On the Consequence of Silence in Ethan Frome

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In the tragic romance Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton demonstrates the complexity of human emotion within her carefully crafted staging of Starkfield, Massachusetts. Its desolate climate and landscape reflect the hollow existence of its inhabitants. The principal characters, Ethan Frome and Mattie Silver, long to be together and escape the bleak environment, but Ethan’s hypochondriac wife Zeena conspires to end their unstable romance. Ethan and Mattie express their love for each other and Zeena expresses her hatred for Mattie subtly, without explicitly stating so. However, Edith Wharton shows the consequences of silence by highlighting the dishonesty in relationships, the isolation people live in, and the denial of happiness due to guilt and societal pressures.

Edith Wharton lived from January 24, 1862 to August 11, 1937, in a time when women were stifled and their ambitions suppressed. She came from a wealthy, distinguished upper middle class family that lived in New York and was unhappily married to Edward Robbins Wharton in 1885, who she eventually divorced in 1913. From 1907 to 1910, Wharton had an affair with Morton Fullerton, and a year after she wrote Ethan Frome. The climatic sled scene of Ethan Frome was inspired by a sledding accident in Lenox, MA in 1904 that killed a young girl and injured 4 others. The literary environment in which Wharton wrote Ethan Frome was the early 1900’s. Many farming communities in New England were in decline because of industrialization and lack of suitable farmland. Many rural inhabitants began moving to cities and out West, but no one replaced them in the New England farming communities. While divorce was gaining popularity in urban areas in the United States, in rural areas divorce was still very much frowned upon. Marriage in rural communities was considered a partnership in which both parties felt obliged to contribute certain duties indefinitely.

Ethan Frome “starts on foot for Starkfield, meets Mrs. Hale enroute, is touched by her expression of sympathy… and is suddenly pulled up short by the realization that he is planning to appeal to the Hales’ sympathy to obtain money from them on false pretenses” (Nevius 285). He tries to manipulate Mrs. Hale’s trust in him, so that he may run away with Mattie. He fears that if he discusses his situation of feelings for Mattie, he will be ostracized by the community. Because Ethan feels he cannot be honest with the people around he chooses to say nothing at all. Humanity’s seemingly endless difficulty with complete disclosure is highlighted by Ethan’s struggle with whether or not to ask Mr. Hale for the advance. His failure to be honest with the people around him forces him farther into the shell of silence that has been slowly built up throughout his life. “… Ethan Frome and Mattie are throw together, he is totally inhibited by his opportunity, but a trivial accident results in Mattie’s departure… which implies… emotional stagnation for Frome” (Walton 401). Ethan’s inability to communicate the reality of his adulterous relationship with Mattie dooms their relationship to be an affair. Ethan could not admit to anyone his love for Mattie, he loses the chance for their relationship to have any type of permanence. Man’s procrastination and indecision help to build his unhappiness. Due to his inescapable unhappiness, he smothers his emotions in an attempt to lessen the pain of his misery, thereby smothering his other emotions and leaving him mute with shallow apathy. Ethan’s feelings almost burst from his lips, but the fear of breaking the silence that surrounds their vague affair keeps him from professing his love and communicating his feelings. “Ethan, walking with Mattie, longing to tell her of his feelings, admiring her laugher and gaiety; ‘To prolong the effect he groped for a dazzling phrase, and brought out, in a growl of rapture: ‘Come Along’,” Again and Again Ethan ‘struggled for the all-expressive word’; and again and again he fails to find utterance” (Wolff, “A Feast of Words” 411). Instead of speaking to Mattie about their problematic relationship, he denies what they mean to each other. In his silence about the nature of their feelings, he takes away from the love they could have experienced before their ‘smash-up’. If they were honest about their love initially, it’s possible that it could have been avoided. Instead, we see that the unspoken taboo placed on the reality of people’s relationship drives them to the unspeakable.

