‘He was but the ruin of a man’.
What factors have contributed to Ethan’s tragic fate?
The first factor which adds to Ethan’s tragic fate is time. The book is mainly set in the nineteenth century and in those times things like divorce and adultery were less acceptable. Ethan would have felt morally wrong to leave this wife working on a poor farm or just leaving her money. Ethan’s birth into a poor family and in the time he was born, meant that he couldn’t really do anything so he was left unhappy. There was no welfare state in the nineteenth century America so again Ethan had to accept the burden of looking after his parents and wife, paying all of Zeena’s medical ’needs’ with no help. Ethan must have found these times hard because he received no help, he was the one who had to help everyone else. Ethan Frome’s wife Zeena is quite a hypochondriac, as we hear in the prologue that the post-master at ‘intervals’ would hand him medicine packages. Again we hear of this at page forty seven that Zeena’s last visit to the doctor cost Ethan twenty dollars, money he can’t afford to be wasted.
We are also told about Ethan’s desire to learn about science but with no university grants at that time and Ethan being part of a poor health stricken family he had to stop studying and go back to ’caring’ just like he does for the rest of his days.
He runs a farm which seems to be run down and again because of the time there were no farm subsides to help Ethan out so the farm worries add to his plight.
Mattie’s ‘coming to [the] house’ was due to her having no work to do or anywhere to stay. After her father’s death she was ’left on her own to make her way on fifty dollars’. There were fewer job opportunities for women in the nineteenth century, hence Mattie’s ’plight’. She had to go to Starkfield because as the narrator says on page 91,
’What chance had she, inexperienced and untrained, among the million bread- seekers of the cities?’
Communications were less developed than today or even than the time on narration, when ’winter shut down on Starkfield’ everyone was isolated. There was no telephone, radio, television, buses or cars. If you needed to contact someone it had to be by foot or horse and Ethan ’[had] been in Starkfield too many winters’ so the season, added to Ethan’s plight. Even when the railroad had been introduced it had left them ‘side-tracked’ because before ’there was considerable passing’. This left Ethan and his family even more alone and desolate from the rest of the country.
The second factor is the place the novel is set in. The name Starkfield is suggestive of deprivation and lifeless souls, all contributing to Ethan’s hardship.
The main season in the novel is the ’enemy’ of winter. Edith Wharton uses the climate to match the feelings of people in Starkfield, walking with a ’sluggish pulse’.
Wharton uses a military metaphor on page seven,