In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, one interesting aspect was the relationship between the nature and weather of Starkfield, and the protagonist’s bleak situation throughout the events of the story. Ethan Frome is a native inhabitant of Starkfield. He has been bound to the area his entire life, even though he was capable of greater things than working on his family farm and sawmill. Once a college student, headed towards a career of engineering, Ethan was brought back by the death of his father.
As his mother took ill and passed, followed by his wife Zeena becoming sickly, Ethan did not find another opportunity to leave the small town. This tragic outcome for Ethan’s life carries a cold and dark atmosphere, much like the reoccurring weather in the story. The constant cold precipitation, and wet environment all relate directly to Ethan’s feelings of imprisonment in his own life. This is displayed further in the time Ethan spent outdoors with Mattie, his secret love.
When Ethan walks Mattie home from town, their surroundings are depicted as somewhat magical.
Instead of focusing on the damp earth, the author illustrates the winter star-filled skies. The contrast in Wharton’s use of imagery to demonstrate Ethan’s different relationships is interesting to the reader as it further develops the characters of the two women. Where Zeena is cold, damp and bleak, Mattie is crisp and bright-eyed. It an also be noted that the aspects of the weather pertaining to Zeena’s character are often thought of as restricting ones.
Excess snow or rain results in limited access to roads for transportation, particularly those near Ethan’s remote farm.
This correlates to Zeena’s influence and control over Ethan and his movement in regards to Starkfield. Zeena binds Ethan to the town just as the weather often does. In comparison, the aspects of the weather relating to Mattie allow freedom for Ethan to walk and drive as he pleases. The night he accompanies Mattie on the trip back to the farm is described as a pleasant one. There is no worry that his routes will be restricted. This link between the weather and Ethan’s predicament is extended even further in the prologue and epilogue of the story.
The weather in this time period is described as unbearable and excruciating. As the outcome of Mattie’s accident is revealed, the reason becomes clear. After Mattie became paralyzed, her personality and characteristics shifted and she took on traits of bitterness, resent, and self-pity. These are all the traits that Zeena possessed in the earlier time period of the story. At this point, Ethan has lost any hope he had of moving away from Starkfield. In addition to caring for Zeena, Ethan has also had to attend to Mattie.
This desolation results in the depiction of weather so restricting, it affects even the trains. Overall, the author was very successful in creating the parallel between Ethan’s feelings and relationships and the weather of Starkfield. In demonstrating harsh winter storms as a symbol of Ethan’s austerity, and crisp, enchanting winter evenings as a symbol of his hope, Wharton was able to connect her readers to the novel on a subconscious level. The automatic connections of a bad relationship to bad weather allowed a deeper understanding to the events of the story, as well as a more enjoyable one.