Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novella Ethan Frome distinguished itself from her other works that dealt with social commentary surrounding upper classes, extravagance, and moral shortcomings of the elite. Situated in the desolate, barren Starkfield, Massachusetts, the setting of Ethan Frome parallels the arid, bitter internal conflicts of main character Ethan and his cold perceptions of domesticity in a family with derisory income. Wharton herself spent a considerable amount of time in western Massachusetts, an atmosphere conducive to the careful creation of such a novella.
The novella creates spectacular tension around the three main characters. Mattie Silver, the Fromes’ indentured housemaid, young and colorful, juxtaposes Ethan Frome’s crimped, ghostlike wife Zeena. Ethan finds himself enraptured by Mattie’s refreshing presence, and subsequently falls into delusion, assuming she possesses fantastical qualities that, in actuality, do not reside in her rather banal personality. He succumbs to his delusions, enraptured by the idea of loving Mattie, like a child, and subsequently begins estranging himself from his wife. The atmosphere of Starkfield parallels his stagnation and failure to move forward: Ethan comes to a standstill, making no leaps toward Mattie as an effect of vague fear of possible reproach from Zeena, making no progress in his distressing financial situation, for dread of finding himself lacking the capacity to achieve stability, and making no efforts to assist the weak Zeena in finding a new caretaker to cover for her ills for fear of losing the source of his self-infantilization, Mattie Silver. Ethan’s hidebound character cannot make advancements in communication skills, and, as a result, he creates a mental prison for himself.
Wharton’s targeted theme falls on the effects of straying from the responsibilities and exigencies of maturity, recognizing that phenomenon, to an extent, and then utterly failing to resolve it. Ethan and Mattie sled down a hill in a gadarene rush for relief at the end of the novella at the time when Mattie is evicted by Zeena; the result is the smash-up, in which both become crippled from their deliberate crash into a large elm. Ethan and Mattie held each other like children, thereby communicating to each other, in a rudimentary fashion, that their lives would never progress, separated or not. Wharton specifically mentions that domesticity in the abstract did not interest Mattie, and her housekeeping skills were pedestrian at best. Ethan, repelled by the implications of adulthood, relied on his imaginative perception of Mattie, not her true, dull character, for comfort. When Zeena banished Mattie, she banished Ethan’s vice, leaving him to wallow in his realization that his happiness lay atop of a hill of artificial constructs; it was evanescent. Ethan thus began his inexorable descent into complete stagnation.
Wharton does a masterful job in conveying the dangers of willful unproductiveness, a hidebound character, a barren atmosphere, a dogmatic mind, and unresolvable interpersonal shortcomings in an elegant one-hundred and fifty-seven pages. Her prose falls nothing short of spectacular.