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Although by definition, a classic tragedy takes place when a character’s downfall is the direct consequence of a personality flaw, Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome rejects this concept. As a story written by an author schooled in naturalistic and deterministic philosophies, the tragic life of Ethan Frome is an embodiment of both theories. While Wharton tells the story of Ethan’s desperate hopes and attempts to leave his dreary life, she employs symbolism and foreshadowing to convince the reader that his doomed fate was sealed from the start.
The symbols of Zeena’s cat and the scarlet pickle dish are used throughout the story to give insight to the fact that Ethan’s future has been predetermined. Throughout the story, Zeena’s cat is used to symbolize Zeena herself. This is especially prevalent when Zeena goes away, and Ethan is left alone with Mattie. While eating dinner with Mattie on the night of Zeena’s departure, Ethan observes that “The cat- who had been a troubled observer of these unusual movements- jumped into Zeena’s chair…and lay watching them with narrow eyes”(37). Ethan believes that the time with Zeena away is his chance to connect with Mattie. But the cat, symbolizing Zeena’s ever-watching eyes, disrupts their dinner by jumping up and watching them closely. This action is Wharton’s way of telling readers that Mattie and Ethan will never get their time alone, that Zeena will always be in the way. Zeena’s red pickle dish sits upon a high shelf, and is not disturbed until Mattie takes it down and is broken by the cat. When Zeena discovers this, she confronts Mattie and Ethan, who blame the cat until Mattie blurts out that “The cat did break the dish; but I got it down from the China-closet, and I’m the one to blame for its getting broken”(54). Mattie is not only taking blame for the dish itself, but for the destruction of Ethan and Zeena’s marriage that the pickle dish represents. On the other hand, here Wharton tells readers that while the cat- Zeena- is responsible for the initial destruction, Mattie was the final straw for both the pickle dish- a wedding gift to Zeena and Mattie- and the marriage itself. When Zeena finally leaves the room, Wharton describes her as “…gathering up the bits of broken glass as she went out of the room as if she carried a dead body”(54). Here, the pickle dish is symbolic of the marriage once again, but Wharton shows Zeena as mourning, almost as if something has died. After reading the book one knows that Zeena and Ethan never separate, but Zeena’s actions give readers a strange sense of foreboding to their future as a couple that contributes to their knowledge of Ethan’s ever-darkening future.
Through foreshadowed events such as Mattie and Ethan’s accident, Ethan’s fate of never leaving Starkville, and Mattie’s growing similarity to Zeena, Wharton further convinces the reader that Ethan was doomed from the start. The elm tree- often describes as ‘hemlock’- is referenced throughout the novella as a place of both love and danger. While walking with Mattie, Ethan states that “The elm is dangerous. It ought to be cut down”(19). In having Ethan warn Mattie about the tree, Wharton foreshadows that this place will eventually cause irreversible damage to both Ethan and Mattie. This also creates an air of doom, while clues the reader into the idea that Ethan will not have a happy ending. Ethan dreams of leaving Starkville very often in the story, but the fate of his ancestors often predicts that this will be impossible. When walking through the tombstones of his deceased family in the yard, Ethan “…looked at them curiously. For years that quiet company had mocked his recklessness, his desire for change and freedom. ‘we never got away- how should you?’, seemed to be written on every headstone…”(21). The fact that even Ethan’s dead family hints at him never leaving alerts readers that Ethan’s chances of escape are slim, and that he is doomed to a life in Starkville.
When the narrator notes a discontented, whiny voice in the Frome house before readers know of Ethan’s end, it is assumed that the voice is Zeena. But by the end of the story it is revealed that as time passed, Mattie took on Zeena’s harsh traits as Zeena was forced to care for her. This is hinted at when Ethan notices that Mattie “…stood just as Zeena had stood, a lifted lamp in her hand, against the black background of the kitchen”(33). The similarities between the two women are slim. So, this revelation of Mattie following in Zeena’s footsteps is foreshadowing of how Mattie will transform from the woman Ethan fell in love with to a woman who is a factor of what makes his fate so horrible.
Ethan Frome can be seen as a story of hope; as a story of a man’s dream to escape with the one he loves. On the other hand, it displays the deterministic philosophy that nothing one does can change his or her fate. Edith Wharton uses symbolism and foreshadowing of events to come to display the latter, and to persuade readers of the idea that Ethan had no chance of escape from his doomed future. Some may argue that Ethan’s own flaws caused his bleak future. But as is true of most stories with deterministic and naturalistic views, fate is a powerful force that cannot be swayed by something as small as a character trait. Wharton uses devices to convince readers of this, and in doing so creates Ethan as a character of hero status, someone who, despite his best efforts, cannot escape the tragic fate that his been predetermined.
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