How are the main characters in Ethan Frome trapped and confined by circumstances

Ethan Frome is a novel about the tragedy of three lives trapped together by circumstances. They live in an isolated town called Starkfield. The word Starkfield means harsh, severe and barren. The people who live there lack communication with one another. They live in the mountainous area, which becomes cut off by snow in winter. ‘The sluggish pulse of Starkfield’ The word ‘sluggish’ indicates the slow pace of life. The winter is the dullest season for the community of Starkfield. Hardly any trees can be seen in this season, because ‘ it’s all snowed under’.

The boughs of trees bent inward from the burden of snow, sheds are sagged under their white load. ‘White load’ is a metaphor for the word ‘snow’. The burden of snow is causing the sheds to sag. Ethan Frome is the main character of the novel. The story about his life is both sad and compelling. His story starts from the time when Ethan is a man of age not more than fifty two and lives in the bleak house of his parents.

‘… to see in the diminished dwelling the image of his own shrunken body’ The house reflects on Ethan’s shrunken body. It also reflects negatively on Ethan’s life.

Ethan bore all misfortunes held within it, lost his parents and still couldn’t improve his situation. The house shows total starvation of love and happiness. Ethan seems a part of the mute and melancholy landscape of the place he lives in. Although Ethan isn’t more than fifty two, he looks older.

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The lameness and the look he has, make him the most striking figure in Starkfield. ‘There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face…. ‘ In this quotation the Narrator introduces Ethan Frome to the reader. He is described as ruin of a man. His face is bleak and unapproachable as if he has no life sap in his veins.

The story of his life would affect anyone who could hear about it. . ‘… misfortunes brought premature end to Ethan’s studies. ‘ The word ‘misfortunes’ indicates a change of luck from something quite positive (his study) to a life of sacrifice looking after his parents. As any young man, Ethan was looking forward to finishing his studies. After his parents fell ill, the future he planned came to a halt. Bad luck was hunting him down until there was nothing left except fear and sorrow. He feels emotionally isolated. There is nothing positive in his life and his life is being lived in ‘the pure and frosty darkness in which he stood’.

The sudden death of his parents followed by an unhappy marriage trapped Ethan. He no more could experience happiness in his life and his situation became increasingly worse. The mood of Ethan Frome is very low and depressed. The writer shows this by constant reference to darkness and frozen landscape. Filled with unfulfilled dreams and lack of motivation he doesn’t resist. However, Ethan’s inner needs and interests are still the same as before his misfortunes. ‘Such tastes and acquirements in a man of his condition made the contrast more poignant between his outer situation and his inner needs. ‘

There is a contrast between the world surrounding him and the interests that he has. Ethan is compelled to accept the particular way of life, and forgets about his urge to get knowledge. Ethan’s life changes after the death of his parents. The death of his parents restricts his choices. After the death of his mother, Ethan couldn’t bear to stay in the house alone. That’s why he decided to marry Zeena. He was to regret his decision for the rest of his life. Zeena entered the house as a young lady full of life and love. However, after she was looking after Ethan’s mother, Zeena was acquiring the symptoms of a sick person.

Hardly Ethan had enjoyed their married life, ‘she too fell silent’. Zeena was becoming worse and worse every day. Long intervals of silence made her voice turn to a whine. Her face was drone and pale, the taciturnity filling her. Their married life was failing. Zeena expected to live in town and be a wife of a wealthy man. Unfortunately, their plan to sell the farm failed and they couldn’t afford to move from that depressing place. Instead of encouraging Ethan Zeena manipulates him with her disease. Eventually, their house became a cold and dark prison. ‘… the fire is out long ago. ‘ This quotation is a metaphor for the Fromes’ marriage.

There is no spark of love between Ethan and Zeena. Their love died long time ago. They don’t have any feelings for each other and they lack communication. The death of loved ones left empty space in Ethan’s heart until the arrival of Mattie into his life. ‘He had taken to the girl from the first day’. The moment when his heart starts beating with a new rhythm Ethan finds it difficult to express his feelings. ‘The wave of shyness pulled him back. ‘ I think Ethan’s inability to express himself is a cause of frustration and limits his possibilities of the relationship. He can’t make crucial decisions and that also leads to his unhappiness.

