Not The Chemical Kind Of Reaction

779 words - 4 pages

One of many theories I have is that all of our actions in life can be boiled down to one simple choice: do we work to resolve problems, or do we react to them? People can be defined by their tendencies towards one of those choices, and the lead character in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome is most certainly defined by his reactivity, rather than proactivity. Rather than work to solve situations, he simply reacts to his circumstances, oftentimes not making conscious decisions. It is very difficult to find instances in the book of Ethan’s proactivity, but his rash reactions are seen in abundance. Ethan’s reactivity is evident in his reasons for marrying his wife, his responses in an argument with Zeena, and his submission to Mattie’s suicide wishes.

Throughout the first part of the book, the reader wonders why on Earth Ethan married his wife, Zenobia, in the first place. He clearly does not like her, and descriptions of Zeena range from the charitably generic “grayish tinge[d]” (15) visage to the thoroughly horrid “microscopic cruelty” (23) of the lines on her face. What led Ethan to matrimony with this woman in the first place? The answer is a reaction to a situation, not a proactive decision. Zeena had come to help Ethan care for his ailing mother, and “when he saw her preparing to go away, he was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm” (29). His immediate reaction to this irrational fear was to ask for Zeena’s hand in marriage, though a little thought would have shown that this was not the wisest course of action to take. Ethan himself even acknowledges that their marriage would not have taken place if his mother had not died in the cold, desolate days of winter. His reasons for marrying Zeena were not based in a proactive decision to marry a woman based on her better qualities, but were instead based in a rash reaction to his new-found loneliness.

Once married to Zenobia, Ethan avoids engaging her in conflict, and in the singular significant scene of open anger between them, we see his reactive nature exposed once again. In their argument, Zeena recalls a lie that Ethan had told her the day before [“I thought you were to get fifty dollars from Andrew Hale for that lumber” (48)], and Ethan...

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