Throughout the first part of the book, the reader wonders why on Earth Ethan married his wife, Zenobia, in the first place. He clearly does not like her, and descriptions of Zeena range from the charitably generic “grayish tinge[d]” (15) visage to the thoroughly horrid “microscopic cruelty” (23) of the lines on her face. What led Ethan to matrimony with this woman in the first place? The answer is a reaction to a situation, not a proactive decision. Zeena had come to help Ethan care for his ailing mother, and “when he saw her preparing to go away, he was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm” (29). His immediate reaction to this irrational fear was to ask for Zeena’s hand in marriage, though a little thought would have shown that this was not the wisest course of action to take. Ethan himself even acknowledges that their marriage would not have taken place if his mother had not died in the cold, desolate days of winter. His reasons for marrying Zeena were not ...
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...ot have been reached if Ethan had just done the proactive thing.
A person can typically be classified as falling into one of two categories: proactive and reactive. Proactive people tend to act to change the outcomes of their circumstances, and reactive people tend to simply react to their situation without reasoned thought. The titular character of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome falls into the latter category. We this trait in his marriage to Zeena, a reaction to his loneliness, and in his subsequent unfruitful argument with her where his reactivity only escalates the situation. Finally, at the climax of the book, we see Ethan submit to Mattie’s demands for mutual suicide with very little resistance - certainly a reactive, rather than proactive, action. Instant reactions are good in life-or-death situations, but for Ethan Frome, they lead him to a living death instead.
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