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Essay/Term paper: Truly a living hell

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Position Papers

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Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is known as a classic novel of American realism.

This short novel described a mournful situation that ruined the already

afflicted lives of two lovers, and also depicted a third person whose life

was dramatically changed. The catastrophe that was encountered by the

characters was caused by simple human emotions. These fears and passions

eventually led to one life-altering decision. Edith Wharton's powerfully

tragic novel, Ethan Frome, exposes the depths of derangement that a combined

life of loneliness and hopelessness can drive a person to attain.

Ethan Frome is narrated by a nameless character who appears in the prologue

and in the epilogue of the novel. This man was a youthful engineer with some

time to spend in Starkfield. He was curious about the odd appearance of Ethan

Frome. His investigative manner caused him to interrogate some of the town's

residents about Ethan. He received interesting feedback in choppy bits; not

as a sequential story. With his newfound information, he pieced together the

story of Ethan's life. He powerfully narrated the story of Ethan Frome, a

character who had withdrawn from society after years of hopeless effort to

bring happiness into his life.

Ethan lived with his consistently ill wife, Zeena, and her cousin, Mattie.

Ethan had a troubled life, and an unhappy marriage to Zeena. He looked

fondly upon Mattie, and realized one night that he loved the young girl.

Shortly after this "discovery", Zeena went out of town to find new medicines

to cure one of her new affliction. While she was gone, Ethan was excited to

finally be alone with Mattie. Their private time was romantically and

otherwise uneventful with the exception for Mattie breaking a glass dish that

was cherished by Zeena. Zeena returned with news that she must hire a new

girl who will complete all the housework because Zeena would have to be

bedridden. At first Ethan refused to believe that Zeena would force Mattie

to leave. He knew he could not argue with Zeena, but decides that he would

find some way to stay with Mattie. He did not want to be separated from this

girl that he loved, yet he did not even know yet if she returned these

feelings for him. On the day she was to leave, Ethan helped her load her

things and started to bring her to get a train. On their way, they stop to

reflect on their time together and finally profess their love for each other.

Rather than separate, they attempt a double suicide. More tragically then

dying in each other's arms, they survive to go on living a hellish life.

The setting of this novel promotes each character's loneliness. It took

place in a small New England town in the dead of winter. The winter season

drains the life out of plants, buries the houses in snow, and creates and

morbid and somber seclusion. The small town of Starkfield was a cold and

desolate place. Ethan's wife, Zeena, and Mattie, are both solitary figures.

Zeena's illness, whether wholly mental or a valid physical condition,

consumed her, and permitted her from leaving the house regularly. Mattie's

attempt to escape her loneliness was to seek refuge by working for the

Frome's. When she was told she must leave, she chose the notion of death as

opposed to returning to a world of seclusion.

Ethan Frome's entire existence reflects his failure to succeed at anything

during his existence. Ethan's misfortune began at a young age. In his youth,

he had aspired to go on to study science. Family sickness and death crushed

this dream. Then, after he married Zeena, he was unable to fulfill his

intentions of selling the farm and moving to a city because of her bad

health. His repeat defeat caused him to grow discouraged and frustrated with

age. Without emotional or physical strength, he succumbed to disappointment

and abandoned his effort to persevere a life of hopes and dreams. Instead,

he ended up existing in a vegetative state as he has devoted all of his time

and energy to the farm. This monotonous work provided him with little

satisfaction, and his small wages were used by Zeena to purchase medicines.

Without any spare money, Ethan could not escape with Mattie because he could

not afford the fare for them to travel west. He was not able to bring himself

to steal money by deceiving people who relate to him, so he and Mattie

decided to head for happiness in the afterlife. When their attempted suicide

failed, Ethan discovered himself in a living a life more lonely and hopeless

than before his failed self-destruction. While Zeena was her usual cold and

unforgiving self, Mattie had turned bitter after the "accident". The two

women fought terribly in their old age.

Earlier in the story, on their way to the Flats to catch Mattie's train,

Ethan and Mattie recalled the good times they had shared in the short year

they have known each other. Then they stopped to go coasting. This activity

represents their last enjoyable experience together. Unable to contain

themselves any longer, they both confessed their love for each other. At the

top of the hill, Mattie turned and cried, "Ethan! Ethan! I want you to take

me down again! … So 't we'll never come up anymore" (130). Ethan first

thought that Mattie was insane to want to die instead of go away, but he then

realized there is logic to her idea. The thought of going home to his

hateful wife persuaded him that he would rather die there with Mattie than

return to live unhappily with Zeena. They got on the sled and kissed each

other for the last time. As the sled dove down the hill, Ethan steered toward

the trunk of a huge elm tree. They crashed head on into the tree, but

unfortunately they both survived.

Ethan's secluded life caused him to lose touch not only with his wife, but

also with the whole community. This loss of touch originated in his silence.

