Ethan Frome as a Psychological Novel

When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his novel, The Scarlet Letter, he was praised as being the father of the psychological novel. Since the completion of his landmark story, many other authors have taken their work in similar directions and have tried to reveal human psychology through their writing. Authors have been trying to convey truths about human behavior and explain the human psyche, often unsuccessfully. Edith Wharton’s novel, Ethan From, is an excellent example of a novel that succeeds in revealing truths. She fills her characters with nuances that reflect the subconscious and her setting is alive with reflected symbolism. She is able to interpret the characters actions in a way that can relate to all humans. Each word and phrase seems to be chosen so that it reflects a part of the subconscious in the characters. Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome is a psychological examination of the human mind, based on her use of setting to reflect emotion, characterization to reflect human tendencies towards chaos and other psychological aspects of the human mind.

In Ethan Frome, Wharton uses the setting to show the feelings and psychological behavior of the characters. Because the tone of the novel is somber and the characters suffer greatly, Wharton used the gothic technique of matching the scenery to the characters emotions. The principal setting of the novel is Starkfield, which is a small farming based community. The houses are mostly several miles from the “center” of town. Richard Worth, a literary critic, says of Starkville, “…even the name suggests utter desolation” (64). The name of the town gives the initial impression of the mindset of the characters: hopelessness. “The New England winter… the physical landscape can reinforce psychic tensions oppressing the people in the community” (McDowell 85). The narrator, Harmon Gow, describes the setting and says, “…the winter set down on Starkfield, and the village lay under a sheet of snow, perpetually renewed from the pale skies”(7). During the entirety of the novel, the Starkfield weather is brutally cold and snowy. Because winter and coldness are some of the predominant images in the book, it was first published under the title L’Hiver, which means winter in French. The images described in the book are harsh and vivid, clearly showing the tone of the novel. “The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fire” (Wharton 26). The snow and cold restate the cruelty of the characters’ situations. The setting, using the bleakness of winter, “…provides a complicated time scheme through which the author could dramatically contrast the bleak existence of her characters in the present with their youthful expectations in the past” (McDowell 74).

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The winter scenery provides testament to things gone wrong, almost a romantic styled sympathy of nature. The color scheme used to describe the setting mirrored the desolation of the character’s feelings. “The black shade of the varnum spruces becomes gray under the stars” (Wharton 34). The gray of the backdrop symbolized the disturbance between what was right and what was best for Ethan. “There is no sharp line between the normal and abnormal psyche, nor between the real and supernatural. In the vast remote area, covered by snow, the sharp line between psychic dislocation and spirit world dissolves” (McDowell 85). The absence of a “sharp line” was shown with the used of an intermediate gray tone, which was seen recurring thorough out the novel. There was no right or wrong in his case, hence the blend of the two colors, black and white, into gray. Wharton even used actual physical objects to represent characters from the novel, such as “blighted apple trees” which have bent from the weight of snow. Ethan is symbolically the apple tree because of his physical deformities as well as the mental burdens he has faced during his life. Ethan talks in the novel about removing the L shaped projection from off of his house. “I had to take down the L a while back” (Wharton 22). The action of Ethan removing part of his house parallels his feelings of loss for his family and Mattie and is an expressionof his misery. Because of her excellent use of imagery and description of the setting, Edith Wharton is able to incorporate the psychological elements of the characters onto the backdrop of the action of the novel.

One of the predominant motifs of Ethan Frome is the feeling of isolation. Again this is a theme that is reflected by the setting, but it is also seen in the characters actions as well. “The setting also captures the pervasive isolation of the citizens of Starkfield” (Springer 80). Starkfield itself is a means of external isolations, as it is a small town village that receives little to no news of the outside world. With in Starkfield, the placement of the Frome house further isolates the characters. The house is on the fringe of the town and has no neighbors within at least 5 miles. Even if Ethan were closer to town and could establish communications with people other than Zeena, he would still have feel separation. “The Frome household is cut off from the community of Starkfield both literally and in terms of the depth of its suffering” (Goodwyn 76).

Ethan had a life time so filled with tragedy and disappointments that it would have been impossible for the average farmer of Starkfield to relate to him or understand his position. Within the house, Zeena and Ethan are clearly isolated from each other, due to Zeena’s illness and Ethan’s unhappiness. “Its inmates are even isolated from each other in the extremity of their need” (Goodwyn 76). Ethan and Zeena never had a real relationship in the first place, but Mattie’s presence and Zeena’s illness further alienate the couple. Ethan and Zeena have no outside connections, except for an occasional trip into town, and they don’t even have each other for companionship. The ultimate irony of the novel is when Ethan and Mattie are isolated from each other due to Mattie’s injuries. The aspect of isolation portrayed through the setting and actions of the characters contributes to the establishment of Wharton’s Ethan Frome as a psychological novel.

