Ethan Frome Criticism

May 30, 2008
By Cortney Ryan, Palatine, IL

In the novel, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, the main character Ethan Frome experiences a great deal of tragic events in his lifetime. But, coincidently, he is not the character who causes most of these tragic events to occur. His wife, Zeena, who is in fact very ill, is the one to directly, as well as indirectly cause most of these tragedies. Apart from drawing attention to herself by her many illnesses, she attempts to send Ethan’s one true love away out of jealousy. The arrival of Zeena’s cousin, Mattie, causes a downfall of tragic events as the novel begins to unravel.

From the beginning, the reader discovers the possibility of the illness that Zeena experiences by an on looking narrator who watches Frome pick up a package with “some manufacture of patent medicine and the name of his specific.” (Wharton 4) Throughout the novel, Zeena’s condition worsens, making her unable to continue the housework on the farm. Mattie’s arrival is essential to the start of the tragic downfall that the Frome’s experience. Even near the end of the novel, Zeena is still attempting to steal the spotlight from her cousin. When she ends up going to see the doctor, she spends most of the couple’s money, money that they indeed don’t have. This is one of the many events that leads to the “almost” death of Ethan Frome.

From the early times of his marriage to Zeena, Ethan realizes that he is not in love with her but only married her to ease his own heart after his mother’s death. Upon the arrival of Mattie, Ethan’s spirits brighten and he wants to keep her around. When Zeena’s jealousy gets the best of her, she threatens to send her away and Ethan realizes how terrible the rest of his life with Zeena will end up being. Ethan and Mattie’s new found love set off a spark in both of their minds. How were they to live the rest of their lives together if Ethan was already married to Zeena? Mattie comes up with the plan that will solve all their troubles. She suggests that Ethan run the carriage into a tree. Zeena has caused so much pain and suffering to both her husband and her cousin that she bound them to choose suicide rather than continue their lives with her. Ethan would rather move away to the city, continue his life with Mattie and fulfill his dreams that were once shattered by his marriage to Zeena. She drove them to the point that they would rather end their lives than continue living them with the haunting presence of her in their minds.

In the end, they are both badly injured, crippled from this “accident.” The pain that Ethan has to overcome is so overwhelming at this point, he is badly crippled, forced to see out the rest of his life tending to his “sick” wife. In reality, Zeena is not as sick and she leads everyone to believe. She uses her “illnesses” as a way for her to get attention and have people pity her. She causes Ethan the pain of tending to her every need when he can be off living out his passions, being with his true love, Mattie. But instead of all these prosperities, he is forced to remain on the farm, poor, growing old, and yet still tending to his wife. Although many characters saw tragedy throughout the novel, Zeena was not one of them in particular, yet she was the one causing all of the hardships. Zeena undoubtedly contributed to the story’s tragedy as a whole.

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