At the end of June Brett sat down to write his final essay for his High School Junior AP English course. I was hanging around like an old cat whose role was to occasionally jump up on the desk and sit in the middle of the keyboard where I offered up equal parts distraction and mild annoyance.
My role as mentor during the writing of his third essay was rather limited because Brett was rather unlimited. The fact of the matter is I didn’t have to do much mentoring at all which I think is the best mentoring one can give. Or maybe he had me around because he secretly liked having me around to offer up equal parts distraction and mild annoyance.
I held off on publishing this essay because I wanted to honor his growth as a writer over the last year by having this essay become the 150th item published on Una Voce Sola.
By Brett Johnson
Edith Wharton is widely regarded as a prominent writer of social satire in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Often recognized by her strong themes of social imprisonment and ironic representations of Victorian social conventions, such as restrictive marriage, women’s etiquette, and education are representative of her life struggles as a woman in the Nineteenth Century. Her views craft the story of Ethan Frome in a way that shows how the character, Ethan Frome, experiences his own social confinement through his failed marriage and his extramarital affair.
This thematic approach in Ethan Frome is described in the novel through an interpretation of Ethan’s marriage during the time of late Nineteenth Century New England and his affair. Ethan, who is married to his sickly wife, Zeena, is infatuated with a young girl, Mattie Silver, who comes to help him take care of his wife. Both women serve as a jaw of a vice, as in, Ethan wishes to pursue Mattie, yet he is bound by his commitment to his wife, Zeena. Because of these two forces, “He feels torn between a desire for the emotional compatibility he has with Mattie and a traditional sense of duty toward his wife” (Joyce Moss and George Wilson 126). Therefore, one of the larger social challenges in the Nineteenth Century was the inability to find true emotional freedom in place of the “traditional attitudes” akin to the ones that keep Ethan bound (Joyce Moss and George Wilson 126).
Initially, the social interactions in Ethan Frome appear to be straightforward and simple, as Ethan goes into the town of Starkfield, a snowy and rural New England town, to get his mail from the post office before leaving for his home. Yet it becomes more apparent as the story unfolds that things are more complicated than they seem. The narrator, a contemporary who lives in Starkfield questions if Ethan has “been in Starkfield too many Winters,” and what “obstacles have hindered the flight of a man like Ethan Frome” and kept him there in the town of Starkfield (Edith Wharton 3-6). The obstacle that has kept him there is that Ethan has tried to nullify social restrictions by engaging in an extramarital affair that ends in a mutually failed suicide attempt between him and Mattie, which leaves both of them crippled.
As a consequence of the restrictive nature of social norm, there is a personal cost regarding unrealized dreams and the eventual bitterness that comes from living a compromised life. In the book, Wharton puts Mattie and Zeena in clear contrast with each one being an antithesis of the other. Zeena, who has lived a compromised life due to her illness, is clearly bitter and “her sole pleasure, as Ethan sees it, is to make him miserable” (Marie Rose Napierkowski 127). Whereas Mattie is initially quite the opposite as she is unhindered and seemingly a positive aspect in Ethan’s life. Following the failed suicide pact Mattie assumes a similarly negative role parallel to other negative aspects of Ethan’s life as she “turns as querulous as Zeena” because she is now ill and crippled herself (Marie Rose Napierkowski 128).
Starkfield, even the name of the town where the story takes place exemplifies the starkness of the social traps that Wharton has laid out. The central crux of the novel is the ironic demonstration of Ethan being trapped by Zeena’s illness which stands in contrast with how the book ends. Wharton condemns Zeena to live the life of an invalid and then further condemns her by forcing her to be a caregiver for her husband and his mistress. Ethan is similarly impacted as he sought to escape the negative aspect of his life, Zeena, through the positive one, Mattie. In doing so, he creates two negatives in his life by remaining with Zeena and transforming Mattie into an equally negative person. Mattie, who begins free and unburdened attempts to find complete freedom by escaping through her own death, ends up confined to a chair due to her recklessness. Ultimately Wharton is commenting on the social restrictions of Nineteenth Century New England through the impact similar conventions had on the characters in the novel. Then lastly, she is using the way the characters of Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena, interact with such rules to provide insight on her own social confinement in the Victorian Era.
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. N.p.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911. Print.
Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them. Vol. 2: Civil Wars to Frontier Societies (1800-1880s). Detroit: Gale, 1997. 125-129. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 18 June 2016.
Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Novels for Students. Vol. 5. Gale, 1999. 122-144. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 18 June 2016.