Ethan Frome: the Plot Development and the Symbolism in the Story

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There are several characters inome that become ill, Ethan becomes ill and so do the people around him. The two main characters who suffer from illness would have to be Mattie and Zeena. Sickness played a huge role in Ethan’s life, he was constantly caught up helping his deceased mother during the prologue for several years. As times get more rough, his cousin Zeena comes along to help him. However, the same applies to her when she becomes sick, Ethan ends up having to care for his wife. There is no hope for good health for some of the characters in the novel, in particular, Mattie and Ethan. They have sealed their fate on having good health during the “smash-up”. It is obvious to say with the permanent injuries they caused on themselves, they have nothing to hope for. The consequence of their actions will remain everlasting. Mattie is crippled and Ethan has a limping leg. The narrator says, “Her hair was as grey as her companion's, her face as bloodless and shrivelled, but amber-tinted, with swarthy shadows sharpening the nose and hollowing the temples. Under her shapeless dress her body kept its limp immobility,”(95). While for Ethan the narrator says, Zeena however, her hope for good health arrived during the epilogue as a surprise. She suddenly is in good condition helping out Mattie and Ethan. Possibly, she was never sick to begin with, she was just scared she would lose Ethan, making him trapped into helping her with her “illness”. As they are both damaged, she doesn’t need to fake it any longer. 'if she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived; and the way they are now, I don't see's there's much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard'” (99).

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In chapter nine, when Ethan and Mattie are about to sled down the hill, Mattie suggests to crash into the elm to kill the both of them which will set them to be “free” and inseparable. Mattie says, “Right into the big elm. You said you could. So’t we’d s never have to leave each other any more” (90). The decision the two have come to doesn’t result in freedom but despair and agony. The idea of illicit uncontrollable passion doesn’t undertake a happy road, it destroys the two of them in a devastating way. The two succumbing to it gave way to them becoming utterly trapped in a life with nothing but pure misery. After being hit by the elm they sealed their fate for each other. Mattie becomes crippled and severely damaged, while Ethan on the other hand is left with limping leg and some other injuries. At this moment his dream of being “free” with Mattie and going out to be one with her becomes non-existent as it just turns into a never-ending consequence of their ambitious passion for one another.

“They had never before avowed their inclination so openly, and Ethan, for a moment, had the illusion that he was a free man, wooing the girl he meant to marry.” (85) What has driven Ethan up to this extent just to be a part of Mattie? As things get worse and worse, he still continues to be with her. Since Ethan is not free anymore and Zeena is now helping him for his health, do you think Wharton had any purpose in doing so? It’s almost as if they switched roles.

In the beginning of the framework, it can be interpreted that Zeena causes more turmoil for Ethan due to her suspiciousness and how it affects towards Ethan every time he is with Mattie. Towards the end, Zeena expels Mattie from the household for a variety of reasons, jealousy of her thing going on with her wife, Zeena was complaining about her work, etc. this made her decide to choose a new servant to work for them since she couldn't put up with Mattie anymore. When Ethan hears about this news, the narrator says, “She had taken everything else from him; and now she meant to take the one thing that made up for all the others. For a moment such a flame of hate rose in him that it ran down his arm and clenched his fist against her” (Wharton, 65). As this causes emotional turmoil for him, one thing for certain was that he was debating whether or not to resort to hurting Zeena physically. However as for rMattie, with her arrival, Ethan began to drift away from his marriage with Zeena. Mattie made him want to leave Zeena completely, He wanted to fulfill a relationship with her in the west and divorce Zeena as a whole. Mattie made him feel uncertain and unsure for just about everything, he wasn’t sure about staying with his wife due to the society’s rules or being with one that brings him joy, Mattie. At one point in the story, Ethan wants to stay at Mattie for a night by making up an excuse where he has to collect the lumber from Hale so he doesn’t drive her to the doctor in Bettsridge. The narrator says, “Ethan tried to say something befitting the occasion, but there was only one thought in his mind: the fact that, for the first time since Mattie had come to live with them, Zeena was to be away for a night. He wonder if the girl were thinking it too….”(34). Ethan clearly is showing more affectionate love for Mattie than he is his wife, this causes major problems because it only leads to more turmoil for him that eventually builds up to the climax. Ultimately, Mattie most definitely causes more turmoil for Ethan, although Zeena did as well. What drove Ethan to be the way he is towards Mattie? He suddenly began to show no more interest in Zeena.

The cat serves a purpose in being a symbol of Zeena and her presence. Zeena always prevents Ethan from doing anything with Mattie when she is around, that's why Ethan becomes extremely joyful when she isn’t around, it’s almost as if he shifts to a completely different persona. This applies to the cat’s significance too, the cat always barges into everything whenever Mattie and Ethan are close to getting any kind of contact with one another. The cat constantly gives a reminder that the existence of Zeena still lurks whether she is around the two lovers or not. An example of this is when the cat breaks Zeena’s most prized possession and it immediately sits in her chair. The narrator says, “The cat, profiting by this unusual demonstration, tried to effect an unnoticed retreat, and in doing so backed into the pickle-dish, which fell to the floor with a crash” (45). The author could not have achieved the same effect without the cat’s presence, without it, the cat wouldn’t have broken the pickle dish. With the cat’s clumsiness, this led to Zeena finding out, which made her become angry and upset. “‘-and now you've took from me the one I cared for most of all-‘She broke off in a short spasm of sobs that passed and left her more than ever like a shape of stone” (70). When the pickle dish broke, this began to symbolize the marriage of Ethan and Zeena and how it is slowly fading away, the sorrow of Zeena shows how far their shattered relationship has come.

Mattie most definitely plays a major character, in other words, she is a strong character. She brings a tremendous amount of importance, one example could be that she is the living symbol of the affection that Ethan can’t resist. The passion he has for her causes continuous problems that never seem to end, they only seem to get worse and worse as time gradually passes. Before Ethan and Mattie crash into the elm, she says, “ Ethan, where'll I go if I leave you? I don't know how to get along alone. You said so yourself just now. Nobody but you was ever good to me. And there'll be that strange girl in the house... and she'll sleep in my bed, where I used to lay nights and listen to hear you come up the stairs…” (90). This quote here bounces off of the reasoning behind why Mattie causes problems for Ethan. Mattie is attempting to persuade Ethan to crash with her into the elm which shows an obsessed and insane side to her. Mattie is an important character but she also highlights herself as one towards Zeena, a character who dislikes Mattie staggeringly. Her hate for her starts earlier in the novel, around when Mattie and Ethan are walking home and she opens the door for them when they can’t seem to find the key. “‘Guess you forgot about us, Zeena,’ Ethan joked, stamping the snow from his boots. ‘No. I just felt so mean I couldn’t sleep’” (28). With this quote, Zeena usually doesn’t forget to leave the key, but knowing that her husband is coming home with Mattie, the readers can infer she held the key to possibly get something out of the two, or maybe she simply wanted to expose him. Wharton decided to make the contrast between Zeena and Mattie great because they were the plug the story, without the fire they have for one another, the story would be bland and lacking strong features making it uninteresting as a whole. Their problems connect with Ethan and make his turmoil be riser higher and higher making him uncertain about the two. If they didn’t have anything against each other, there would be no significance towards the idea of the story.e

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