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Ethan Frome and The Fear of Abandonment

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    When analyzing the characters in any novel, the reader seeks to understand the influences in which shape how the character lives their life and the choices in which they make and why. The psychoanalytical and biographical approach is brought forward in the text based on the experiences in which Wharton has experienced throughout her life. Wharton’s unconscious mind intertwined with her desires are shown when connecting her relationship with her mother to Ethan Frome. Edith Wharton, the author of Ethan Frome, constructs a story of his life and presents the psychological changes Ethan has gone through over his entire life time.

    Although the story centers around the life of Ethan, we see the psychological changes of Wharton throughout her life, which is faded in the text. Wharton’s repressed feelings represent the way Ethan clings to the women in his life to feel love and importance. Wharton’s fear of abandonment is portrayed through Ethan’s decisions. Ethan’s attachment to Zeena and Mattie are consistent examples that Ethan believes will “abandon” him. Edith Wharton based her infamous novel on her own life experiences with her own mother and the abandonment she felt as she grew up.

    Wharton’s troubled childhood and the relationship with her mother creates evident similarities throughout her story writing, specifically in Ethan Frome. Wharton’s life was always masked with the disapproval of her mother. It is evident that she had an enormous amount of resentment for her mother because of the way she misdirected Wharton’s life. The relationship with her mother created a self-conscious young girl, who only wanted to be loved and understood. Her mother was detached and did not support her daughter the way a normal mother would typically do. But then Wharton turned to writing and created works that symbolize those difficulty times as a child. Reflecting on the article written by Susan Goodman, Wharton’s experiences throughout her childhood, gave her works a voice.

    Stated in the text, “One speaks for the child, forever angry and competitive with the person who did the most to falsify & misdirect her life, and the other speaks for the adult, sympathetic with the woman who could never overcome the same cultural difficulties her daughter surmounted” (Goodman 127). In other words, Wharton attempts to create stories gave her an outlet and allowed her to overcome the relationship she had with her mother. Due to her unconscious mind, it is impossible however for her to leave behind her experiences. Reflecting on an article written by Susan Goodman, the reader is presented the way in which Wharton describes her mother like figures in her novels. Presented in the text, “Wharton’s fictional treatment of mother-daughter relationships is delicately structured throughout her texts” (129). In other words, Wharton focus’ on the specific details of how her mother treated her and it is evident in more than one of her novels.

    Taken from Wharton’s autobiography, Goodman recalls Wharton stating, “My mother took an odd inarticulate interest in my youthful productions, & kept a blank book in which she copied many of them” (Goodman 128). Wharton’s experience with her mother embodies many other nineteenth- century women writers who were isolated by their mothers. The mother-daughter relationship in Wharton’s life, has brought a different way of interpreting her novel Ethan Frome. Although her novel is far from a biography of her life, her family relationship is hidden behind faded text, which we need to uncover as we read the story. Focusing primarily on the character relationships Wharton depicted throughout the novel, the relationship between Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie. Analyzing it from a different perspective, we see a resemblance of Wharton’s own family.

    Specifically analyzing Zeena’s character, Wharton portrays Zeena as a dominant person in the house. This aspect goes hand and hand with the way the reader visualizes Wharton’s mother. Due to her mother’s restraints and controllable behavior, Zeena embodies those characteristics when Mattie comes along. Reflecting back to Goodman’s article, stated in her text, “Zeena of Ethan Frome is perhaps the character most like Lucretia, prosaic, cold, disapproving, and distant..” (Goodman 130). In other words, Zeena in fact resembles Wharton’s own mother in those very unique ways. Along with Zeena taking on her mother’s role, we see the resemblance of Wharton in Mattie. Portrayed as a young girl, who turns to family for support, Mattie turns to family hoping for the support she needs after her parents pass away.

    Zeena does not show love or care for Mattie after she views her as useless, which could potentially symbolize the lack of love Wharton received from her own mother. Zeena portrayed a personal of a snobbish woman who wanted to do things the proper way. This could also be evident for Wharton’s mother as well. Diving deeper into an analysis of Wharton’s text, Ferda Asya’s article, “Edith Wharton’s Dream of Incest: Ethan Frome,” critically analyzes the influences behind Wharton’s plot of the story. Wharton’s troubled childhood and her relationship with her mother has directly impacted her psychologically and the way she portrays the plot in her story. Edith Wharton’s unique talents gave her the opportunity to actualize her desires, which was denied in reality (Asya 124).

    Her life was constricted by many decisions that were made for her. Stated in the text, “In Ethan Frome, as in much of her fiction, the writer unconsciously recreated camouflaged incidents and circumstances of her life in order to express, without guilt feelings, her relationships with her parents was a conscious act”(Asya 24). Wharton’s inability to express her feelings and thoughts, built up her guilty conscious that her questions and thoughts were wrong. It is evident that she has endured a large amount of restriction but disappointment and abandonment from her mother was also a huge factor. Wharton’s realistic enactment of the relationships she desired was a conscious act. Although she was aware of her resentment created by her family life, Wharton was unaware that it was compelled in her writing.

    Referring to an article written by Elizabeth Ammons, Wharton’s description of Zeena concludes the idea that her mother is Zeena’s character exactly. Ethan fantasizes Zeena’s death in hope for freedom. Stated in the text, “Poverty and a succession of insane, dependent women prohibit his ever having the liberty to follow his aspiration” (Ammons 153). Zeena was a dependent women who constricted him from following his desires. Similar to Wharton’s conclusion on her mother, she constricted her from many experiences throughout her life. Both Ethan and Wharton were “prisoners” for life because of Zeena and her own mother. Lucretia’s consistent rejection and abandonment repressed her dreams and aspirations in life.

    According to Ammons, Wharton’s fear of maternal rejection was portrayed through each women figure in Ethan Frome. Stated in the text, “First Ethan’s mother abandons his needs; then Zeena, his mother’s replacement, does the same” (Ammons 155). Although Mattie is not a mother figure, her abandonment transforms Wharton’s fear to all female abandonment. Reverting back to Ammons proposal of Zeena, Wharton describes Zeena as witchlike. Ammons states, “Witchlike Zenobia Frome, a terrifying and repulsive figure archetypally, is in social terms not at all mysterious: it is a commonplace of scholarship about the persecutions of witches, that many of them were ordinary women bent and twisted by the conditions of their lives as women, their isolation and powerlessness” (Ammons 157).

    Similarly to Wharton’s mother, Zeena was an evil person who portrays her own isolation onto other people. Wharton’s characters presented clear characteristics based on her own life and the interactions she had with her mother. Many critics cannot seem to grasp the true meaning behind Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome. Many who read this novel seem to be mesmerized by the idea that this novel is a product of Wharton’s imagination. Stated in the Cynthia Griffin Wolff excerpt, “Ethan Frome is no more than a figment of the narrator’s imagination” (130). Wolff believes that her novel does not recount any experience that the narrator has gone through. Stated in the text, “Ethan Frome is nothing more than a dream vision” (Wolff 131).

    Perhaps it’s a dream vision of a better life. A better life with her mother that she longed to have. It is difficult for a reader to depict a story that ultimately is not present on paper. It is also understandable to say that her experiences are in fact portrayed in the text, but between the lines. Concluding the analysis of Ethan Frome, it is critical to understand that Wharton’s life was an important aspect in writing this novel. Edith Wharton’s novel is centered primarily around the life of her own and her unconscious mind. The unconscious mind takes over the conscious when writing her work, without even realizing it. Due to her lack of unconscious control, Ethan Frome would not allow for the reader to connect the relationship she had with her mother and the life of Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena.

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