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What Is the Role of Setting in Ethan Frome?
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 discover out what happened to transform “the most striking figure in Starkfield” to “the ruin of a man” (three). From his very first encounter with Ethan, the narrator views him via close parallels with the winter climate. The narrator employs Ethan to transport him by sleigh across town every day to do company and observes the strange man’s behavior as he navigates the icy terrain: “[Ethan] seemed a component of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe…” (14). Although the narrator continues to attempt to piece collectively details, he shares a casual yet substantial remark from a townsman: “Guess [Ethan’s] been in Starkfield too several winters” (7). This comment, along with the other descriptions of Ethan in the introduction, type the foundation for Wharton’s use of the setting as a metaphor for the character’s inner struggles.
The major conflict in Ethan Frome is revealed in the course of Ethan’s two-mile trek by way of the snowy hills to escort his reside-in housekeeper, Mattie, house from a dance. Ethan’s romantic feelings for Mattie are revealed in the first chapter despite the fact that Ethan is married, his wife’s sickliness and general unpleasantness cause Ethan to view her as more of an obstacle amongst him and the lovely, lighthearted Mattie than a beloved wife. Wharton illustrates the contrast in Ethan’s feelings toward the two ladies largely by means of references to the setting. As Ethan walks home with his niece, the narrator reveals Ethan’s great appreciation of organic beauty. Mattie seems to ignite his senses:
There were other sensations, significantly less definable but much 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 guarantee and beauty. His lust for her spreads from his personal mind to color his surroundings. As quickly as the two return property, even so, the mood alterations 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 following the dry cold of the night” (53). Zeena’s final words to her husband just before retiring for the evening seal the polarization in between her and her niece: “You may possibly ‘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 as an alternative views it as an annoyance.
In addition to relating the weather to the characters’ states of thoughts, Wharton carries the metaphor of sledding all through 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 pleased the two seemed, and Ethan right away relates that happiness to himself and Mattie. He promises to take her the subsequent night, and even though they do not find time to sled that evening, the outing remains in each of their minds as a symbol of possibility and excitement. The sledding plans are an instance of how the feelings in between characters reflect in the setting the exhilarating winter sport mirrors the pent-up feelings in Ethan and Mattie.
Ironically, the sledding metaphor takes a dark turn toward the finish of the novel. Zeena, both jealous of Mattie and pretty ill, decides that she demands a much 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, each heartbroken at the thought of leaving every other and sending Mattie away with nowhere to go, stand with each other at the leading 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 may well 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 proper into the large elm tree at the bottom of the hill: “Ethan! Ethan! I want you to take me down again…Right into the massive elm. You said you could. So ‘t we’d in no way have to leave every single other any more” (165). The use of the snow and the elm tree as a implies of suicide holds excellent significance the all-natural spot once so complete of hope for the possibilities amongst Ethan and Mattie now delivers nothing but death.
From the very first page to the final, Wharton demonstrates a mastery of the incorporation of setting into a story. She successfully makes use of it to illustrate the budding romance among Ethan and Mattie, the inner suffering inside Ethan, and ultimately the characters’ despair and hopelessness. Rather of assuming the typical minor part setting plays in most novels, the setting in Ethan Frome lends a distinct flavor to the story that makes the novel effective and unique.
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