Through her portrayal of Ethan and Mattie’s relationship, Wharton deplores a society where societal expectations deny people their chance of happiness. ‘ ” Her hat slipped back and he was stroking her hair. He wanted to get the feeling of it into his hand, so it would sleep there like a seed in winter. Once he found her mouth again, they were once again by the pond together in the burning August sun. ” It is the tragedy of “Ethan Frome” that these ill-fated lovers, Ethan and Mattie, are reduced to something “bleak and unapproachable”.
A couple who are refused their chance of happiness because of the rigorous social restrictions binding them to a life that represses love and happiness. Clearly Wharton, through her portrayal of their relationship, wants readers to put aside their preconceived notions of fidelity and adultery to recognize that the two were denied their chance of happiness. Ethan Frome lives trapped by the social expectations, which are placed upon him seemingly since the time of his birth.
Wharton openly implores us to admire Ethan’s endurance of his unfortunate life, as she paints a compassionate picture of him with a “look in his face that neither poverty nor physical suffering could have put there”. We are led to feel pity for the man who, as a last resort, married Zeena, in an “unsuccessful attempt to escape the silence, isolation, and loneliness” of living a life where social acceptance was had at the cost of his own happiness.
From the outset, Wharton creates warmth of feeling between readers and the character of Mattie. She creates an imagery of Mattie that emphasises all the qualities that she admires herself – love, beauty and vibrance, portraying them in such a way that we are ourselves are led to appreciate and value them. Her innocent demeanor is magnified by the harsh circumstances of her life, and readers are left feeling pity and sympathy for the girl who has ‘never had anyone be good to her’.
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, give life and elasticity to her”. To Ethan, Mattie is like “a window that has caught the sunset”; Her effect on him was likened to “spring rills in a thaw”. Her qualities are exemplified when contrasted against the descriptions of Zeena, whose face was “drawn and bloodless, “greyish”, and “sallow. Ethan sees in Mattie, a spirit of vibrancy that is far beyond the scope of his trite life in Starkfeild, bringing a light into his dismal life.
Throughout the novel we see the relationship and the blossoming of tender emotions develop, we feel that the characters ought to fulfil their passion and we resent their reluctance to face the consequences that go hand in hand with their feelings. The scene where Zeena leaves town is perhaps the most provoking scene of the novel, as Wharton drives home the social and psychological restrictions that stop the two lovers from being together – even when they are alone. Ethan deludes himself, forgetting momentarily his entrapping circumstances, as he imagines himself married to Mattie.
Wharton encourages readers to feel a solid approbation for the relationship, as the excitement and anticipation for the night ahead grows. The couple soon begins to feel the eerie presence of Zeena. The very kitchen which the night before had seemed like ” a chilly vault” is described as warm and bright and had a distinctly homelike appearance, yet when Zeena was mentioned, “it threw a chill between them”. In its cunning cruelty the cat becomes a perfect representative of its mistress, a watchful surrogate for Zeena, “the cat jumped into Zeena’s chair …. and lay watching them with narrowed eyes.
The warmth of the evening is brought to an abrupt end by the accidental breaking of Zeena’s treasured pickle dish, which in itself is a trivial incident, blown out of all proportion because of their fear of the consequence. In the same way that society’s restrictions depend on fear of the consequences from deviating from the accepted ‘norm’. After the night of the broken pickle dish, Ethan and Mattie finally articulate their feelings for each other, but are forced to face the painful reality that their fantasies will not come true. For Ethan, “the inexorable facts closed in on him like warders handcuffing a prisoner”.
His own commitment to the rules connected with ‘conformity’ and ‘order’ finally force him to abandon any thought of running away with Mattie. Running away would have seen Ethan “obtain money on false pretences”, and Zeena left destitute. Ethan was so bound by society’s web that he was unable to carry through with his plan. The reader shares the frustration that Ethan feels and wills him to rid himself of his bonds, and follow his heart. In this way Wharton rails against the society which has repressed mutual feelings and enforced conformity to it’s narrow values. The ending is one of inevitable tragedy.
The way in which we see Wharton attempting to resolve their desires, gives us an indication of her own values. Despite her obvious resentment towards the society of the time, Wharton displays the importance of rules in society, but highlights the price people must pay for abiding by them. This is seen in her tragic ending. Ethan and Mattie attempt to preserve their happiness and remain together the only way they can – through death. It was a seemingly simple solution for the two characters, that would allow Ethan to escape from his life without having to face the consequences of running away to be with Mattie.
The aborted suicide attempt leads to their tragic fate, living a life of physical and emotional suffering. “If she’d might ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived” It is horribly ironic that, as a result of the accident Mattie, the source of Ethan’s earlier joy, is now an additional burden in his already depleted life. The ironic twist brings home Whartons message. The cold suffering of the me’nage a trois contrasts strongly with what might have been, if Ethan and Mattie’s promise of love had been fulfilled, the image of them by the pond lived on, in the rich promise of that “burning August”.