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.