The Responsibility of Ethan Frome for His Own Tragedy in Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome
A: Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, published in 1911, was a departure
from her other works that were primarily concerned with the privileged
New York Society and its hypocrisy. Critics have agreed that Ethan
Frome was probably one of the most autobiographical of Wharton's works
because it talked about an illicit affair while Wharton herself was
going through one at that time. Wharton probably wanted the people to
understand her and her actions and sympathize with her. She does this,
in the book, by drawing our sympathy towards Ethan who is trapped in a
lonely and desolate farmland with a wife he does not even like.
Through her depiction of Ethan, Wharton, perhaps, wants us to see how
the surroundings and circumstances can influence our actions and
behaviour. There are strong traces of Determinism and Naturalism in
this novel as Wharton herself was a believer in it. She, perhaps, also
wants us to feel that Ethan's tragedy was inevitable and that it could
not be stopped no matter what.
I too believe that Ethan's tragedy was inevitable. It could have been
stopped long ago yet it was not. I don't think anyone in the novel is
to blame. The characters in the novel are all, like Ethan, victims of
circumstances but they do, however, determine Ethan's - and perhaps
one another's - actions. Throughout the novel Ethan's actions seem to
work against him and he seems to be the one who is pushing himself
backwards. Perhaps this was because of the author's belief in
Naturalism and the effect of nature and the surroundings on human
nature. We see in the novel that Ethan's actions, however noble,
always seem to backfire. This gave me the idea that he, probably, was
destined for his misfortune and that nothing could prevent it.
To begin with, Ethan was studying in a college in Worcester on his way
to become an engineer. From what he says it is understood that he
enjoyed that time, being with his friends and having an education. But
then fate took over and his father died putting 'a premature end to
Ethan's studies' and bringing him back to the farm, which he grew up
in to take care of his mother. He never did return to the college to
complete his studies and continued to work on the farm.
Ethan's decision was most likely driven by, firstly, poverty.'Frome
was poor' and 'the saw-mill and the arid acres of his farm yielded
scarcely enough to keep his household going.' If he was to go out and
make a better life for himself, his financial status was not going to
help him. As he could barely scrape a living off his farm, which was
worthless, his prospects slimmed down to close to none. I think that
this was when Ethan's tragedy probably began.
Secondly, the land around him has played a key role in his tragedy.