Zeena went to the doctor in Bettsbridge "all his thoughts were on the prospect of his evening with Mattie" (37). Like the anticipation of a new spring [Mattie], Ethan forgets all his troubles in the past winter [Zeena]. In contrast to Mattie's radiant warmth, Zeena is like that of wintry cold and unappealing. Like the winters of Starkfield, Ethan is continually is looking for a way to forget his lonely life with Zeena. The only way he knows how to achieve this is to be with Mattie or create an image in his mind with him and Mattie. With the anticipation of a new spring excitement builds and that is what Mattie does for Ethan. In view of his miserable life , the reader can well understand Ethan's need to leave Starkfield into world of warmth and love. The persuasiveness of the winter imagery evokes the bitter loneliness, silence, emptiness, and despair at the end felt by each of the three main characters. Their tragic lives are overshadowed by gloom and hopelessness, in much the same way winter stunts the growth and vitality of God's creations.