Ethan Frome

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Determinism and Free Will Theme Analysis

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Determinism and Free Will Theme Icon

In Ethan Frome, Wharton explores the concept of determinism—the idea that human lives are determined by outside forces, including social customs, heredity, environment, history, and laws of nature. For instance, Ethan's life is "determined" in a variety of ways: his desire to become an engineer is thwarted by the moral necessity of returning to Starkfield to care for his dying parents; his plans to leave Starkfield after his marriage are thwarted by the infertility of his farm, which no one wants to buy, and his wife Zeena's "sickliness;" and Ethan's desire to abandon Zeena in favor of Mattie is blocked by the feeling, imbued in him by his New England culture with its Puritan roots, that such an action would be immoral. As a result, Ethan has the sense that he is helpless to affect his own life and, rather than acting, he indulges in his naïve wish that Mattie will always live at the farm without him having to do anything decisive at all.

Despite all these factors, Ethan could act decisively. Other characters in the novel do: Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale kiss secretly even though they aren't yet married; Mr. Hale turns down Ethan's request for an advance because he can't afford it at the time; and Zeena summarily acts to replace Mattie with a new girl. Yet every time Ethan seems on the verge of action, he finds himself facing some obstacle and instead of facing it gives in, all the while blaming the external forces that are thwarting him without ever recognizing his own lack of courage.

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Determinism and Free Will ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Determinism and Free Will appears in each chapter of Ethan Frome. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Determinism and Free Will Quotes in Ethan Frome

Below you will find the important quotes in Ethan Frome related to the theme of Determinism and Free Will.
Prologue Quotes
"Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters. Most of the smart ones get away."
Related Characters: Harmon Gow (speaker), Ethan Frome
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

When the narrator arrives in Starkfield, he observes Ethan Frome at the post office and is instantly intrigued by his quietness and despondency. The stagecoach driver and town gossip Harmon Gow comments on Ethan’s grim melancholy by pointing out the relationship of the harsh New England environment (and especially its winter months) to the people who live there. Gow observes that the Starkfield climate (and perhaps its judgmental small-town atmosphere as well) weighs heavily on its inhabitants, such as Ethan, creating a kind of prison that traps those who are not sufficiently determined to leave it. Ethan falls under this category, and when Gow comments that "the smart ones get away," he is suggesting that Ethan's failure to leave stems from a lack of will or determination to take hold of his life and change his circumstances. 


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"Sickness and trouble: that's what Ethan's had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping."
Related Characters: Harmon Gow (speaker), Ethan Frome
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

In listening to Ethan’s neighbor’s account of him, the narrator comes to understand Ethan’s life initially from the perspective of an outsider who only sees the surface of Ethan’s problems. “Sickness” alludes to Ethan’s parents and his wife, Zeena, and “trouble” alludes to the larger struggles that these illnesses have caused in his life, such as poverty, dependency, and a lack of energy or will to change his lot in life. However, the narrator is able to sense that there are other issues underlying the surface, and over time it becomes clear to the reader that Ethan’s problems, while stemming from “sickness and trouble,” have grown past this simplistic account of them.

The fact that Ethan's troubles have plagued him for his entire life indicate that, beyond mere bad luck, Ethan’s own inability or lack of will to effect change in his life for the better have greatly contributed to his terrible situation. Ethan accepts decisions and choices that other people make for him, rather than making them for himself, just as a child might accept whatever his mother puts before him at mealtime.

He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.
Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Ethan Frome, Harmon Gow
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

During the narrator’s daily drives with Ethan, he isn’t able to learn much about his past due to Ethan’s reserved nature. As they travel outside through the melancholy landscape, the narrator observes Ethan’s similarities to this environment: they are both apparently barren and desolate, but the narrator suspects that a hidden warmth and spark lie deep underneath Ethan’s cold exterior, just as fertile grass lies in wait under snow. The result of Ethan’s having lived for his whole life in such a landscape enacts an unbreakable connection between the two, such that Ethan’s apparently unchangeable fate is fundamentally shaped by his environment of relentless stability and harshness. Ethan’s personality alone doesn’t determine his shyness with the narrator, but rather his “personal plight” leading to his personality has been a product of a life lived in an unrelenting environment.

Chapter 2 Quotes
For years that quiet company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom. "We never got away—how should you?" seemed to be written on every headstone; and whenever he went in or out of his gate he thought with a shiver: "I shall just go on living here till I join them." But now all desire for change had vanished, and the sight of the little enclosure gave him a warm sense of continuance and stability.
Related Characters: Ethan Frome (speaker)
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

When walking home with Mattie after the dance, Ethan observes his family’s headstones in the cemetery. Usually, this provokes sadness in him because it reminds him that he will never be able to move away from the land that claimed his family, and thus, will never be able to move beyond his ancestors’ own aspirations, establishing a pattern of routine and regression in the Frome family. However, when he is in Mattie’s company, he begins to think about ways of tolerating the path that had previously been so stifling for him. Instead of seeming narrow or threatening, the quality of sameness that Ethan observes in the Frome family plot becomes comforting. In such a way, Mattie begins to fill a marital role, subsuming the memory of Zeena that tortures Ethan, by becoming part of the traditional continuance and stability that has defined the Frome family. Thus he is only able to gain fulfillment and comfort from his assumed future by changing out key points to make it more tolerable.