The excessive lack of communication extended into the lives of all the

characters. Ethan and Zeena rarely spoke, and the few times they did

seriously converse, Zeena was quick to remind Ethan of her condescending

behavior. For example, when Ethan tried to argue for Mattie to remain at

their home, Zeena replied that Mattie was, "A pauper that's hung onto us all

after her father'd done his best to ruin us. I've kept her here a whole

year; it's somebody else's turn now" (93). With harsh backlashes such as

this, it is no wonder Ethan partially withdrew from society and spoke only

when the necessity arose. This self-implied seclusion also reflected the

fact that for a long time while Ethan cared for his sick mother, she was

almost mute. In his life, he was either surrounded by either words of pain or

no words at all. Ethan's isolation intensified because he was often

tongue-tied when he wished to express himself verbally. For example, when he

was alone with Mattie for the evening and wished to surprise her with

romantic words, he could not find words to illustrate his feelings. He only

managed to say, "Come over here and sit by the stove" when in his heart he

wanted to share a close and intimate evening talking with her (73).

Edith Wharton crafted her writing with carefully chosen words. Her style of

writing reflects Ethan's attitude that words are many times unessential and

not necessary to go on living in physical world. She has a reason for every

action and each descriptive passage. Her language is direct and precise. She

writes in an efficient manner so that she does not waste any time or energy

by concentrating on unimportant details not pertaining to the theme of the

story. An example of this efficiency can be seen when she realized the

effect Starkfield's cold winters had on Frome. "When winter shut down on

Starkfield, and the village lay under a sheet of snow perpetually renewed

from the pale skies, I began to see what life there-or rather its

negation-must have been in Ethan Frome's young manhood" (14). The freezing

winters killed more than plant life in the desolate village. Ethan's Frome's

consciousness slowly withered away each harsh day he resided there.

Edith Wharton played with contrasting moods in this story. In many instances

she used brightness to off set the gloominess of a situation. Wharton

exemplified this contrast when Zeena announced that she is going out of town

for new medicine. At first Ethan was nervous because, "Zeena always came

back laden with expensive remedies…she had never been able to learn to use

(53). A short while later, Ethan became light-hearted when he realized that

"for the first time since Mattie had come to live with them, Zeena was to be

away for a night", and he would be able to spend the night alone with Mattie

(55). The light in the novel is commonly associated with Ethan's good

spirits, mainly those concerning his love of Mattie. To illustrate that

Mattie is to hold this positive position in Ethan's view, Mattie's last name

is Silver. Darkness is suggested throughout the story by Zeena, Mattie's

opposition. Whenever physically depicted, Zeena is seated in the dark

kitchen with a gloomy expression on her face.

Ethan Frome contained interesting symbolism. Wharton's choice of symbols

affected the mood of the story. Wharton used the cat as a striking

resemblance to Zeena. The cat added to hopelessness of Ethan's situation

because on the evening that Zeena was away, Ethan could not enjoy himself

without the cat's constant interference. Especially while Mattie and Ethan

were trying to eat supper, the cat was "unbidden, and jumped between them

into Zeena's empty chair". (68) Symbolized by the cat, Zeena had a firm hold

on Ethan's conscience even while she was away. Wharton illustrated this

beautifully, "Ethan, a moment earlier, had felt himself on the brink of

eloquence, but the mention of Zeena had paralyzed him" (68). The cat ended a

tender moment between Ethan and Mattie when she jumped up on the table and

knocked a glass dish to the floor, smashing it. When Zeena returned from her

trip to Bettsbridge, she feeds and strokes the cat lovingly.

Most tragic stories contain a significant ray of optimism that manages to

peak through the disheartening cloud of desperation that the book manifests.

Possibly this aspiration comes in the form of the gallant qualities of the

main character who portrays his nobility to the utmost extent. There is no

such reassuring occurrence in Ethan Frome. Ethan was unable to rid himself of

his invalid wife Zeena. Even his attempt to kill himself failed. After the

painful "smash-up", he is still fated to be with her forever, even in the

grave. His failure to escape the world doomed him to a living death. At no

point in the story did he reconsider his suicide attempt and disagree with

it. He possessed the attitude that wished that he had died on that snowy

day; in many ways he did in fact suffer a fatality. The characters portrayed

in the story were not only physically ailing, but they were also sick at

heart. Their lives lacked meaning and they suffered from the death of their

spirits. Although Ethan remained intact physically, he might as well have

been dead. An acquaintance observed, "I don't see's there's much difference

between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard" (140).

Ethan Frome is a short novel that analyzes why a human would reach the point

of hopelessness and isolation in which they were so desperate they wanted to

end their existence. Wharton achieved her theme using contrasts and

symbolism. The reader's conclusion should be that one the night when Ethan

and Mattie attempted suicide, Ethan did injure a tremendous part of himself.

He strangled his ability to love, be loved, or to correspond with his soul.

Surviving the crash meant he was forced to endure years of hellish physical

and mental torment. 

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