Particular events in a person’s life can shape who they are as a person and their irrational decisions later on in life. In the novel Ethan Frome, author Edith Wardon takes the reader on a journey through the development of each character. When a married-man named Ethan Fromegets tangled up in an affair with his wife’s cousin and caretaker, his life becomes complicated.
Throughout the novel we see Ethan struggle with his love for Mattie while still being married to Zeena, his wife. Ultimately Mattie and Ethan decide to end their lives in order to be together. Unfortunately, their plan fails leaving them slaves to their own misery for the rest of their lives. Wharton’s novel reflects many elements of Naturalism including showing the environmental aspects that shape the underclass characters and the representation of life as a grim struggle.
The author’s focus on underclass characters helps build depth for each specific person along the course of the story. For example, the narrator describes Mattie as “a poor girl without friends or money” (Wharton 102). From beginning to end of the novel, the reader is able to progressively see more detail as to what Mattie’s life is like as an underclass citizen and gives her a more in depth characterization. Furthermore when describing Ethan, Wharton says that “Frome was poor” (11) and “You’st a poor man’s wife” (100). Both quotes bluntly state that Ethan is and underclass citizen much like Mattie. This is one of the most obvious similarities between the characters. This continuous theme of poverty described by the author characterizes both Ethan and Mattie as the story progresses.
In continuation of the focus on underclass characters, the environment in the story also greatly contributed to their characterization. Ethan’s wife Zeena was surprised with her living situation once married because her “native village was slightly larger and nearer to the railway of Starkfield… on an isolated farm was not what she had expected when she married” (Wharton 97). Zeena was not expecting to live on a farm in Starkfield once married. This shows one difference between her character and Mattie’s. Zeena’s living situation was different prior to marrying Ethan therefore shaping her character as the novel continues. Another example as to how the environment has shaped characters is how the author describes the town of Starkfield.
Wharton says how “after the trains began running nobody ever came by here to speak of” (55). This quote expresses to the reader that Starkfield has been running backwards for a long time. Meaning, the town is very different from any other neighboring town and gives a sense of loneliness and isolation. This gives an explanation for the behavior of Ethan throughout the novel. His soul purpose for staying in this lifeless town is to stay close to his mother while she is ill. The countless cruel winters in Starkfield keep Ethan from his freedom, which can symbolize his loveless marriage.
The author's portrayal of life as a grim struggle in the novel helps continuously shape each individual character. A big turning point in the novel is when Zeena begins to suspect the affair between Ethan and Mattie, “All I know is… I can’t go the way I am much longer” (Wharton 93). This quote helps show the reader Zeena’s shift in character. This changes her view on her marriage with Ethan and continuously alters her characterization through the end of the novel. Furthermore, at the end of the story the author describes Mattie’s appearance as, “Her hair [is] gray as her companions, her face bloodless and shriveled” (164). Mattie’s aged figure reflects her decisions made early in her life. Her choices to get involved with Ethan infinetly affects the later years of her life, specifically after their failed suicide attempt. Ultimately, the struggles in the lives of the characters drastically change each of them.
The author's portrayal of the environment, underclass characters, and representation of life as a grim struggle help the characterization throughout the novel. The reader follows the development of main characters Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie as the story progresses. Environmental factors such as the town of Starkfield gives each character a sense of loneliness and poverty. Additionally, the personal life struggles of each character affect their overall development in the story.