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Typically one of the subtler parts of a novel, setting usually serves as a frame that supports the plot and characters. In Ethan Frome, however, Edith Wharton reinvents the use of setting as an integral element of the story. She weaves the physical aspects of the weather and landscape so tightly among the characters’ inner feelings that the two become almost interchangeable. The prominence of the bleak winter weather in Ethan Frome demonstrates Wharton’s unique mode of storytelling and allows her to develop deeply complex characters.
An unnamed visitor to the town of Starkfield narrates the preface and introduces the reader to Ethan Frome, the main character of the novel. He describes his curiosity upon seeing the taciturn, mysterious man, and resolves to find out what happened to transform “the most striking figure in Starkfield” to “the ruin of a man” (3). From his very first encounter with Ethan, the narrator views him through close parallels with the winter weather. The narrator employs Ethan to transport him by sleigh across town each day to do business and observes the strange man’s behavior as he navigates the icy terrain: “[Ethan] seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe…” (14). While the narrator continues to try to piece together information, he shares a casual yet significant remark from a townsman: “Guess [Ethan’s] been in Starkfield too many winters” (7). This comment, along with the other descriptions of Ethan in the introduction, form the foundation for Wharton’s use of the setting as a metaphor for the character’s inner struggles.
The main conflict in Ethan Frome is revealed during Ethan’s two-mile trek through the snowy hills to escort his live-in housekeeper, Mattie, home from a dance. Ethan’s romantic feelings for Mattie are revealed in the first chapter; although Ethan is married, his wife’s sickliness and general unpleasantness cause Ethan to view her as more of an obstacle between him and the beautiful, lighthearted Mattie than a beloved wife. Wharton illustrates the contrast in Ethan’s feelings toward the two women largely through references to the setting. As Ethan walks home with his niece, the narrator reveals Ethan’s great appreciation of natural beauty. Mattie seems to ignite his senses:
There were other sensations, less definable but more exquisite, which drew [Ethan and Mattie] together with a shock of silent joy: the cold red of sunset behind winter hills, the flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow (34).
The powerful imagery in this passage reflects Ethan’s passionate feelings toward Mattie; he sees her as a pure spark of youth, full of promise and beauty. His lust for her spreads from his own mind to color his surroundings. As soon as the two return home, however, the mood changes drastically. Zeena, Ethan’s wife, greets them at the door, appearing bony and witch-like beneath the shadows. Ethan and Mattie enter the house, which has “the deadly chill of a vault after the dry cold of the night” (53). Zeena’s last words to her husband before retiring for the night seal the polarization between her and her niece: “You might ‘a’ shook off that snow outside” (53). With this casual comment, Zeena swiftly kills the magic of the night; she fails to recognize the snow as a thing of beauty and instead views it as an annoyance.
In addition to relating the weather to the characters’ states of mind, Wharton carries the metaphor of sledding throughout the novel. When Ethan picks up Mattie from the dance at the beginning of the story, she mentions a couple, Ned Hale and Ruth Varnum, whom she saw sledding down the hill that evening. She also recounts how happy the two seemed, and Ethan immediately relates that happiness to himself and Mattie. He promises to take her the next night, and although they do not find time to sled that night, the outing remains in both of their minds as a symbol of possibility and excitement. The sledding plans are an example of how the feelings between characters reflect in the setting; the exhilarating winter sport mirrors the pent-up emotions in Ethan and Mattie.
Ironically, the sledding metaphor takes a dark turn toward the end of the novel. Zeena, both jealous of Mattie and fairly ill, decides that she needs a more competent helper than her niece, so she sends Ethan to put Mattie on a train out of Starkfield and pick up the new girl waiting at the station. Ethan and Mattie, both heartbroken at the thought of leaving each other and sending Mattie away with nowhere to go, stand together at the top of the sledding hill on their way to the train station. No longer full of majestic beauty, their surroundings reflect their despair: “The spruces swathed them in blackness and silence. They might have been in their coffins underground” (167). Mattie decides that the trip down the hill will be her last and demands that Ethan steer the sled right into the big elm tree at the bottom of the hill: “Ethan! Ethan! I want you to take me down again…Right into the big elm. You said you could. So ‘t we’d never have to leave each other any more” (165). The use of the snow and the elm tree as a means of suicide holds great significance; the natural place once so full of hope for the possibilities between Ethan and Mattie now offers nothing but death.
From the first page to the last, Wharton demonstrates a mastery of the incorporation of setting into a story. She successfully uses it to illustrate the budding romance between Ethan and Mattie, the inner suffering inside Ethan, and finally the characters’ despair and hopelessness. Instead of assuming the typical minor role setting plays in most novels, the setting in Ethan Frome lends a distinct flavor to the story that makes the novel powerful and unique.
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