A Point of View
Critics hail Ethan Frome as the most carefully constructed of Wharton’s novels. The story relates events that occurred twenty-four years previously within a narrative frame of the present, similar to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Of the story-within-a-story structure, the Nation wrote in 1911, “Such an approach could not be improved.” A single, unnamed narrator tells the entire tale. Wharton frankly acknowledged that she borrowed the technique of the narrator as omniscient author from Honore de Balzac’s La Grande Bretche. The pieces of the story the narrator is able to glean from the inhabitants of Starkfield are presented within this narrative frame. Critics emphasize that the story the reader reads is at best the narrator’s vision of events. As biographer Cynthia Wolff writes, “Everything that the reader can accept as reliably true can be found in the narrative frame; everything else bears the imprint of the narrator’s own interpretation.” The difficulty inherent in a complex structure of this sort is that it makes the story ambiguous. As Allen F. Stein maintains: “One cannot be sure that the real Ethan Frome ever felt anything akin to what the narrator attributes to him or did the things he did for the reasons the narrator either consciously or inadvertently offers.”
A universally acclaimed strength of the novel is Wharton’s use of imagery and symbolism. According to critic Kenneth Bernard, these elements, particularly the compatibility of setting and character, reveal the novel’s “true dimensions.” Like the frozen landscape around him, Ethan is cold and unapproachable. The narrator observes that Ethan “seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface.” There are many references to darkness, and darkness is Ethan’s element. For example, when he goes to f-e-t-c-h Mattie from a dance, he hangs back in the shadows, watching her through a window. Later, he wishes he could “stand there with her all night in the blackness.” When they return to the farmhouse, the windows are dark, and they strain to see each other “through the icy darkness.” On the night of the accident, Mattie confesses to Ethan that she first dreamed of going away with him at a picnic they both attended at Shadow Pond. Images of warmth and brightness in the novel are associated with Mattie, and are contrasted with Ethan’s frozen self and Zeena’s soullessness. Even her name, Mattie Silver, connotes something bright. Her “fresh lips and cheeks” and “slim young throat” are contrasted with Zeena’s “gaunt countenance,” “puckered throat,” and “flat breast.” Mattie is also associated with images of birds. Wharton makes repeated references to voices. At first, in comparison to his mother’s silence, Zeena’s gregarious nature was music in Ethan’s ears. But her voice has become a “flat whine,” unlike Mattie’s “sweet treble,” though at the end of the novel Mattie’s voice, too, becomes a querulous drone. Even the kitchen reflects the contrasts between the two women. It is a “poor place, not ‘spruce’ and shining as his mother had kept it in his boyhood; but it was surprising what a homelike look the mere fact of Zeena’s absence gave it.” Images of death are evident in the “black wraith of a deciduous creeper flagged on the porch,” the missing “L” in Ethan’s farmhouse, and a “dead cucumber-vine” dangling from the porch.
Critic R. Baird Shuman writes that “there is probably no more pervasive single element in Ethan Frome than the symbolism.” The landscape and farmhouse are closely related to elements of the story’s action. For example, the missing “L” in Ethan’s farmhouse gives the house a “forlorn and stunted” aspect and symbolizes the lack of life within. An obvious symbol is the name of the town, Starkfield, which Shuman calls “a cemetery for those who are still physically living.”
Many critics point to the sexual symbols in the novel. “Barrenness, infertility, is at the heart of Frome’s frozen woe,” asserts dramatist and critic Kenneth Bernard. The red pickle dish, for instance, unbroken and unused, symbolizes the Fromes’s marriage. Once it is broken, it represents Mattie and Ethan’s disloyalty. Shuman notes the “Freudian overtones of the shutterless windows and of the dead cucumber-vine.” And biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff refers to Frome and the narrator entering the kitchen through a small, dark back hallway at the end of the novel as “a perverse and grotesque inversion of the terms of birth.” The elm tree is seen as both plant and symbol. Shuman frankly sees it as a phallic symbol, “a representation of sexual temptation.” The sled Mattie and Ethan are riding when they collide into the elm is borrowed, one that, like their passion, “technically they have no right to.”
The setting for Ethan Frome is the fictional town of Starkfield, located in the mountains of western Massachusetts. In the words of Edith Wharton: “Insanity, incest and slow mental and moral starvation were hidden away behind the paintless wooden housefronts of the long village street, or in the isolated farm-houses on the neighbouring hills.” The cold and snow in particular had a wearying effect on the inhabitants. One of the first things the narrator hears about Ethan Frome is a remark made by Harmon Gow: “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters.” The narrator at first fails to understand the burden of winter in these parts. When the snows of December are followed by “crystal clearness,” he notices the “vitality of the climate and the deadness of the community.” But once he has passed a winter there, and has “seen this phase of crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the devoted village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter.”
The Frome farm itself is “kinder side-tracked.” Traffic that used to pass by ceased once the railroad was carried through to an area beyond called Corbury Flats, a distance of three miles that took an hour by horse and carriage. The Frome farmhouse is a building of “plaintive ugliness.” The building has lost its “L,” a deep-roofed section that normally connects the main house with the woodshed and cow barn, enabling the inhabitants to avoid having to go outside to get to their work. So integral is the setting to the action of the novel, that a review published in the Nation in 1911 credited Wharton with having chronicled “a consciousness of depleted resources, a reticence and self-contained endurance that even the houses know how to express, retired from the public way, or turned sideways to preserve a secluded entrance.”
Irony is an incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and what we might normally expect that result to be. Margaret B. McDowell cites the many ironies in Ethan Frome: “The dish that is treasured is the one that is broken; the pleasure of the one solitary meal that Ethan and Mattie share ends in distress; the ecstasy of the coasting ends in suffering; the moment of dramatic renunciation when Ethan and Mattie choose suicide rather than elopement ends not in glorious death but in years of pain.” At the time of publication, the Nation reported that “the profound irony of [Ethan’s] case is that it required his own goodness to complete [Zeena’s] parasitic power over him.” When Ethan goes to the widow Homan’s store to buy glue to repair the broken pickle dish, the widow tells him, “I hope Zeena ain’t broken anything she sets store by.” There are other such ironies. Beautiful Mattie becomes ugly and peevish. Zeena ends up having to care for her rival. Critics have noted irony in the narrator’s account of Mattie’s attempts to support herself. And Kenneth Bernard cites Ethan’s fantasy that he and Mattie would spend their evenings together as they had the night Zeena was away from home. “Ironically, this is just about what he achieves by crippling instead of killing himself and Mattie.”