Ethan As A Victim Of Social And Physical Environments In The Novel Ethan Frome

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In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Ethan is a dark character whos past alters how he looks at life. Some say that his change occurred within himself. His own personal choices have led him to where he is now, but this is not true. People grow up learning from the ones around them. We are all affected by how others act, and we learn and grow from the people around us. Edith Wharton portrays Ethan as a victim of his social and physical environments because he acts differently due to the long winters in Starkfield and social situation.

Zeena is brought into Ethan’s life, and he falls for her because it is winter. Ethan’s dad died, and his mother is sick, so Zeena comes to help. After being stuck in a house with a mother who is mentally unstable, Zeena’s presence fills Ethan with a sense of comfort. The narrator writes, “After the mortal silence of his long imprisonment, Zeena’s volubility was music to his ears. He felt that he might have ‘gone like his mother’ if the sound of a new voice had not come to steady him’ (29). Ethan was close to going crazy himself, but Zeena shows up and fills the silence with her voice. Compared to his mother, Zeena is a shining light in the middle of darkness. Winter is connected to death in the circle of life. Her death is in the dead of winter, contributing to the sense of loneliness Ethan has felt already. After Ethan’s mother dies, Ethan is worried about the isolation that might come out of it, and he was “seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone of the farm; and before he knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay there with him. He had often thought since that it would not have happened if his mother had died in spring instead of winter” (29). The reason for Ethan wanting to marry Zeena is so that he is not left alone on the farm. The winters in Starkfield are long and hard, and the thought of being alone sends Ethan into a panic. He will cling himself to any sense of life that he can find, which he sees in Zeena.

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Similar to Zeena, when Mattie comes to Starkfield Ethan is very fond of her because of the conditions that he is in. Mattie comes to take care of Zeena, who has become ill and frail. Zeena has taken the role of Ethan’s mother and needs someone to take care of her. The narrator writes, “then she too fell silent. Perhaps it was the inevitable effect of life on the farm, or perhaps, as she sometimes said, it was because Ethan ‘never listened’” (30). Starkfield changes people. Zeena came into Ethan’s life as a relief and has now turned into a burden. Ethan is now looking for relief from this burden and finds Mattie. Mattie brings life and happiness to the Frome farm, and Ethan doesn’t want to lose her. Ethan is looking at his family gravestones and thinks, “I guess we’ll never let you go, Matt… we’ll always go on living here together, and someday she’ll lie there beside me” (21). Ethan is falling for Mattie because he hopes that she will help bring him out of the perpetual winter. Once he realizes that he will never get out of Starkfield because of Zeena, he tries to drag Mattie in so she can continue to make him happy.

Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie now live together as a product of Ethan’s attempts at happiness. They are all miserable and live a dreary life. When seen from afar, Ethan “seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface” (5). Ethan has been stuck in Starkfield for so long that he has become part of it. Starkfield is a snowy, cold town with no character or life, just like Ethan. Everyone in the house has lost a part of themselves because the wintery Starkfield sucks the life out of you. Mrs. Hale, a resident of Starkfield, describes the Frome’s situation. She says, “if she’d ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the 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 got to hold their tongues” (77). The smash-up occurred in the winter and changed Mattie forever. She has now evolved into what Zeena was like when she came to help her, and what Ethan’s mother was like when Zeena came to help. Mattie is now in a state worse than death; she is living death. The only difference between her and Ethans ancestors in the graves is that they’re quiet, while Matties moans can be heard throughout the house.

Ethans past and current environments has affected his actions. He just wants to be happy, but his past haunts him. Peoples environments around them can change their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Similar to Ethan Frome, it is important to take into account ones background and history before coming to a conclusion about who they are.

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Ethan As A Victim Of Social And Physical Environments In The Novel Ethan Frome. (2021, September 03). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from
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