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The Understanding of Innocence in Ethan Frome

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Human nature has always been tempted by the irresistible emotion of desire, and as perfectly said by Benedict de Spinoza, “Desire is the very essence of man”. Although various degrees of desire can be achieved in our society, there are still many barriers that hinder the accomplishment of desire. Two men- Ethan Frome and Newland Archer- whose desires are tragically unfulfilled, ideally represent the effect of society’s critical eye. Although under different social circumstances, the two men equally share the pain of unobtainable passion. The question of morals also markedly affects these two men in profound ways. In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, society and morality are seen as restraints for the fulfillment of desire.

Described as a reserved and subdued man, Ethan Frome’s bleak environment sets the stage for imposing restraints against him. Although he loves Mattie, Ethan’s feelings are clearly held back due to his surroundings. Zeena- Ethan’s wife and biggest opponent- is his greatest obstacle. Because of Zeena, Ethan felt “he was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light [Mattie ] was to be extinguished” (Wharton 107). Also, Zeena’s pervasive presence forces Ethan to wonder if he must “wear out all his years at the side of a bitter querulous woman” (Wharton 104). While Zeena may just be one person impacting Ethan’s craving for desire, her solitary figure can also represent society’s strict moralities. With these feelings of remorse, its is clear how big of an impact society has on Ethan’s desire for Mattie. Not only does Zeena restrict Ethan’s passion, but societal traditions also impact Ethan.

Along with Zeena’s effective limitation of Ethan’s desire, Ethan’s night alone with Mattie represents how society bears its moral weight even in the most intimate moments. The dreamlike evening Ethan and Mattie spend together is essentially permeated with the imaginary, but watchful eyes of society. Ethan felt that in the “warm lamplit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, [Mattie] seemed infinitely farther away and more unapprochable” (Wharton 76). Perhaps Ethan may not have realized that society was “watching” him, but yet he clearly had an instinctive feeling of society’s restricting moralities. As their evening ends, not only does Ethan realize his desires were unattainable mentally, but even in a physical sense, Ethan “remembered that he had not even touched her hand” (Wharton 79). Combining Zeena’s imposing figure and society’s universal moralities, Ethan Frome’s desires for Mattie Silver were absolutely hindered. Not only is Ethan a victim of these restrictions against desire, but Ethan’s fellow protagonist, Newland Archer, also becomes prey to society and its morals.

Shifting from the poor rural life of Ethan Frome to the affluent aristocrats of Newland Archer’s society- the same pattern of society’s limitations is shown. In Newland’s case, the rigid social structure of high-end New York is substantially even more threatening than Ethan’s surroundings. Also in constant criticism from society, Newland’s love for Ellen is manipulatively kept under secret, as not to arouse any suspicion from likely gossipers. When Newland and Ellen are alone at Ellen’s house, Newland finally indirectly hints at his desire for Ellen. But, exasperated by the restrains from society, Ellen hopelessly exclaims to Newland, “Isn’t it you who made me give up divorcing–give it up because you showed me how selfish and wicked it was, how one must sacrifice one’s self to preserve the dignity of marriage 2E . . and to spare one’s family the publicity, the scandal?” (Wharton 159). The only reason for this bitterness of the two lovers is New York society’s inflexible and traditional morals. Newland’s desire for Ellen seems to come to a dead end, all in fear of disfiguring the family name. Not only is his desire for Ellen halted during their young adulthood, but a senior Newland also reminisces about why he lost Ellen.

Looking back at his life, Newland’s memories of Ellen have slightly faded, but the threats of society’s morals are still clear as ever in his mind. Although his life with May was pleasant, Newland’s unfulfilled desire for Ellen scarred his soul. Recalling his former years, Newland knew “he had missed: the flower of life. But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable that to have repined […]” (Wharton 294). Newland had the chance to blossom with this “flower of life” but it would be utterly impossible under society’s rules. The fact that Ellen still weighs so heavily on Newland’s conscience after so many years further substantiates society’s moral limitations. Although Newland could have chosen to be with Ellen, his time and place in society suppressed his desire for Ellen; thus showing once again how overpowering society’s restrictions were.

Like modern day Romeos and Juliets, Ethan Frome, Newland Archer and their lovers all were restrained from their desire due to society’s imposing figure. Zeena’s “querulous” character and society’s omnipresent “eyes” were all it took to keep Ethan from fulfilling his desire for Mattie. In Newland Archer’s case, upper-class New York society- with its firm and traditional morals hindered Newland’s everlasting love for the Countess Olenska. These two men, although from completely different societies, shared the same sorrow of unfulfilled desire. It is safe to say they were victims of society’s moralities, and the love they gave up deeply affected their consciousness. Ethan and Newland’s journey through society’s scrutinizing road was harsh, and in the end, their love was profoundly sacrificed for the standards of society.

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The Understanding of Innocence in Ethan Frome. (2018, April 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from
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