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People have often pondered the reasons for the greatness of Edith Wharton's novel, Ethan Frome. What is it that causes this story to be considered an all-time American classic? One journalist quotes a humanities professor at MIT who states that, "We turn to Wharton because the truths she tells are a bracing tonic in a culture steeped in saccharine sentimentality." The journalist goes on to describe the typical, "popular" story and how they often have endings where "romantic ideals are magically fulfilled..." There is much more to Ethan Frome than simply an unhappy ending to contrast with the many other stories that have sugar-coated and sanguine endings. At first glance, the ending of Ethan Frome may appear to be only depressing. In truth, Wharton offers the reader a complex ending through the careful incorporation of poetic justice and irony.
Although when we are young, we commonly find ourselves gravitating to books with predictable endings that leave the protagonist and us with what we want, as we mature we develop a hunger for different, more thoughtful or realistic solutions. This is not to say, however, that we can be satisfied solely through the reading of any story that concludes with mere tragedy. The reason why the book Ethan Frome is so widely read is because there is a great deal of technique behind the element of mere tragedy. Edith Wharton is able to distinguish her novel through the use of irony. Irony has been the defining element of many great pieces of literature throughout time. The use of irony dates back all the way to ancient Greece when it was used by Sophocles in the play Oedipus Rex. Irony was also a key element in many of Shakespeare's works and appears in many famous short stories. In Ethan Frome, Ethan ends up falling in love with Mattie who at the time seems young and effervescent in comparison to his sickly, deteriorating wife. In attempting to free himself and Mattie from his commitment to Zeena, Ethan ends up causing Mattie to become paralyzed, taking with it her previous, lively characteristics. All the household responsibilities then fall into the hands of Zeena who is ultimately the most vivacious of the three.
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Ethan Frome is clearly the opposite of an uplifting story; however, along with containing irony, it has some amusing aspects of poetic justice. It is a love story that involves a man named Ethan, who is married to a sickly woman, Zeena, and her caretaker. Edith Wharton sets the plot up enough so that we know that Ethan hadn't been captured by an evil woman and forced into marrying her. In fact, Wharton has developed Zeena's character as someone who had helped Ethan care for his sick mother. She is also someone to whom Ethan had proposed. While she grows ill, Ethan ends up having feelings for a new woman, Mattie, who is a girl whose job is to take care of Zeena. Any person from outside looking in could see how the relationship is completely unethical for the most part. Wharton could have easily portrayed Zeena as a villain and enhanced the heroic portrayal of Ethan and Mattie; however, she instead creates a more complex situation that allows readers to draw their own opinions from the characters' actions. In having an ending that punishes Ethan and Mattie and benefits Zeena for the most part, Wharton establishes a fine level of poetic justice. Having been able to create an aspect of poetic justice that works against the protagonist is another great accomplishment of Wharton in writing this book and sets it apart from others.
There are many things that set the book Ethan Frome apart from other stories that are both upbeat and depressing. Some say Ethan Frome's greatness is due to its gloomy nature in contrast to the many "happily ever after" stories that are a part of the human culture. The ending of Ethan Frome is, however, cleverly formulated to give the tragedy a specific flavor. Any author could create a story that is completely dismal, but Edith Wharton is able to set hers apart from the others by carefully adding aspects of irony and poetic justice in ways that few others would think of. The reasons for this book's greatness are often underestimated. The reason why Ethan Frome has been considered one of the all-time American classics is due to its qualities as a piece of literature, not solely its tone.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Bell, Millicent. The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Springer, Marlene. Ethan Frome: A Nightmare of Need. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Penguin Group, 1993.