It is human nature to want what you cannot have. Society places restrictions that may prevent individuals from attaining their desires. In the novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, the consequences an individual may face in rebelling against domestic duties, age constraints, and class constraints are exposed through the main character’s attempts to break free from the social expectations of a middle class, middle-aged, married man. Ethan Frome is confined by his role as a husband to provide for his wife for the rest of their lives. This is a major conflict that Ethan faces. Husbands in particular are expected to be responsible, faithful and financially supportive in marriage. Despite the blatant lack of affection between Ethan and his wife Zeena, Ethan is obligated to devote his money into providing for her. As it happens, Zeena is constantly ill. She is aware that her husband is in love with a younger woman: her cousin, Mattie. However, Zeena also knows that Ethan will not be able to convince himself to elope with Mattie. Society would reject him if he pursued a love affair and left his ailing wife alone. Zeena mercilessly taunts Ethan in his inability to escape their marriage by forcing him to pay for countless medications and doctors’ visits to treat her illness—an unknown and seemingly incurable affliction. This conflict is resolved, misfortunately, when Ethan and Mattie are involved in a near-fatal sledding accident and Ethan, Mattie, and the sickly Zeena are forced to live together forever. Ethan must provide for two women now, a job made increasingly difficult because he is crippled. Ethan never escapes from Zeena and is more tied to the home than ever. He becomes the provider for two feeble women and his romantic dreams of a life with the vivacious and beautiful Mattie are destroyed. If I were in Ethan’s position, I would never have married Zeena in the first place. However, I believe that as a married man, Ethan should honor that marriage and try to be happy with his wife. Ethan never gives Zeena a chance, and yet wonders why they don’t get along. Marriage is not a commitment that can be escaped so easily, and Ethan should have realized that from the beginning. A minor conflict in the story is the age barrier that exists between Ethan and Mattie. Ethan believes that he is competing for Mattie’s affections with a man named Denis Eady. Denis is a rich, young man, and the type that society expects Mattie to marry, over an aging, not to mention married, man like Ethan. However, the conflict mainly exists inside Ethan’s head. Mattie reciprocates Ethan’s feelings but is slow and shy to express them. Ethan is pining for Mattie but does not know that she loves him too. The conflict is resolved when Mattie hints to Ethan the nature of her feelings. Ethan is comforted in knowing that Mattie will accept his love for her, if only he can find a way to be with her instead of Zeena. If I were Ethan I would have at least attempted to express my feelings for the one I love. Because of Ethan’s passiveness, he is taking a great risk in getting his heart broken. If he has chosen to pursue his love affair, he should be able to do so with confidence, and abandon his conscious—or he should not delve into the affair in the first place. Ethan Frome cannot demonstrate his love for Mattie because she is employed in service to his wife. Class constraints are a major conflict that Ethan faces. Society mandates, at this time, that people associate and form relationships within their class. Ethan is not a wealthy man, but he owns a farm. Mattie is one of two people that are “hired help” on the property, along with a man named Jotham Powell who assists Ethan at work. One night, Zeena leaves the farm to visit a doctor, and Ethan believes that he will be able to profess his love for Mattie now that they are alone. However, Jotham’s constant presence on the property causes Ethan to realize that he and Mattie will never truly be alone, and if they went so far as to consummate their love for one another the intimacy of their relationship would likely become publicly known. If that were to happen, Ethan would be a shamed and ruined man. Ethan is afraid and ashamed to rebel against social protocol and display his enamored affections for a serving maid. I think that Ethan is too compliant to societal rules. If I were in Ethan’s position, I would not let myself be confined by class constraints, as these are the most insignificant restrictions that society can place on the individual. Again, if Ethan’s love for Mattie is true he should not be afraid to express it. Although the main conflicts of the story are Ethan battling himself against the expectations of society, the character that I identify the most with in this novel is Zeena. Ethan has a dream to escape his unfortunate marriage with Zeena. If he had the money and was brave enough to rebel against the mores of his world, he would. Zeena, on the other hand, is dependent on Ethan, but is clearly unwanted by him. She is described as ugly, and miserable, and it is quite clear that Ethan wants to trade her in for the young and beautiful Mattie. I identify with Zeena because I pity her. Her fate is, I feel, far worse than what either Ethan or Mattie is doomed to endure. I consider her the character that is most deserving of sympathy. Ethan is bound to Zeena in marriage, but finds delight in Mattie. Mattie is employed to Zeena, but is mutually in love with Ethan. Mattie and Ethan loathe Zeena. Zeena’s only entertainment in life is in seeking out new cures and new doctors for her strangely persistent illness. While Ethan and Mattie have each other, Zeena has no one, no hope, and no prospects. And yet, Ethan and Mattie marvel at her insensitivity toward them, not realizing that their loathing is reciprocated. I feel that Zeena is by no means the antagonist of the story, and that while the misfortune of all three characters is self- inflicted, the misfortune suffered by Zeena is the worst. My greatest fear is to be fated to such a lonely and miserable life. In the novel Ethan Frome, society triumphs over the individual. Ethan is confronted with many conflicts related to societal restrictions based on marriage, age, and class. Ultimately Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena are forced to live together, and none of them ever escapes those restrictions. Ethan’s half-hearted attempts to rebel against social constraints are repeatedly suppressed. Ethan cannot be satisfied with his lot in life, and is therefore doomed to be perpetually unhappy. Mattie, who came from an outside world of liveliness and adventure, is sucked into the gloomy life of the Frome’s through her infatuation with Ethan. And Zeena, who puts up with her husband’s selfishness, is also forced to exist in an unhappy threesome for the rest of all their lives. The tale of Ethan Frome is a tragedy, and encourages us to be thankful for what we have rather than to let our desires overwhelm our decisions.
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