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Truly A Living Hell
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is known as a classic novel of American realism.
This short novel described a mournful situation that ruined the already
afflicted lives of two lovers, and also depicted a third person whose life
was dramatically changed. The catastrophe that was encountered by the
characters was caused by simple human emotions. These fears and passions
eventually led to one life-altering decision. Edith Wharton's powerfully
tragic novel, Ethan Frome, exposes the depths of derangement that a combined
life of loneliness and hopelessness can drive a person to attain.
Ethan Frome is narrated by a nameless character who appears in the prologue
and in the epilogue of the novel. This man was a youthful engineer with some
time to spend in Starkfield. He was curious about the odd appearance of Ethan
Frome. His investigative manner caused him to interrogate some of the town's
residents about Ethan. He received interesting feedback in choppy bits; not
as a sequential story. With his newfound information, he pieced together the
story of Ethan's life. He powerfully narrated the story of Ethan Frome, a
character who had withdrawn from society after years of hopeless effort to
bring happiness into his life.
Ethan lived with his consistently ill wife, Zeena, and her cousin, Mattie.
Ethan had a troubled life, and an unhappy marriage to Zeena. He looked
fondly upon Mattie, and realized one night that he loved the young girl.
Shortly after this "discovery", Zeena went out of town to find new medicines
to cure one of her new affliction. While she was gone, Ethan was excited to
finally be alone with Mattie. Their private time was romantically and
otherwise uneventful with the exception for Mattie breaking a glass dish that
was cherished by Zeena. Zeena returned with news that she must hire a new
girl who will complete all the housework because Zeena would have to be
bedridden. At first Ethan refused to believe that Zeena would force Mattie
to leave. He knew he could not argue with Zeena, but decides that he would
find some way to stay with Mattie. He did not want to be separated from this
girl that he loved, yet he did not even know yet if she returned these
feelings for him. On the day she was to leave, Ethan helped her load her
things and started to bring her to get a train. On their way, they stop to
reflect on their time together and finally profess their love for each other.
Rather than separate, they attempt a double suicide. More tragically then
dying in each other's arms, they survive to go on living a hellish life.
The setting of this novel promotes each character's loneliness. It took
place in a small New England town in the dead of winter. The winter season
drains the life out of plants, buries the houses in snow, and creates and
morbid and somber seclusion. The small town of Starkfield was a cold and
desolate place. Ethan's wife, Zeena, and Mattie, are both solitary figures.
Zeena's illness, whether wholly mental or a valid physical condition,
consumed her, and permitted her from leaving the house regularly. Mattie's
attempt to escape her loneliness was to seek refuge by working for the
Frome's. When she was told she must leave, she chose the notion of death as
opposed to returning to a world of seclusion.
Ethan Frome's entire existence reflects his failure to succeed at anything
during his existence. Ethan's misfortune began at a young age. In his youth,
he had aspired to go on to study science. Family sickness and death crushed
this dream. Then, after he married Zeena, he was unable to fulfill his
intentions of selling the farm and moving to a city because of her bad
health. His repeat defeat caused him to grow discouraged and frustrated with
age. Without emotional or physical strength, he succumbed to disappointment
and abandoned his effort to persevere a life of hopes and dreams. Instead,
he ended up existing in a vegetative state as he has devoted all of his time
and energy to the farm. This monotonous work provided him with little
satisfaction, and his small wages were used by Zeena to purchase medicines.
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Ethan Frome, Zeena, Ethan, Mattie, Edith Wharton
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