As a reader, my immediate impression of Ethan Frome was one of sympathy. |At the beginning of the novel, we see a man, trapped in a life where all his efforts go into attempting to produce a successful crop from the barren, infertile soil of New England. “That Frome farm was always ’bout and bare’s a milkpan when the cats been around; and you know what one of them old water-mills is wuth nowadays. ” Harmon, (page 10). Using a metaphor relating the similarities of the lack of crops and the lack of milk in a milkpan after a cat has been drinking from it, empathizes the scale of poverty endured by Ethan.
The horrific situation of Ethan is doubled by the burden on him by his invalid wife. “Zeena had always been what Starkfield called “sickly. “” (Page 27). Zeena takes for granted Ethan’s good nature and spends what little money he makes on supposed medical cures for her imaginary ailments. I empathize with Ethan all the more as I learn more of his misfortunes, especially the fact that he could have had a job in engineering or physics, had fate not played a nasty trick on him forcing him to leave his course at technological College when his father died.
The last factor which is introduced as another of Ethan’s adversities is that he is crippled because of an accident, “had so shortened and warped his right side that it cost him a visible effort to take the few steps,” (page 4). After reading the introduction of the novel, I concluded Ethan was a poor man who had a hard life because of fate. However, on completing novel, I became frustrated by his good character, and believe had he fought for what he wanted; his life could have been a happy one. Throughout the novel, my sympathy turns to despair. Ethan has the chance of a possible escape via the pretty, young cousin of Zeena.
But, as a typical martyr, he remains loyal to his insufferable wife, thus sentencing himself to further anguish and dejection. When the beautiful Mattie arrives, she brings a breath of fragrance and gladness into the gloomy life of Ethan. She makes Ethan laugh and acts as a confidant to him, someone he could trust and open up to, “she had an eye to see and an ear to hear: he could show her things and tell her things,” (page25). There was always a connection between the two; I think because she reminded him of himself, his past innocence and enthusiasm for everything, “It looks just as though it was painted! It seemed to Ethan that the art of definition could go no farther and that words had at last been found to utter his secret soul… ” (Page 26).
The connection between Mattie and Ethan was an unconscious one, an inevitable attachment which was almost primate in intensity. Both felt enormous love and compassion for each other, but neither of them could put it into words, and neither could act on their lust out of dutiful respects to Zeena, the jealous wife and cousin.
Ethan goes to great lengths to protect Mattie, by small gestures, “He even crept down on Saturday nights to scrub the kitchen floor after the women had gone to bed. ” (Page 27). This simplistic action infuriates Zeena who is oozing with disdain and is watching her own husband fall in love with the younger Mattie. As the relationship between Mattie and Ethan progress, I become more infuriated, as I imagine, did the characters. The only thing keeping them apart was Zeena. My opinion is that why have two people unhappy out of three when you only need to have one.
Zeena would probably be a melancholy hypochondriac in whatever situation she was placed, her evident jealousy is impossible to hide, “She’s a pauper that’s hung onto us after her father’d done his best to ruin us. ” (Page 86). Whether this is jealousy or simply forward planning in cutting costs is debatable but I believe her to see Mattie as a rival. Throughout the novel there are many moments where there is obvious sexual tension between Mattie and Ethan. This is especially true when Zeena is away visiting a doctor.
They both love each other so much but in their hearts are such good, pure and loyal people; they refuse to act on their impulses, thus deepening their misery. Ethan does too contain jealousy but only for his beloved Mattie, when discussing the prospects of weddings with her, “A pang shot through Ethan,” (page 69) implying Mattie is much more than just a friend. Both characters erect barriers to prevent any possibility of them acting on their desires, making them seem distant from each other, “she seemed infinitely further away from him and more unapproachable. ” (Page 68)
The despair culminates to a peak on the last drive to the railway station, where Mattie must leave Starkfield, probably never to see Ethan again. Ethan consents to Mattie’s last wish to go coasting down her favourite slope in the neighbourhood. This particular slope is a long, steep, breathless rush, with a giant tree towering up near the foot, to be dexterously avoided at the last moment. This is another indication of how secure the two feel in each other’s company, and what utter trust Mattie places in Ethan, “I told you I was never scared with you,” Mattie (page 120).
Whilst sliding, a ghastly temptation of suicide clouds over Mattie’s mind, which she voices, “So’t we’ll never come up any more. ” (Page 121) She would rather die with Ethan, and face unknown struggles than leave him behind, her heart been eaten out by loneliness. Unfortunately, more torture is planned, and neither of them foresees that not even the most carefully planned death is inevitable, and that fate is about to play on them one of its grimmest tricks, dooming them to life-long punishment.
As they begin the last sleigh, tension is built up dramatically by describing the every move made by the sledge, “Half-way down there was a sudden drop, then a rise, and after that, another long delirious descent. ” (Page 124). As Ethan coasts down, images flash through his mind, one of which is Zeena. Even at his death, he cannot escape her, “Suddenly his wife’s face, with twisted monstrous lineaments, thrust itself between him and his goal,” (page 124) Once again, she ruins his already bleak life, this time causing him to instinctively avoid the tree but still allowing him to cause permanent pain and agony to himself and Mattie.
Ethan is left to endure an inescapable destiny, slowly starving on the inefficient, infertile farm, with a warped and twisted frame. Mattie is scarred with the horror of a broken back. The situation is slightly reversed in that Zeena (who is scarcely more alive than Mattie and Ethan) must now grudgingly watch over the other two true invalids. The story (excluding the introduction and the conclusion) begins and ends in very similar ways – using snow imagery in the presence of Ethan.
However, at the beginning, there is moderate hope about what the future holds for young Ethan Frome and at the end, we see a hardened, bitter man who has had a life full of bad luck and undeserved misfortune thrown at him by fate. By the end of the novel, we see that he has learnt that bad things happen to him and he must compensate for them in his daily chores and carry on as best as he can.
The first thought that crosses his mind after the realization that he and Mattie survived their attempt at fetching is that his horse needs feeding, “Far off, he heard the sorrel whinny, and thought, “I ought to be getting him his feed….. “” (Page 126) I feel immense pity for the man but I do feel I have been tortured reading the novel by the slow trickle of misfortune that slowly descends on Mattie and Ethan, eventually sentencing them to a fate worse than death, which neither of them fully deserves. Had Ethan just run off with Mattie, and taken his chance, he might have lived a happy life.