Ethan’s isolation from the world and even from Starkfield then isolates his emotions from his ability to express them. “Wharton was not interested in sin, but she was interested in the effect of isolation upon the workings of man’s emotional life… but his deadening isolation is in the cold world of unloved and unloving inner emptiness—a world of depression, loneliness, and slow starvation” (Wolff, “Ethan Frome” 69). Ethan’s isolation from the world and even from Starkfield then isolates his emotions from his ability to express them. The physical cold of the environment cuts off all feeling from its inhabitants, severing their ability to communicate important thoughts and sentiments. While the cold numbs Ethan to his pain and depression, it does not eliminate it. Lurking under the surface rests all the loneliness and resentment that he suppresses, mainly because of the disconnection of the community and the exclusive mentality of the citizens of Starkfield. The Frome farm demonstrations “The separation of feeling from its expression, the idea of emotion being locked away, separated, or froze, just as Starkfield is bound by ice and snow…” (Bernard 390-1). The Frome farm exhibits the insulated way the people live perfectly and draws parallels between itself and Ethan Frome. The farm sits miles from the nearest neighbor, highlighting the separation of the farm from the town as well as Ethan’s separation from the people around him. Wharton frequently describes the farm and the attached house as dark and decrepit, symbolizing the Ethan’s silence as a result of his quarantine from humanity, and the emotional damage it causes within him. Physical isolation and suppression translate into personal and emotional isolation and suppression shown by the transition of Ethan in to “… 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; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. 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” (Wharton 16). Physical isolation and suppression translate into personal and emotional isolation and suppression. The harsh winters and unsympathetic landscape of Starkfield exact an injurious toll on the inhabitants and especially Ethan Frome. The severance from feeling stems from ruthless environments that humanity resides in. Ethan finds refuge from the cruel world in which he lives in silence. However, without communication nothing will ever change, so Ethan and Starkfield move into a vicious cycle of unhappiness.

Ethan Frome unquestionably fit the description of a tragic hero. “So while we no longer agree that the best tragedies are drawn from a few noble families, modern tragedy agrees with Aristotle that the tragic tale includes a good protagonist who, through his hamartia or tragic flaw, is brought down to a place of suffering and pain” (Dodson 2). His hamartia is his silence, imposed on him by the perceived oppression of societal expectations and pressures. Ethan Frome unquestionably fit the description of a tragic hero. His hamartia is his silence, imposed on him by the perceived oppression of societal expectations and pressures. His silence can also be attributed to the shame he feels because of his distant relationship with his wife and his inappropriate devotion to her cousin. His refusal to communicate leads to indecisive procrastination because Ethan does not want to hurt Zeena. This remorseful stalling leads to love driven desperation, the eventually crippling of Ethan and Mattie, and the forced proximity of Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie. Zeena makes choices out of selfish desires, and she reasons “in her own way and makes her choice, both when she decides to send Mattie away and when she receives her back. Ethan reasons and makes his choice when he decides not to borrow money under false pretenses and use it to run away with Mattie and make a start elsewhere” (Lyengar 294). Zeena forces Mattie out the house because of her jealousy of Mattie and Ethan’s devotion to her. She takes Mattie back; however, she appeases her conscience, which was probably telling her that the accident was partially her fault. She forces her own hypochondria aside and play caretaker to two full grown debilitated people who cause her unhappiness. Ethan initially plans to ask Mr. Hale for an advance for the lumber he delivered, but he changes his mind due to the overwhelming guilt over lying to honest people. Though he most likely would have found intense happiness with Mattie out west, society and guilt pressure him into forfeiting his own happiness.

Though Ethan Frome did not receive any awards, Zoe Akin’s stage adaptation of the novella won a Pulitzer Prize in 1935. Wharton won the Pulitzer Price in 1921 for her novel, The Age of Innocence, making her the first woman to receive this award. In 1923, Wharton was awarded an honorary degree in Literature from Yale University. Ethan Frome was met with mixed review initially, then with a caustic review by Lionel Trilling. This caused many other critics to reject the book as “dead” as well (“Ethan Frome” 4). The novella’s merit was reevaluated and Wharton’s use of framing devices, use of the narrator, and incorporation of Calvinism is highly praised by today’s critics. Ethan Frome is widely regarded as one of the best works of tragedy written in the last century.