Ethan lives in the world of fantasy. He loves Mattie deeply and dreams of growing old by her side and lying next to her when he dies. ‘We’ll always go on living here together, and some day she’ll lie here beside me. ‘ I think Ethan’s flaw is that he is too passive. He only fantasies but cannot fight for what he wants. At the turn of the 20th century in America people left their homes in towns and districts in search of a better life in cities. Starkfield was one of the abandoned towns.

Small farmers like Ethan, became impoverished. Ethan is helpless in his situation. He shows anguish and frustration as Zeena spends the little money he earns. You’re a poor man’s wife, Zeena’. Despite their budget she continues to spend money on useless things, she never learns how to use as if to defy Ethan. Poverty is the main reason why the main characters are trapped. That is also a reason why Ethan cannot run away with Mattie, although he longs to be with her. However, he understands his economic situation. ‘The inexorable facts closed in on him like prison warders handcuffing a convict. There was no way out-none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of life was to be extinguished. ‘ The facts of his poverty are compared to ‘prison warders’, and Ethan a convict being handcuffed.

Edith Wharton uses a metaphor ‘ray of light’ to compare Mattie to something positive and hopeful in Ethan’s life. He is ‘a prisoner for life’ and this ray of light is under a threat to be extinguished. Ethan also feels ashamed to ask Ned Hale for money as he is a man of pride and dignity. When Hale refuses, Ethan cannot admit that he is broke and his pride makes the matters even worse. Even though Ethan has a tough life, he is an honest man. Ethan couldn’t take an advantage of Mrs Hale and obtain and advance payment of money for his planned flight with Mattie, notwithstanding how he longed to be with her.

All the characters of the novel want better life. Ethan wanted to finish the college and had dreams of becoming an engineer in a large city. All his dreams were unrealised due to his parents’ death and the opportunity to leave Starkfield minified. Also the image of graveyard was haunting Ethan. ‘For years the quiet company mocked his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom’. We never got away how should you? ‘ Every time Ethan was passing the graveyard the desire for a better life was gradually distinguishing. The headstones left emptiness in him for the entire life. It reminded him that one day he will join this quiet company.

Mattie too was trapped. Her parents left her in destitute. They owed money and she was the one to repay. Poverty-stricken Mattie was obliged to work for the Fromes for nothing. Her situation leaves her in anguish and prison confinement. ‘Where’d I go, if I did? ‘ Mattie has nowhere to go due to circumstances. She continues to work in the Frome’s house and lives in the dark prison, where everything is under Zeena’s rules. Zeena as an other character in Edith Wharton’s novel who is confined. Zeena was looking forward to moving from isolated Starkfield and live in a large city.

Zeena always wanted people to think of her as a wife of a wealthy man. “… she had let her husband see from the first that life on an isolated farm was not what she expected… ” The reader can see that Zeena had high expectations for a better life. After their plans to sell the farm were not realised, she became silent and ill, trapped in poverty-stricken marriage. Sense of duty follows Ethan through his sorrowful life. He would like to divorce Zeena since their marriage is more out of duty rather than love. However, at that time there were some constrains put by the society. In rural communities like Starkfield divorce was taboo. Must he wear out all his years at the side of a bitter querulous woman? ‘ In this quotation Ethan expresses his anger and shame as he thinks about his life at the side of Zeena. The words ‘bitter’ and ‘querulous’ are negative and they portray Zeena as an unpleasant woman. Zeena is barring every way in Ethan’s life. Their life is senseless and dull. Zeena manipulates Ethan and spends his money. Ethan feels obliged to her because she was the one who nursed his mother when she was dying and it was his little repayment to her as he thought. Ethan has a strong sense of duty towards Zeena.

He understands that she will not be able to survive on the isolated farm without his support. Although Ethan desperately wants to leave Zeena for Mattie he does not. ‘He saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute. ‘ Ethan realises his situation in life. He can’t leave Zeena in destitute. Ethan understands that without him she will not be able to survive due to her failed health. Zeena is the most mysterious character in the novel. She is silent and very rigid. Obviously ‘nobody knows Zeena’s thought’s.

