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Ethan and Mattie believed suicide was the solution for their dark despair; instead, the failed attempt secured many years of agonizing entrapment. The years had worn Ethan down, as he “[looked] as if he was dead and in hell now!” (2). Life had always dealt him more trappings than freedoms. His father’s death short-circuited a college career and his sense of duty left him in a loveless marriage. Only Mattie could ease Ethan’s immense loneliness, but he was a man of morality and would not cheat on his spouse. In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Ethan’s appearance, actions, and others’ responses indirectly characterize him as conflicted, fated for failure, and delusional.
Frustrations plagued Ethan’s life. Due to his father’s death and mother’s poor health, Ethan was compelled to abort his pursuit of an engineering degree and felt forced to run the family farm. Ethan married Zeena, not out of love, but because she had assisted in the care of his ailing mother. Zeena soon developed illnesses, complaining that she was “a great deal sicker than you think” (58) and relative Mattie Silver was brought in for assistance with chores. Over time, Ethan developed a fondness for Mattie. She was vibrant and easygoing; a sharp contrast to Zeena’s noxious and controlling personality. Zeena, who considered herself “a poor man’s wife” (62), tolerated Mattie because it would have been difficult to afford hired help. Ethan was blind-sided when Zeena announced that Mattie was being forced out of the home in favor of a paid housekeeper. Mattie’s presence in Ethan’s home allowed him to endure Zeena. Ethan could not fathom an existence without Mattie. With death as the only apparent answer to their problems, Ethan incorrectly chose to handle his stress by agreeing to take Mattie on a suicidal sled ride. While coasting down the hill, Ethan muttered to himself, “I know we can fetch it” (96) as the large elm tree loomed ahead. He had not anticipated surviving the crash. His brief loss of concentration as he thought of Zeena handed him a fate as twisted as his post-smash up body. He became trapped in a bleak reality.
Being a married man, Ethan created a recipe for failure when he began fantasizing about another woman. Ethan and Mattie’s intimate meal together went amiss when the inquisitive cat destroyed a pickle-dish, which was Zeena’s favorite wedding gift (44). This incident made Zeena furious. Suspecting her relationship with Ethan was shattered like the pickle-dish, she scolded Mattie as a “bad girl,” claiming: “If I’d ‘a’ listened to folks, you’d ‘a’ gone before now, and this wouldn’t ‘a’ happened” (70). Ethan had committed two offenses that evening: he attempted to explore forbidden love and allowed Mattie to spend time with Zeena’s pickle-dish. The dreary truth being that, in Zeena’s mind, the infractions were comparable. His decision to take Mattie to catch the train also ended in debacle, resulting in the freak sledding “accident” that left them wounded both physically and emotionally. Ethan endured a fate worse than death. A friend echoed this notion by stating: “there’s [not] much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard” (101).
The delusion of an intimate relationship with Mattie caused Ethan to drift away from his wife. Mattie’s young and lively qualities were desirable to Ethan. One evening, Ethan concealed himself as he spied on Mattie at a church dance. Following the event, she declined another man’s offer of a sleigh ride and chose instead to walk home with Ethan. In this short time span, Ethan’s emotions changed from jealousy to harboring a feeling of affection for Mattie. He never acted on these feelings. Ethan avoided taking Zeena to the doctor the next day to arrange the meal alone with Mattie, but at the end of the night, he realized that they had not even held hands (52). When Zeena expelled Mattie from the Frome farm, Ethan visualized a perfect relationship with Mattie through the spontaneous suicide attempt; instead, he was miserably stranded with two decrepit women.
Conflict often caused Ethan’s troubles. He was forced to choose between heartfelt desires and dutiful obligations. His illusion of love for Mattie escalated to the point that he always wanted her companionship. He arranged for them to enjoy a private evening together. However, thoughts of Zeena haunted him and the night ended without any romantic pursuit. The cat’s destruction of the red pickle-dish climaxed Ethan’s problems, showed his destiny for downfall, and highlighted his streak of bad luck. Author Wharton does not offer a complete description of the feline in Ethan Frome, but for the title character it carried the superstitious characteristics of a black cat.