In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus, the honorable and esteemed king of Thebes, bringssuffering upon his people through his unwitting murder of his father. In an ironic sense, Oedipus Rex serves as a precedent for tragic works such as The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Willams and Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, where the well intentioned actions of a singular character precipitate catastrophic events. The characters Amanda in The Glass Menagerie and Mattie in Ethan Frome unwittingly function as instruments of the suffering of others, giving rise to the tragic vision of each work. Amanda in The Glass Menagerie acts as the source of suffering for Laura through her overbearing devotion to her, while, in Ethan Frome, Mattie torments both the Fromes through her mere presence in their lives. Amanda and Mattie, both primarily kind and optimistic characters, have the least intent to cause suffering, yet ultimately cause the most destruction in each work.
In The Glass Menagerie, Amanda causes the suffering of her daughter Laura through her overbearing devotion to her. Amanda only wants the best for Laura, but fails to recognize that what she wants may not be in her Laura’s interest. Amanda becomes the source of Laura’s suffering through her inability and unwillingness to truly see Laura’s true nature. Laura, an extremely sensitive and sheltered person, lets her slight physical defect define and overcome her, crippling her personality. Although Amanda regards Laura’s physical affliction with the attention it deserves, she completely disregards the sensitive nature that Laura has built for herself. Amanda’s own idea of success for Laura largely reflects on her own failure in life; she does not want Laura to end up like her, a single mother carrying the weight of a broken household on her back. Thus, with nothing but good intentions, Amanda puts her entire focus on ensuring a successful future for Laura, although her plan eventually backfires, nearly pushing Laura to her breaking point. Amanda, disheartened by all the failed attempts she has made to coax Laura out of her shyness, expresses her frustration, “I put her in business college – a dismal failure ! Frightened her so it made her sick at the stomach. I took her over to the Young People’s League at the church. Another fiasco. She spoke to nobody, nobody spoke to her. Now all she does is fool with those pieces of glass and play those worn-out records. What kind of a life is that for a girl to lead?” (Williams, 35). Amanda, ever determined to give Laura a bright future, turns to marriage, the only other acceptable option within social constructs for women of the time, to ensure Laura’s success. Amanda overlooks Laura’s emotional disability and vulnerability, just as she had when enrolling Laura in business college, pushing her directly into the arms of a gentleman caller by the name of Jim. Laura opens herself up to Jim, only to have her hopes crushed by his deception, her fragile persona nearly broken, and the chances of her coming out of her shell completely diminished. In such well intentioned acts and dedication to the well being of her daughter, Amanda unwittingly causes her daughter much pain and suffering through the embarrassment and anxiety over her failure in business college and the affliction of a broken heart. Thus, the chances of Laura ever having a promising future, as envisioned by Amanda, are dashed completely by Amanda’s all-encompassing and destructive devotion to her daughter Laura.
Mattie’s mere presence in the Frome household in Ethan Frome brings about suffering in the lives of Zeena and Ethan. Although Mattie is initially brought into the Frome household by Zeena as an indentured servant with no other means of livelihood, she quickly becomes an instrument of Zeena’s suffering. Not until the end of the novel is her role as an instrument of Ethan’s suffering revealed. Mattie’s infliction of suffering upon Zeena is largely reliant on Ethan. Not long after their marriage did Ethan lose interest in Zeena because “when she spoke it was only to complain, and to complain of things not in his power to remedy,” and over time, “he had first formed the habit of not answering her, and finally thinking of other things while she talked” (Wharton, 63-64). When Mattie arrives in Starkfield, however, Zeena quickly notices that Ethan’s attention, of which she had long been deprived, had immediately shifted to Mattie. Mattie Silver, characterized by her enthusiasm and optimism, qualities that starkly contrast to those of the dreary, melancholic characters in the novel such as Zeena, understandably attracts the attention of Ethan. Zeena expresses her knowledge and anguish over Ethan’s strong interest in Mattie when she remarks on Ethan’s newfound habit of daily shaving since Mattie’s arrival. Thus, although not explicitly expressed in the novel, Mattie torments Zeena through her unintentional hold over Ethan’s heart and desires, that for which Zeena yearns.
While Mattie initially serves as the light and warmth in Ethan’s life, her persuasion of Ethan to cause the “smash-up” results in his long term suffering. For nearly 20 years Ethan has suffered in silence, in the desolation of Starkfield and in his commitment to Zeena, but his life is given a new light when Mattie arrives in Starkfield. Ethan finds such consolation and hope in Mattie and sees her as “more than the bright serviceable creature he had thought her. She had an eye to see and an ear to hear: he could show her things and tell her things, and taste the bliss of feeling that all he imparted left long reverberations and echoes he could wake at will” (Wharton, 29). Therefore, Ethan looks to fulfill his long term agony with easily accessible Mattie, only to be devastated just as he had been in his marriage to Zeena. Therefore, when the time comes for Mattie to depart, Ethan is desperate to find a way to escape his confinement in Starkfield and steal away with Mattie. Mattie believes that in offering Ethan a certain future with her and an escape from his circumstance by coasting “Right into the big elm… So ‘t we’d never have to leave each other any more,” she is acting in his best interest, although when their attempt at sucide goes awry, Mattie is to blame for Ethan’s long-term suffering and hardship (Wharton, 143). Ethan is not only left physically crippled by Matties “innocent” persuasion, but he loses the girl with whom he fell in love. Mattie is paralyzed by the accident, and becomes a querulous, whining, and petulant invalid, forever changed by the accident. All hope of escape from his current situation in Starkfield are dashed by the “smash-up,” and Ethan continues to live a life of misery, bound to not one, but two tormenting and harrowing women. It is evident by the end of the novel that Mattie’s inadvertent hold over Ethan serves as the primary instrument of suffering that torments Zeena and destroys all hope of a prosperous future for Ethan.
In both The Glass Menagerie and Ethan Frome, a predominantly cheerful and optimistic character with no intent to cause suffering, brings tribulation to other characters of the novel. These characters, Amanda in The Glass Menagerie and Mattie in Ethan Frome, possess a certain lack of awareness in how they act that torments those to whom they are closest. Amanda fails to recognize her daughter Laura’s fragility, who suffers under her mother’s overwhelming and destructive devotion. Likewise, Mattie serves as an instrument of both the short term suffering of Zeena and long term suffering of Ethan through her unintentional seduction of Ethan. Through no fault of their own, the suffering these characters unwittingly inflict upon others drives the tragic vision of each work.