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In Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, Ethan, a reserved young man was torn between two women. He was married to Zenobia Frome, but his true love was his wife’s cousin, Mattie Silver. Zeena and Mattie were different in all aspects. Mattie was a caring, loving, beautiful young girl, while Zeena was a sickly, shrewish woman aged well beyond her years. Ethan was continuously drawn to Mattie throughout the novel, as she was much more attractive and amicable than Zeena.
In the novel light was an important motif. When light was shed on Zeena it “…drew out of the darkness her puckered throat… and deepened fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face under its ring of crimping pins”. The author used light in order to emphasize Zeena’s austere and worn face illustrating her cold personality. When light was shed on Mattie it “…drew out with the same distinctness her slim young throat and… it threw a lustrous fleck on her lips, edged her eyes with velvet shade, and laid a milky whiteness above the black curve of her brows”. Mattie looked radiant and full of beauty beneath the light under which Zeena had appeared hideous. It is clear that Mattie would appear more attractive to Ethan.
The author also referred to the hair of Zeena and Mattie quite often. Zeena had only “thin strands of hair”, and she wore a “hard perpendicular bonnet” above her head. The sight imprinted in the reader’s mind is not a pleasant one. Zeena appears to be stern and rigid. On the contrary when Mattie’s hair was described, it is more appealing. Ethan remembers her “smoothed hair and a ribbon at her neck”. A ribbon is more appealing to the reader than a “hard, perpendicular bonnet.” Mattie’s hair was also described as looking like a “drift of mist on the moon”. Unlike Zeena’s uninviting hairstyle, Mattie’s hair had a soft and silky quality to it. Mattie seemed to walk about the house with a halo of light surrounding her, almost like an angel. The conflicting hairstyles of the two women represented an overall difference in personalities. Mattie was a feminine young girl, while Zeena was an old hag who made no attempt to better her appearance.
In addition to appearance, the two women have extremely different relationships with Ethan. In order to portray each woman’s relationship with Ethan, the author uses the motif of silence.
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Even when Ethan and Mattie shared silence it was not the stoic silence Ethan and Zeena shared. As Ethan was about to see Mattie off, “Deep silence had fallen with the starless dark”. The silence shared by Ethan and Mattie was extremely tranquil. They were delighted to be together, and their silence was a peaceful one, opposed to an uneasy one.
By the end of the novel Ethan and Mattie were deeply in love, yet the only way for them to be together was through death. In a bungled dual suicide attempt Ethan’s right side was paralyzed, and Mattie was maimed for life. Mattie ended up living with the Fromes, and was even more fragile than Zeena. Tragically Ethan’s fate was not to spend the rest of his life living with one sickly woman, but bearing the burden of caring for two frail women.