Ethan Frome as Fairy Tale
Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome is vividly real to its readers, its issues continually relevant to society, but through its structure and moral lessons, it is intended to be read as a 'fairy tale'.
Elizabeth Ammons discusses this 'fairy tale' in her article "Ethan Frome as a Fairy Tale," explaining that the novel is a "vision" of the narrator's. As evidenced by the introductory chapter, the narrator truly has few clues as to the real story of Ethan Frome, and these clues often are diverse, and what we are about to read is nothing more than a figment of the narrator's imagination based on certain facts he has learned. Ammons comments, "while Ethan's story will appear real and we can believe that the tragedy did happen, the version here is a fabrication . . . one of many possible narratives" (146). The story is fiction, not fact, and is mainly intended to entertain and instruct more than inform. Fairy tales themselves are by their very nature documents concerned with morality, never actual events. The psychological impact of Ethan Frome is far more lasting than the plot itself, for the plot is fictional but the issues are real.
The characters of Ethan Frome also fit the mold for fairy tales. Ethan is the one we expect to come out as the hero of the story. He is torn between two women, the one he loves and the one he has married. Mattie Silver, Ethan's obsession, is beautiful and charming, not unlike the heroines of many fairy tales. She is "a princess of nature in Ethan's eyes" (147). She is described as full of life, colorful, and energetic, the ideal woman. Zeena, on the other hand, is the "witch" of Ethan's life. She is only in her mid-thirties, but is already showing the signs of aging. She is portrayed as having angular, sharp features, pale skin, and is always found sick or lying in bed. She represents the evil side of women. The two opposing women are comparable to those found in many other fairy tales (as in Snow White, or Cinderella); Mattie is the lovely, innocent maiden and Zeena is the old, decrepit, wicked step-mother who oppresses the princess Mattie.
In the end, though, we are disappointed when everything does not turn out as most fairy tales...