Edith Wharton presents two memorable characters in her novel, Ethan Frome. The reader is presented with Mattie Silver who is young, and good-natured, and Zeena Frome, who is a bitter hypochondriac seven years her husband’s senior. Upon a first inspection, Zeena Frome and Mattie Silver of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome seem to be extreme opposites in every respect, but upon closer scrutiny, one finds though they are indeed different in character, though they eventually share great similarities. Zeena and Mattie’s differences in appearance and character, but similarity of fate, all contribute to the theme of the novel which is that one cannot escape the social class one is born in.
Edith Wharton first describes Zeena in Chapter II as a woman who is but 37 years old, yet appears more elderly than her biological age. Zeena is associated with the dimness and grey of the winter landscape of Ethan Frome. There is no beauty or warmth coupled with the character of Zeena:
“Against the dark background of the kitchen she stood up tall and angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast… The light… drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wrist of the hand that clutched the quilt, deepening fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face under its ring of crimping pins.”
Mattie Silver, on the other hand, is associated with what little light and warmth there is in the cold setting of the novel. Wharton describes Mattie as “taller, fuller, more womanly in shape and motion.” She goes to relate Mattie’s appearance on that same page: “She held the light… and it drew out with the same distinctness her slim young throat and th...
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...an was suffocated with the sense of well-being.”
Edith Wharton presents a stark contrast of the feelings Zeena and Mattie inspire in the man they care most for. Zeena inspires irritation, awkwardness, and antipathy while Mattie promotes “eloquence,” and feelings of “well-being.”
Wharton was an avid social critic. She believed that it was difficult, if not impossible, to escape from the social and economic class one was born in. None of her other novels that were social critiques such as The House of Mirth, or Custom of the Country, portray this belief as sharply as Ethan Frome. Although Mattie was a beautiful, friendly young woman, she was destined to the same fate that Zeena was destined to because she had been born into the same social-economic class.
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. Evanston, Ill: McDougal Little, 1997.
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