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...
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