In the novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, the minor character Mattie Silver serves as a foil towards the main character Ethan Frome. Throughout the novel, Ethan is a man who faces many challenges in his path causing what little happiness he has to vanish therefore illuminating the work as a whole. One may realize the faults of Ethan’s ways through theme, symbolism and irony.
Isolation can be the determining factor in changing one’s mindset. In Ethan Frome, Ethan faces many disappointments throughout the novel. In the novel, Ethan is an orphan since both parents have passed. His wife Zeena who is also his cousin has become the dominant one in the relationship taking over full control. While living in Starkfield, Zeena has suddenly become “sick” and is forced to bring in her cousin Mattie for help around the house. Zeena is depicted as a bitter prematurely old woman who is always “sick” while Mattie is the picture of health as well as the sweetest woman alive. When Mattie comes into the picture, she becomes the speck of happiness in which Ethan longs for but Zeena keeps taking away. This brings up a theme of failure throughout the novel.
Secondly, Ethan Frome has had many failures within his life such as his marriage to Zeena. One may ask how is Zeena and Ethan’s marriage a failure? Ethan only marries Zeena after she could not nurse his mother back to health and she ends up passing away. When Ethan mother dies, Ethan is in a sullen mood or funk and in turn needs company with him in the house. As Mattie entered the picture, she did something to Ethan not even Zeena could do; Mattie was Ethan’s happiness even though he couldn’t pursue a relationship with her. Ethan was loyal to his wife even if he may have felt that he never had the chance to explore his options and find himself a wife the right way.