Life in Permanent Isolation in Ethan from Novel


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He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe with all that was warm and sentient in him fast below the surface…

The image is gloomy: for countless years, Ethan Frome has been trapped in the cold winters of Starkfield and his life mirrors the frost-covered earth. Bound to Starkfield by his marriage, Ethan faces physical and emotional torment from the icy weather. The loving relationship that Ethan desires resides deep under layers of ice. Throughout the novel, Mattie, Ethan’s escape from the cold, is unable to free him. Author Edith Wharton establishes a perpetual coldness in Starkfield throughout the novel Ethan Frome, connecting it to the force that prevents Ethan from escaping with Mattie, and the eternal pain that he must face if his pursuit for her fails. By doing this, the author conveys the idea that a life changing opportunity is often ephemeral and it should be taken before it fades.

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In the beginning of the novel, Wharton focuses on the cold that surrounds Ethan as he approaches the church to wait for Mattie. Instead of going into the warm church, Ethan chooses to watch “from the pure and frosty darkness” on the outside (Wharton 25). The author situates Ethan out in the cold to demonstrate his inability to access the warmth within. Ethan, bound by his marriage and afflicted by the cold, cannot enter to dance with other women. Wharton also places Ethan in the dark to imply that he has no hope escaping Zeena if he stays out in the cold. However, Wharton contrasts the frozen outside with the inside that “seemed to be seething in a mist of heat” (Wharton 25). Mattie, lacking a husband and representing warmth, has no restrictions to who she could dance with. The author exemplifies this vital contrast throughout the novel to symbolize Mattie’s heat as the main component to the thawing of Ethan’s cold.

After the dance, Mattie and Ethan travel back home where Wharton adds more images of cold to interfere with their relationship. Once the two get to the door, they realize that the key is missing. After frantically looking around for the key, Mattie suggests that it “might have fallen off into the snow” (Wharton 47). In this scene, the author employs the snow to interrupt Ethan and Mattie’s handholding, demonstrating the force of winter. As the two enter the house, Wharton continues to utilize the cold to separate them. When Ethan can either go up with Zeena or stay down with Mattie, he chooses to stay down despite his wife’s warning about the cold. However, as Ethan tries to have a moment with Mattie, she decides to go up. By removing Mattie, Wharton takes the warmth out of the room, leaving Ethan in the powerful cold, rendering his attempt to escape his wife useless.

Much later in the book, when Zeena returns from her trip, the author reinstates the cold setting that earlier vanished as Zeena left. The author describes the kitchen as “cold and squalid,” just like it was when Ethan and Mattie had returned from the dance (Wharton 91). Wharton does this to remind the reader that Zeena is the main reason why Ethan cannot have a relationship with Mattie. Zeena, after returning from the doctor, wants to deprive Ethan of his source of warmth so he cannot escaper her. As Ethan is in his study after Zeena decides to get rid of Mattie, the author illustrates that his relationship is now just “cold paper and dead words” (Wharton 113). Little hope remains as Mattie’s days on the farm shorten. However, with the limited warmth that Mattie still has, the two decide to make one last attempt to break free from the frozen Starkfield by crashing into the oak tree and committing suicide. However, Wharton emphasizes the cold that surrounds the sled such as Mattie’s cheek “full of cold and weeping;” to demonstrate that their attempt will ultimately fail to achieve the warmth needed to melt Ethan. As a result of the crash, Ethan is lives a life in permanent isolation, far from any source of warmth.

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