In Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome, the narrator of the story is forced to spend the winter in Starkfield, Massachusetts, due to a labour strike. This is where he sees the disabled Ethan Frome and tries to piece together a story about his life. Starkfield is just as its name implies, an area that is quite isolated, with the land not fertile enough for crops to grow. Those who remain in Starkfield do so because of necessity, with the cycle of poverty preventing them from leaving. Starkfield has no libraries or theatres for entertainment, and the harsh winter further restricts the movements of Starkfield’s inhabitants while threatening their survival. With little to do, the narrator quickly notices the “hypnotising effect of routine” and “grim satisfaction” (3) in living a life filled with repetitious movements. Ethan is marked by his failure to leave Starkfield and escape poverty and by his failed relationships. Throughout Ethan Frome, the cycle of repetition is evident in Ethan’s life, through his interactions with his parents, Zeena, and Mattie.
Ethan becomes well acquainted with repeated failure early on in life. To Ethan, failure is equivalent to living in Starkfield, because living in Starkfield means he will remain poor and alone. Each time Ethan tries to leave, he leaves with the intention to furthering his life but his circumstances resist such change and he inevitably returns to Starkfield. He first dreams of success as a young man, leaving for a year’s studies at a technological college in Worcester with the hopes of becoming an engineer. While away on his studies, he had works temporarily as an engineer in Florida and has hopes of being successful, of living in a progressive town and seeing the world. His studies are cut short when his father has an accident “out haying” and becomes “soft in the brain” (5). Ethan has to surrender his studies and is forced to return home and to live off the land, which is what he knows. The land resists his hope for success because it is not fertile, so he cannot profit from the land. He looks after his father but his father does not regain his health and before dying, his father gives away Ethan’s inheritance, which further limits Ethan’s ability to progress in life. Upon his father’s death, his mother gets sick with rheumatism and so he looks after her, but she, too, dies.
After having tasted repeated failure in his life, Ethan becomes discouraged and begins to feel trapped even by the winter, which has conditioned him to feel alone and helpless through its yearly reappearances of extreme cold and snow. It is the winter’s solitude that prompts him to marry his cousin Zenobia (Zeena) Pierce who had attended to his mother, when she was alive. Ethan admits that he would not have married Zeena “…if his mother had died in spring instead of winter…” (29). Initially, Zeena’s presence fills Ethan with a renewed sense of hope for the future because “after the mortal silence of his long imprisonment Zeena’s volubility was music in his ears. He feels that he might have ‘gone like his mother’ if the sound of a new voice had not come to steady him” (29). Ethan was almost certain that “with a ‘smart’ wife like Zeena, it would not be long before he had made (for) himself a place in” (29) the world.
Months into their marriage, Zeena repeats the pattern of not speaking, similar to Ethan’s mother who never spoke because she was busy listening to the voices in her head, and silence returns to the Frome household. Zeena only speaks to complain to Ethan and becomes notably sick “even in a community rich in pathological instances” (30) and is revealed as having “complications” (46). Zeena came from a town that was “slightly larger” (29) than Starkfield and was not accustomed to “life on an isolated farm” (30). She grew accustomed to having control over the simple life in Starkfield and did not leave because “she could not have lived in a place which looked down on her” (30). She grows comfortable having Ethan around to look after all her needs and repetition erases the freshness that was once characteristic of her. As the cycle of recurrence continues, Ethan once again becomes caregiver but this time it is to his wife Zeena. Ethan is unable to find a buyer for his property and is forced to remain in Starkfield. An epitaph of a deceased relation of Ethan’s which reads, “SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF ETHAN FROME AND ENDURANCE HIS WIFE, WHO DWELLED TOGETHER IN PEACE FOR FIFTY YEARS” (33) serves as a reminder that the pattern of a lengthy marriage will repeat itself in young Ethan’s life.
Mattie Silver’s entrance into the Frome household parallels Zeena’s arrival seven years prior. She arrives to look after Zeena the way that Zeena arrived to look after Ethan’s mother. She, too, is a cousin, but on Zeena’s side. Mattie came from a busy town called Stamford, and like Zeena was not accustomed to living a rural life. Mattie’s arrival to nurse Zeena is due to the family’s punishment her for a debt owed them by her father, since Mattie’s father had defrauded the family. According to Zeena’s parents, Ethan marrying their daughter is equivalent to a debt paid because they thought it was owed to her since she lost her health nursing Ethan’s mother.
Ethan falls in love with Mattie because she brings life to the Frome household and she becomes the lively voice that Zeena once was. Zeena’s voice, to Ethan, was once “music in his ears” (29) and Mattie’s laughter becomes like “the call of a bird” (59). Ethan begins to dream again and wants to leave Zeena and head West with Mattie. He thinks that leaving Zeena will solve all his problems but despairs when he thinks about selling the farm. He realizes that there is no money for Zeena to live on because “farm and mill were mortgaged to the limit of their value” (56) and Zeena could barely clear “a thousand dollars on the sale” which means she would be after him for alimony after filing for divorce. Ethan feels hopeless that he is stuck forever in Starkfield and sees no way out except through death so he takes Mattie on the fateful sled ride where he intends for both of them to die. He repeats the sledding activity twice and before both become permanently disfigured by the collision into the elm tree. Ethan’s collision with the tree is a replica of his father’s accident in nature when he was “out haying” (5). Both father and son were left permanently damaged, only Ethan’s father lost his mind and became “soft in the brain” (5), whereas, Ethan was left emotionally scarred and physically damaged with his face showing he was “bleak and unapproachable” (1) and the right side of his body “shortened and warped” (1).
The cycle of repetition in Ethan Frome is seemingly apparent to the very end of the novella when Mattie goes to live permanently with Ethan and Zeena. Ethan now has the responsibility of taking care of two complaining women at his home. His life is one of route where he regularly picks up information on medicines for Zeena from the post office “every day at about noon” (1). Ethan, through circumstances beyond his control, is unable to break free of repetitive patterns which have destroyed his family life and his career and relives failure and poverty in every waking moment of his life. It is certain that he will remain in Starkfield and will leave only when he dies.
Brooklyn Prints. Sledding in Prospect Park. 14 April 2013. http://brooklynprints.com/prints/prospect_park_prints/black_and_white/black_and_white_prospect_park_prints_view_all.php.
Prather, Dominique. Because I Could Not Stop for Death. 14 April 2013. http://english3period1-emilydickinson.wikispaces.com/Because+I+could+not+stop+for+Death.
Stark, Daniel. Wedding. 14 April 2013. http://danielstarkphotography.com/blog.
Tikusis, Jean Markko. Old Elm Tree Winter. 14 April 2013 http://www.capturewisconsin.com/photos/926390.
Tikusis, Jean Markko. The Driveway. 14 April 2013 http://www.capturewisconsin.com/photos/926390.
TMS photography. Bedroom Window Snow. 14 April 2013. http://tmspics.blogspot.com/2012/02/bedroom-window-snow.html.
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1991. Print.