In the end Zeena’s personality changes. Perhaps she feels guilty about the smash-up and that’s the reason she looks after Mattie and Ethan. Zeena has no time to communicate and her thoughts are the secret ones. Nobody has the access to her tortured soul. The most ironic part is when twenty years later youthful Mattie turns to be into what once Zeena was. Her bright personality faded as flowers out of water. What used to be a laugh turned into ‘querulous drone’. ‘The querulous drone ceased as I entered Frome’s house kitchen, and of the two women sitting there I could not tell which had been the speaker’.

The Narrator describes the atmosphere in the Fromes’ house twenty years later. As he enters the house ‘querulous drone ceased’. However, the Narrator cannot identify who it was. Further we know how Mattie changes over the years. She became the perfect replication of Zeena in past. There wasn’t sings of life in Mattie. ‘She’s suffered too much… she’s soured. ‘ Once full of life and happiness Mattie soured . She is shrunken and her querulous look makes her look even older than Zeena. The failed relationships compelled big impact on her bright personality.

Mattie even acquired the drone whine of Zeena. Now she posses the armchair once belonged to sick Zeena. The life of the characters seems to be meaningless. Nothing can change their life situations, they are trapped. Their world is filled with misery, poverty and anguish. The three main characters: Zeena, Mattie and Ethan are living the end of their lives. Three of them are trapped together and the grotesque looks on their faces are similar in some ways. Their souls are soured and diminished and only the endurance still keeps them alive. It is as if they are being tortured in the silent darkness.

All the characters suffer in some way but Ethan suffers more than the others. ‘You’ve had an awful mean time, Ethan Frome. ‘ Through all his years Ethan was never accompanied by anyone to help him cope with his misery. He was all alone. All his emotions were stuck in his heart making him look old and unapproachable. He was sagging under the weight of sorrow and no one rescued him. Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome is a powerful and descriptive novel. Edith Wharton uses negative descriptions of the bleak environment in which animals have to force through the snow to breathe and people like Ethan must struggle in order to survive.

She uses many images of death when she describes the places. She describes ‘a dead cucumber vine hanging from a porch’ representing a steamer to the door of a house that smells of death. The story is rich in metaphors and comparisons. Zeena’s use of metaphor of fire ‘The fire’s out long ago’, describes their loveless marriage and lack of warmth in the house. Ethan is haunted by the image of the Fromes’ gravestones and ‘his desire for change and freedom’ has never come true. They always remind Ethan that his life will end at the farm and he will join his relatives in the family graveyard.

Ethan fears about the future are well-expressed in the metaphor ‘… a vague dread had hung on his skyline’. Ethan and Mattie’s fragile relationships are shown in the quotation ‘… and gathering up the bits of broken glass she went out of the room as if carrying a dead body.. ‘ There is no happy ending for any characters of the novella, Mrs. Hale suggests that poor Ethan suffers the most. ‘Ethan’s face’d break your heart… When I see that, I think it’s him that suffers the most’.

His youth was followed by misfortunes and his entire situation is twice the worst it was before Mattie’s arrival. His bleak image dissolves into pure darkness of his misfortunes. Ethan experiences desertion of life and is destitute of love. He is eaten away by the tragedy of his life and only the Fromes’ graveyard will unburden the prison warders handcuffing his hands. At the end of the novel Mrs Hale makes a comparison between the Fromes in the farm and the Fromes in the graveyard and finds no difference between them except that women are quiet and hold their tongues. “… he way they are now, I don’t see there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have to hold their tongues. ” This suggests strongly that though the three characters might be physically alive, in the quality of their life they are very much like the dead. The characters in Ethan Frome are stuck in poverty, live in an isolated town without much communication. It appears that the writer describes how Ethan, Mattie and Zeena are caught in a situation of paralysis from which they cannot escape.

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How are the main characters in Ethan Frome trapped and confined by circumstances. (2017, Oct 24). Retrieved from

How are the main characters in Ethan Frome trapped and confined by circumstances
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