A Frustration

The theme of frustration is central to Ethan Frome. Sometimes the frustration is a product of the oppressive environment, and sometimes it stems from their personalities. Ethan’s early plans to become an engineer are frustrated by the need to care for his father and mother as well as for the farm. He had always wanted to “live in towns, where there were lectures and big libraries and ‘fellows doing things.’” His marriage to Zeena is a study in frustration, not only because of her hypochondria and the fact that they are childless, but because their interests are so different. “Other possibilities had been in him, possibilities sacrificed, one by one, to Zeena’s narrow-mindedness and ignorance. And what good had come of it?”

Mattie, in turn, is limited by her poverty and lack of skills. Even Zeena is frustrated. As the narrator of the story tells it, “She had let her husband see from the first that life on an isolated farm was not what she had expected when she married.” But though Zeena is contemptuous of Starkfield, she would never have been able to live in a new town that looked down on her, and as a result the couple never moves. The theme of frustration is reinforced by the inarticulateness of all of the characters in Ethan Frome. None of these people are very good at expressing themselves. In fact, Wharton referred to the characters in the novel as her “granite outcroppings.” Walking Mattie back to the farm, deliriously happy in her company, Ethan gropes for a “dazzling phrase” to impress her with, but can only growl “Come along.” Frustration is evident also in Ethan and Mattie’s longing for each other. Their physical contact is passionate but mostly limited to furtive handholding. When Ethan surprises Ned Hale and Ruth Varmus kissing under the Varnum spruces, he feels “a pang at the thought that these two need not hide their happiness.”

B Individual Responsibility

Related to the theme of frustration is that of individual responsibility, insofar as it is Ethan’s sense of duty that chains him to his circumstances. Critic Blake Nevius defined the “great question posed by Ethan Frome” as “What is the extent of one’s moral obligation to those individuals who, legally or within the framework of manners, conventions, taboos, apparently have the strictest claim on one’s loyalty?” Responsibility interrupts Ethan’s studies and brings him home to the farm to care for his parents, and self-sacrifice characterizes his marriage to Zeena, whose “one pleasure…was to inflict pain on him.” Toward the end of the novel, it is duty that prevents Ethan from asking the Hales for money so he can run away with Mattie. The reality, he tells himself, is that he is a poor man, “the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute.” Critics have disputed whether Ethan’s choices constitute moral decisions, that is, decisions that are guided by moral principles, as opposed to need or expedience. Lionel Trilling wrote, “Choice is incompatible with [Ethan’s] idea of his existence; he can only elect to die,” whereas according to K. R. Shrinivasa Iyengar, “It would be an oversimplification to say that the chief characters in Ethan Frome are only moved by blind necessity.” Marius Bewley saw Ethan’s decision to die with Mattie as a clear moral decision that “entails tragic consequences because it is the wrong decision.”

C Loneliness

The theme of loneliness pervades the novel. At the outset, the narrator remarks of Ethan Frome, “I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.” Ethan’s home is “one of those lonely New England farm-houses that make the landscape lonelier.” After the coming of the railroad, local traffic diminished, a change Ethan’s mother was never able to comprehend. “It preyed on her right along till she died,” he tells the narrator. As Ethan’s mother’s dementia increases, she grows so silent that Ethan begs her to “say something.” And in fact, it is Ethan’s dread of being left alone on the farm after his mother’s death that drives him to marry Zeena. When Mattie first comes to stay with the Fromes, Zeena encourages her to find diversion because “it was thought best…not to let her feel too sharp a contrast between the life she had left and the isolation of a Starkfield farm.”