Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

13 May 1994
Fantasy is an Escape from Winter
Ethan Frome, the title character of Edith Wharton\'s tragic
novel, lives in his own world of silence, where he replaces his
scarcity of words with images and fantasies. There is striking
symbolism in the imagery, predominantly that of winter which
connotes frigidity, detachment, bleakness and seclusion.
Twenty-eight year old Ethan feels trapped in his hometown of
Starkfield, Massachusetts. He marries thirty-four year old Zeena
after the death of his mother, "in an unsuccessful attempt to
escape the silence, isolation, and loneliness of life" (Lawson 71).
Several years after their marriage, cousin Mattie Silver is asked
to relieve Zeena, a gaunt and sallow hypochondriac, of her
household duties. Ethan finds himself falling in love with Mattie,
drawn to her youthful energy, as, "The pure air, and the long
summer hours in the open, gave life and elasticity to Mattie"
(Wharton 60).
Ethan is attracted to Mattie because she is the antithesis of
Zeena. "While Mattie is young, happy, healthy, and beautiful like
the summer, Zeena is seven years older than Ethan, bitter, ugly and
sickly cold like the winter" (Lewis 310). Zeena\'s strong,
dominating personality emasculates Ethan, while Mattie\'s feminine,
effervescent youth makes Ethan feel like a "real man." Contrary to
his characteristic passiveness, he defies Zeena in Mattie\'s
defence, "You can\'t go, Matt! I won\'t let you! She\'s [Zeena\'s]
always had her way, but I mean to have mine now -" (Wharton 123).
To Ethan, Mattie is radiant and energetic. He sees possibilities
in her beyond his trite life in Starkfield, something truly worth
standing up for. Her energy and warmth excite him and allow him to
escape from his lonely, monotonous life.
While Zeena is visiting an out of town doctor, Ethan and
Mattie, alone in the house, intensely feel her eerie presence. The
warmth of their evening together is brought to an abrupt end by the
accidental breaking of Zeena\'s prized dish. Zeena\'s fury at the
breaking of an impractical pickle dish exemplifies the rage she
must feel about her useless life. "That the pickle dish has never
been used makes it a strong symbol of Zeena herself, who prefers
not to take part in life" (Lawson 68-69). Ethan\'s response to
Zeena\'s rage was silence.
Just as Ethan lives in silence, so too does his wife. The
total lack of communication between the "silent" couple is a
significant factor in Ethan\'s miserable marriage. Ethan kept
silent in his dealings with his wife, "to check a tendency to

impatient retort he had first formed the habit of not answering

her, and finally thinking of other things while she talked"

(Wharton 72).
Zeena is the cold and ugly reality from which Ethan tries to
escape in his dreams of a life with Mattie. He is happy only when
imagining his life with Mattie. The night that they are alone, he
pretends that they are married. Often when they are together, he
fantasizes that Zeena is dead and that he and Mattie live together
in blissful devotion. Ethan deludes himself because, as a prisoner
of circumstance, his only escape is illusion. His happiness in the
company of Mattie is the product of a self-deception necessitated
by his unhappy marriage to Zeena, the obstacle to a life long
relationship with Mattie.
After the night of the broken dish, Ethan and Mattie finally
articulate their feelings for each other, and are forced to face
the painful reality that their fantasies can not come true:
The return to reality was as painful as the return to
consciousness after taking an anaesthetic. His body and brain
ached with indescribable weariness, and he could not think of
nothing to say or do that should arrest the mad flight of the
moments (Wharton 95).
"Zeena herself, from an oppressive reality, had faded into an
insubstantial shade" (Wharton 39). Her hypochondria is her outlet,
just as Ethan\'s world of fantasy is his. "It [her obsession with
her health] is adventurous in contrast to her monotonous marriage"
(McDowell 66). Sickly Zeena is able to manipulate her husband
using her frail health to justify her bitter personality. "When
she [Zeena] spoke it was only to complain" (Wharton 72).
Ethan and Mattie attempt to preserve their happiness and