Ethan Frome: Fantasy is an Escape from Winter

Anonymous

Ethan Frome, the title character of Edith Wharton's tragic novel, lives in his own world of silence, where he replaces his scarcity of words with images and fantasies. There is striking symbolism in the imagery, predominantly that of winter which connotes frigidity, detachment, bleakness and seclusion.


Twenty-eight year old Ethan feels trapped in his hometown of Starkfield, Massachusetts. He marries thirty-four year old Zeena after the death of his mother, "in an unsuccessful attempt to escape the silence, isolation, and loneliness of life" (Lawson 71). Several years after their marriage, cousin Mattie Silver is asked to relieve Zeena, a gaunt and sallow hypochondriac, of her household duties. Ethan finds himself falling in love with Mattie, drawn to her youthful energy, as, "The pure air, and the long summer hours in the open, gave life and elasticity to Mattie" (Wharton 60).


Ethan is attracted to Mattie because she is the antithesis of Zeena. "While Mattie is young, happy, healthy, and beautiful like the summer, Zeena is seven years older than Ethan, bitter, ugly and sickly cold like the winter" (Lewis 310). Zeena's strong, dominating personality emasculates Ethan, while Mattie's feminine, effervescent youth makes Ethan feel like a "real man." Contrary to his characteristic passiveness, he defies Zeena in Mattie's defence, "You can't go, Matt! I won't let you! She's [Zeena's] always had her way, but I mean to have mine now -" (Wharton 123). To Ethan, Mattie is radiant and energetic. He sees possibilities in her beyond his trite life in Starkfield, something truly worth standing up for. Her energy and warmth excite him and allow him to escape from his lonely, monotonous life.


While Zeena is visiting an out of town doctor, Ethan and Mattie, alone in the house, intensely feel her eerie presence. The warmth of their evening together is brought to an abrupt end by the accidental breaking of Zeena's prized dish. Zeena's fury at the breaking of an impractical pickle dish exemplifies the rage she must feel about her useless life. "That the pickle dish has never been used makes it a strong symbol of Zeena herself, who prefers not to take part in life" (Lawson 68-69). Ethan's response to Zeena's rage was silence.


Just as Ethan lives in silence, so too does his wife. The total lack of communication between the "silent" couple is a significant factor in Ethan's miserable marriage. Ethan kept silent in his dealings with his wife, "to check a tendency to impatient retort he had first formed the habit of not answering her, and finally thinking of other things while she talked" (Wharton 72).


Zeena is the cold and ugly reality from which Ethan tries to escape in his dreams of a life with Mattie. He is happy only when imagining his life with Mattie. The night that they are alone, hepretends that they are married. Often when they are together, he fantasizes that Zeena is dead and that he and Mattie live togetherin blissful devotion. Ethan deludes himself because, as a prisoner of circumstance, his only escape is illusion. His happiness in the company of Mattie is the product of a self-deception necessitated by his unhappy marriage to Zeena, the obstacle to a life long relationship with Mattie.


After the night of the broken dish, Ethan and Mattie finally articulate their feelings for each other, and are forced to face the painful reality that their fantasies can not come true:

The return to reality was as painful as the return to consciousness after taking an anaesthetic. His body and brain ached with indescribable weariness, and he could not think of nothing to say or do that should arrest the mad flight of the moments (Wharton 95).


"Zeena herself, from an oppressive reality, had faded into an insubstantial shade" (Wharton 39). Her hypochondria is her outlet, just as Ethan's world of fantasy is his. "It [her obsession with her health] is adventurous in contrast to her monotonous marriage" (McDowell 66). Sickly Zeena is able to manipulate her husband using her frail health to justify her bitter personality. "When she [Zeena] spoke it was only to complain" (Wharton 72).


Ethan and Mattie attempt to preserve their happiness and remain together the only way they can, in death. At this point, Mattie inadvertently becomes the cause of Ethan's tragic suffering. The aborted suicide attempt leads to their tragic fate, living a life of