Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome is a novel about a man who is married to a woman who is not his true love. The novel follows Ethan as he tries to find happiness in his life, despite the circumstances. Edith Wharton was an American author who wrote many novels, including The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.

In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, for example, imagery and theme play a big role in elevating the book to a Classic. The use of images by an author allows the reader to imagine the characters and setting of the novel. It aids in clarifying the novel’s meaning and theme. The purpose or main idea of a book is also an essential element that must be considered while comprehending the work’s objective or central idea.

Wharton’s use of imagery in Ethan Frome creates a contrast between the winter setting of Starkfield and the more lively, warmer months. The first instance of this contrast is seen in the opening chapter when Mrs. Ned Hale tells the narrator that “there ain’t such a thing as spring” in Starkfield (3). The second instance is when Ethan thinks about how during winter, “the earth was hard with frost, the trees bleak and bare” (6). Both of these examples show how dreary and lifeless Starkfield appears during winter.

In contrast, during summer, Wharton describes Starkfield as being “green and white and gray” with trees that are “in full leaf” (6).  This contrast between the winter and summer months helps to set the scene for the novel and gives the reader a better understanding of Ethan’s state of mind. Ethan is a lonely, depressed character who is stuck in a loveless marriage. The bleak, cold winters in Starkfield mirror Ethan’s internal struggles and isolation.

Wharton also uses imagery to contrast the Frome home with other homes in Starkfield. The Frome home is described as being “a square wooden house standing on the outskirts of the village” (7). It is further described as being “in need of paint,” having “sagging porches,” and being surrounded by “stunted firs” (7). 

In contrast, the Hales’ home is described as being “a little white cottage nestled against the hill” with a “neatly kept garden” (7). The contrast between the two homes helps to show how different the Frome and Hale families are. The Fromes are a poor family who have fallen on hard times, while the Hales are a wealthy family who have always had everything they need. 

The contrast between the Frome home and the Hales’ home also helps to highlight one of the novel’s themes: the difference between appearances and reality. On the surface, it appears that Ethan and his wife, Zeena, are happily married. However, in reality, their marriage is loveless and full of tension. Ethan is unhappy with Zeena and only stays with her out of a sense of duty. This contrast between appearances and reality is further explored through the characters of Mattie Silver and Mrs. Hester Frome. Mattie is a young, pretty girl who works for the Fromes as their servant. 

She is full of life and energy, which contrasts sharply with Zeena’s cold, bitter personality. Mrs. Hester Frome is Ethan’s mother, who was left paralyzed after a sledding accident many years ago. Ethan feels guilty about the accident and has been taking care of his mother ever since. While Mrs. Frome appears to be helpless and dependent on Ethan, she is actually the one in control of the situation. She manipulates Ethan by using her disability to make him feel guilty and responsible for her. 

The contrast between appearances and reality is further explored through the theme of secrets. Ethan and Mattie have a secret relationship that they must keep hidden from Zeena and the rest of the town. If their relationship were to be discovered, it would cause a scandal that would ruin their reputations. Ethan and Mattie’s relationship is further complicated by the fact that Mrs. Frome knows about it and approves of it, even though she does not approve of Mattie. This contrast between what is publicly known and what is hidden creates a sense of tension and suspense that keeps the reader engaged.

A novel’s imagery may be used to develop on the light-hearted and carefree elements, as opposed to the dark and unethical aspects of the setting in which the book takes place. For example, imagery can be utilized in a pleasant way to produce the desired effect of making readers enjoy and love the environment, allowing for a greater emphasis on the theme

Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome is a perfect example of how the author uses imagery to make the reader feel the cold, darkness, and seclusion that shrouds Starkfield, Massachusetts. The opening sentence gives the reader a sense of foreboding: “When I look back on my boyhood I seem to have lived always in some dark enchanted forest” (Wharton 1).

This feeling is only increased as Edith describes the town further: “The village was asleep and unconscious of him. It lay stretched out on the hillside like a body unstrung and dejected by too violent exertion” (1). From these descriptions, it is evident that Edith wants to establish an unwelcoming and dreary mood for Starkfield.

The town’s name itself is foreboding, as “stark” typically refers to something that is harsh or severe. This is seen in the way that Edith describes the winter landscape: “The earth was hard with frost and all the ways sloped upward, so that what little blood flowed in Ethan’s body seemed to have trickled down from his brain” (2).

The cold seeps into every aspect of Starkfield, numbing the characters and making them apathetic. It even impairs their ability to think clearly, as Edith notes that “their minds were dulled by wretchedness and they spoke like automatons” (2). The cold also makes people physically ill, as it exacerbates respiratory problems and causes frostbite. In fact, Edith mentions that “every year the town lost one or two of its stunted inhabitants” (2) to the cold.

The darkness is another element that Edith uses to create a negative mood for Starkfield. She writes that “the sun was often hidden by great banks of clouds that rolled up out of the west, and threw a darkness over the fields long before nightfall” (2). This perpetual darkness takes a toll on the townspeople, who become depressed and even violent. For example, Edith describes how “the women, wrapped in shawls, would sit for hours in front of their doors, gossiping drearily with one another” (2). The men fare no better, as they “lounged about the taverns or gathered in groups on the street corners, staring vacantly at every passenger” (2).

In conclusion, Edith Wharton uses contrast to create a rich and complex novel. The contrast between the winter and summer months, the Frome home and the Hales’ home, and appearances and reality all help to create a deep understanding of the characters and their motivations. The contrast between what is publicly known and what is hidden also adds a sense of suspense that keeps the reader engaged.  Overall, Edith Wharton’s use of contrast creates a novel that is both complex and enjoyable to read.

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