The characters of Ethan Frome ironically seem to crave disorder and use it as a means of security. The characters put themselves into situations that present confusion and chaos. Zeena is a prime example of a character that is unable to face reality and uses imaginary illnesses to compensate for the things that she lacks in life, spending her life caring for others as retribution for her own personal shortcomings and insecurities. When Zeena had no one left to care for, she then came down with a series of illnesses. “Zeena’s absorption in her ailments, whether real or imagined, is her chosen form of physical gratification” (Fedorko 64). Zeena gives herself an imaginary illness, which requires her to travel to quack doctors and buy exotic, as well as expensive, wonder drugs. Zeena’s illness gives her an escape and some have even proposed that it gives her a sense of identity. “Zeena naturally chooses to be sick because sickness promises adventure in its possible complications, sudden cures, and relapses” (McDowell 74).

In this aspect of needing chaos, Ethan is no better than Zeena. When Ethan’s mother becomes ill, Zeena arrives at the Frome farm to nurse her back to health. After Mrs. Frome dies, Ethan marries Zeena out of a sense of obligation and appreciation. After the death of both of his parents, Ethan could have started his life over, concentrating on engineering, his passion. Because of his obvious insecurities, he clung to Zeena for comfort and support. Ethan needed something in his life to stop him from becoming his own person because of his insecurities. Another example of Ethan’s need for chaos is his haphazard romance with Mattie. Had Ethan carefully planned out their escape or at the least waited a few months longer, he and Mattie could have lived happily ever after. He was close to over coming his perverse need for chaos, but then his subconscious surfaced again and caused his plans to be ruined. The characters could have simply waited until spring to escape, and gone west as Ethan’ original plan stated, his life would have been near perfect, but his insecurities stopped him. He lacked the confidence and faith in his actions to take a stand. “Ethan is also crucially fearful of change and responsibility” (Springer 46).

He was able to have security in making plans, and the relief in knowing that he would never follow through. He abdicated his free will to Zeena when he failed to assert his wants and needs and let Mattie decide on their double suicide plan. Ethan’s inaction was part of the cause for his unhappiness. “Indeed as he passes the headstones that mark generations of Fromes in the family graveyard, they seem to mock him. “We never got away- how should you?”” (Worth 66). Ethan needed to have the chaos in his life so that he could avoid the possibility of failure, needing to relinquish his ability to make decisions because of his lack of self-confidence in his actions. “The weakness of Ethan’s spirit was a direct correlation to the isolation and helplessness that he was left with after his mother’s death. Although he tried, he was not able to fully over come his feelings of loss and in turn project his insecurities in this manor.” (Worth 44). Ethan and Zeena’s need for chaos established Ethan Frome as a psychological novel due to the insight of Wharton on the human psyche.

Mattie Silver, in ever aspect, represents every individuals’ need for hope in Ethan Frome. She is the faint glimmer of light that Ethan holds on to that makes his life bearable. The way that Mattie is described is evidence of this aura of hope that she projects. “Mattie [her last name is] of course, is Silver- twinkling, promising, sparkling…” (Springer 94). Ethan looks to Mattie for love that he has never felt; his mother was ill most of her life and his father was too preoccupied for Ethan. Zeena’s unusual type of love is shown in her need to heal illness. “Ethan can talk to Mattie; in fact she is the object of his greatest release… He can share his awe for the beauty of his surroundings, educate her about the heavens, and relieve himself of emotions that had hitherto been bottled up as a silent ache…” (Springer 52). Mattie represents for Ethan a perfect life, but his insecurities stop him from attaining this ideal. Wharton’s characterization of Mattie and her influence on Ethan more clearly shows Ethan’s flaws and insecurities. The characters offer a psychological look into the characters perceptions of hope and success.

Because of Edith Wharton’s excellent use of imagery and description, Ethan Frome is a masterfully written example of a psychological novel. By just the use of descriptive setting, Wharton sets the tone and mental conditions of the characters. She shows general truths about the human condition when she describes the character’s insecurities and inabilities to overcome these obstacles. The characterization shows a depth of understanding that helps the reader to better understand the characters motives and actions. The novel is rich in analysis of the psyche and this is projected into the minds and actions of the characters. Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome is a timeless classic that subtly and creatively lets readers understand the hidden depths of the human mind through psychological aspects present in the novel.



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Ethan Frome as a Psychological Novel. (2018, Jul 08). Retrieved from