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Ethan Frome

By lilywfu Nov 13, 2008 666 Words
Many have experienced the miserable dilemma that two conflicting desires can create. The eighteenth-century British novelist Laurence Stern once wrote, “Nobody, but he who has felt it, can conceive what a plaguing thing it is to have a man’s mind torn asunder by two projects of equal strength, both obstinately pulling in a contrary direction at the same time” in concurrence to this forlorn issue. Whether it is because of two compelling needs, aspirations, responsibilities, or influences, the means by which the person resolves this predicament speaks a great deal about his or her character. In the short novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, the protagonist is faced with such a decision. Constricted by poverty, geographical isolation, and the confines of society, the end results of his perilous decision will alter his life perpetually.

The plot of the novel centers around Ethan’s internal conflict and the choice he makes that puts him in his present condition. In the beginning of the novel, Ethan appears to be “bleak and unapproachable” and a “ruin of a man.” Ethan is poor but seems to be a rather simple, straightforward, and decent person. After his mother’s death, he marries a woman named Zeena who forces him to live in the cold, desolate town of Starkfield. She becomes a hypochondriac, and Ethan finds himself captive to his farm, the sawmill, and Zeena’s incessant complaining. His interest in Zeena’s cousin, Mattie, grows as he finds her to be a kindred spirit who understands him. She is youthful and beautiful and contrasts to the ill and shrewish image of Zeena. Ethan is shocked when he comes to a realization that he loves Mattie. He is pulled in two opposite directions as he considers the conflicting burdens of matrimonial duty and of his feelings for Mattie. He deliberates between doing what is right and doing what he wants. Because he lacks certain emotional strength and is so mastered by circumstances, Ethan suffers in silence. His desires are crushed by conditions such as Zeean’s illness, his financial instability, and his inability to break free of moral convention. Thus it is appropriate that the boldest decision he makes is to attempt suicide, which is an endeavor to escape all decisions for good rather than to face the consequences of any decision. When this fails, Ethan reverts back to his old habits and allows himself to once again become a prisoner of circumstance, forced to live a bitter and silenced existence. In the conclusion of the novel, Ethan allows the rules of society to control his life and thus he remains entrapped in a loveless marriage. Wharton cleverly constructed his internal conflict to illustrate social and moral concerns as obstacles to the fulfillment of individual desires. Lacking the nerve and force of will to face down the clash of his desires and social/moral orders, Ethan chooses to abandon all of life’s burdens by abandoning life itself. Other themes that are central to the work include silence, isolation, and the result of living according to the rules of society. All three of the main character are isolated and silenced in their own way, whether it is because of geographical location, obligations, or outside circumstances. Finally, the most important message that Wharton conveys through Ethan is that when people fear they are violating the rules of society, they risk becoming enslaved by those rules. The novel ends as a tragic romance. Ethan’s inner conflict is a perfect example of how society and morality are obstacles to the fulfillment of desire. Ethan’s mind is indeed “torn asunder” by his fight with his own conscience, as he decides whether or not to reveal to Mattie his true feelings. Ethan sees suicide as the only escape from the loneliness and isolation that has become his life. The fate of all three characters is decided upon in the final suicidal sled run. Consequently, in the end, Ethan submits to his obligations.

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