Edith Wharton wholly shows the complexity of human in emotion in her stunning portrait of love and silence. Ethan Frome is a timeless novella that transcends generations because it speaks to a collective human truth: silence hurts. Every human being has coveted what wasn’t theirs, has controlled emotions that want to scream out, and has felt disconnected from the world and people around them. “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters” (Wharton 12) is understandable to all because it reminds us of an arduous time in our lives when we felt stuck and broken. Ethan Frome endures because everyone who reads it can empathize with the characters in the book on a very personal level. The untruthfulness in human interactions, the seclusion people’s lives, physically and emotionally, and the rejection of pleasure in one’s life draw attention to the costs of stifling oneself.

Works Cited
Bernard, Kenneth. “Imagery and Symbolism in ‘Ethan Frome’.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. 390-3. Print.
Dodson, Samuel Fisher. "Frozen Hell: Edith Wharton's Tragic Offering." Edith Wharton Review 16.1 (Spring 1999): 10-15. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 84. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Mar. 2012.
<http://go.galegroup.com >.
"Ethan Frome." Short Story Criticism. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 84. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Mar. 2012. <http://go.galegroup.com>.
Lyengar. K.R. Srinivasa. “A Note on Ethan Frome.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. 393-6. Print.
Nevis, Blake. “’Ethan Frome’ and the Themes of Edith Wharton’s Fiction.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. 384-6. Print
Walton, Geoffrey. “Edith Wharton: A Critical Interpretation.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. 400-1. Print.
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Scribner, 1911. Print.
Wolf, Cynthia Griffin. “A Feast of Words: the Triumph of Edith Wharton”. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. 407-14. Print.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “Ethan Frome: This Vision of His Story.” Edith Wharton. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 68-9, 72-5, 78-86. Print.

Works Consulted
Bernard, Kenneth. “Imagery and Symbolism in ‘Ethan Frome’.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. 390-3. Print.
Dodson, Samuel Fisher. "Frozen Hell: Edith Wharton's Tragic Offering." Edith Wharton Review 16.1 (Spring 1999): 10-15. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 84. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Mar. 2012.
<http://go.galegroup.com >.
"Edith Wharton." LitFinder Contemporary Collection. Detroit: Gale, 2007. LitFinder. Web. 5 Mar. 2012. <http://go.galegroup.com>.
"Ethan Frome." Short Story Criticism. Ed. Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 84. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Mar. 2012. <http://go.galegroup.com>.
Lyengar. K.R Srinivasa.. “A Note on Ethan Frome.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. 393-6. Print.
McDowell, Margaret B.. “Edith Wharton” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. 401-2. Print.
Nevis, Blake. “’Ethan Frome’ and the Themes of Edith Wharton’s Fiction.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. 384-6. Print.
"Overview: Ethan Frome." Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them. Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Vol. 2: Civil Wars to Frontier Societies (1800-1880s). Detroit: Gale, 1997. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Mar. 2012.
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Shuman R. Baird. “The Continued Popularity of ‘Ethan Frome’.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. 398-400. Print.
Thomas, J.D.. “Marginalia or ‘Ethan Frome’.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. 386-7. Print.
Tuttleton, James W. "Edith (Newbold Jones) Wharton." American Realists and Naturalists. Ed. Donald Pizer and Earl N. Harbert. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 12. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Mar. 2012. <http://go.galegroup.com>.
Walton, Geoffrey. “Edith Wharton: A Critical Interpretation.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. 400-1. Print.
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Scribner, 1911. Print.
"Wharton, Edith (1862-1937)." UXL Biographies. Online ed. Detroit: UXL, 2003. Student Resource Center - Gold. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD. Web. 5 Mar. 2012. <http://find.galegroup.com>.
Wolf, Cynthia Griffin. “A Feast of Words: the Triumph of Edith Wharton”. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. 407-14. Print.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. "Edith Wharton (24 January 1862-11 August 1937)". American Novelists, 1910-1945. Ed. James J. Martine. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale. 126-34, 136-7. Print.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “Ethan Frome: This Vision of His Story.” Edith Wharton. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 68-9, 72-5, 78-86. Print.





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