Essay on Wharton's Ethan Frome: Tale of the Living Dead
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Tale of the Living Dead
Ethan Frome, by Edith Warton is truly a tale of the “living dead”. Don’t be confused by the way this term is used in movies, where the living dead are corpses that rise from the ground. In this case, the term “living dead” refers to a person who is physically alive but emotionally dead. In the novel, Ethan Frome all three main characters are emtionally dead.
The characters have been emotionally dead since the "smash-up" in which Ethan and Mattie had crashed their sled into a tree. This crash left them both injured severely. The Fromes were poor before, but after, with Ethan only able to do a little work, they were poorer than ever. Never a social man, Ethan cut off the few relationships that he had maintained so his old friends would not see his poverty. The townspeople speak of Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena in the past tense, just like they refer to dead people. When Mrs. Ned Hale talks about Ethan and Mattie she said, "Yes, I knew them both ... it was awful.." Ethan even talks about himself in the past tense. When asked if science interested him he replied, "It used to." Nothing is happening to Ethan in his present life so he could only refer back to his past one. When Mrs. Hale was asked if she went out to Ethan's house often, she replied, "I used to go a good deal after the accident, when I was first married; but ..." This visitation is just like that to a graveyard. Right after a person dies his grave is visited often. After awhile relatives and friends get on with their own lives and make these trips rarely.
Another reason why the three main characters are emotionally dead is they do not communicate with other people. Mrs. Ned Hale, when remarking on the fact that the narrator had stayed in Ethan's house said, "I don't believe but what you're the only stranger has set foot in that house for over twenty years." All living people communicate with others regularly. Not only did the main characters act like living dead, they looked liked living dead. Edith Wharton describes Zeena:
"A slatternly calico wrapper hung from her shoulders and the wisps of her thin grey hair were drawn away from a high forehead and fastened in the back by a broken comb.