Chapter 4 Quotes
After the mortal silence of his long imprisonment Zeena's volubility was like music in his ears. He felt that he might have "gone like his mother" if the sound of a new voice had not come to steady him.
Related Characters: Ethan Frome, Zenobia (Zeena) Frome
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

After Ethan’s mother falls ill, she stops speaking and claims that she is “listening” instead to the various voices around her. As such, Ethan’s loneliness begins to consume him, just as the Starkfield weather consumes him and subsumes his desire for progress or advancement. With Zeena’s arrival, Ethan’s loneliness seems to be turning around, and he welcomes the friendliness offered by another human. Instead of offering something like routine, Zeena is “voluble” (talkative) and therefore adds a sense of difference to Ethan’s life. He grasps on to this feeling—unusual for Starkfield—and decides to marry her, even though Ethan only sees in her what he would see in any person: “a new voice” that can “steady him.” Ethan believes that Zeena saves him from illness and possibly insanity by arriving to nurse his mother and as such, there is a sense of indebtedness that he bears to her.

Chapter 7 Quotes
She was no longer the listless creature who had lived at his side in a state of sullen self-absorption, but a mysterious alien presence, an evil energy secreted from the long years of silent brooding. It was the sense of his helplessness that sharpened his antipathy. There had never been anything in her that one could appeal to; but as long as he could ignore and command he had remained indifferent. Now she had mastered him and he abhorred her. . . . All the long misery of his baffled past, of his youth of failure, hardship and vain effort, rose up in his soul in bitterness and seemed to take shape before him in the woman who at every turn had barred his way. She had taken everything else from him; and now she meant to take the one thing that made up for all the others.
Related Characters: Ethan Frome, Zenobia (Zeena) Frome
Page Number: 64-65
Explanation and Analysis:

Ethan can usually ignore Zeena, since she stays at home and only speaks when she complains. However, with her attempting to control her household by dismissing Mattie, Zeena attempts to strip masculine authority from Ethan by asserting her control over his actions. This reversal of traditional gender roles leaves Ethan resentful and furious, because not just his happiness has been overstepped, but also what he regards as his essential role as a man. In his “helplessness,” Ethan is not just made powerless, but he is feminized by his wife. To be a woman in Starkfield at this time is to be relatively helpless in the face of fate, and to be unable to assert authority in relationships between men and women. Because Mattie offers the one possible escape route from his misery, Ethan’s perceived subjugation by Zeena is not just the escape from his present unhappiness, but the insurance that he will be as unhappy as Zeena and Mattie forever.

"If I'd 'a' listened to folks, you'd 'a' gone before now, and this wouldn't 'a' happened," she said; and gathering up the bits of broken glass she went out of the room as if she carried a dead body . . .
Related Characters: Mattie Silver (speaker), Mattie Silver
Related Symbols: The Red Glass Pickle-dish
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

When Zeena sees the broken pickle dish, she understands that Ethan and Mattie have been adulterous, even though they never physically consummated their betrayal of her. She interprets the broken pickle dish as a violation of Ethan’s wedding vows with her because the dish was a wedding gift, and a memory of what love they once had for each other. Further, it symbolizes the passion that Ethan and Mattie now share, and which Zeena sees as irretrievably beyond her control because it has taken a material toll on her life and her possessions. The red pickle dish’s symbolic resonance with “a dead body” underscores the way that Ethan and Mattie’s betrayal is a crime of passion that has effectively killed any potential of reconciliation between the three.

Chapter 8 Quotes
Must he wear out all his years at the side of a bitter querulous woman? Other possibilities had been in him, possibilities sacrificed, one by one, to Zeena's narrow-mindedness and ignorance. And what good had come of it? She was a hundred times bitterer and more discontented than when he had married her: the one pleasure left her was to inflict pain on him.
Related Characters: Ethan Frome, Zenobia (Zeena) Frome
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

Within Ethan’s anger at Zeena is his fear that he did not sufficiently take hold of his fate to change his circumstances when he was unhappy. With “possibilities sacrificed” to Zeena’s will, Ethan saw his own will and authority subsumed, but wasn’t aware of it until Mattie came to stay with them. Zeena’s unhappiness, further, has grown just as Ethan’s has over time; the two become more and more unhappy with the other every day, and are able to feel happiness only when they hurt the other. Even though Ethan feels guilty over his potential adultery with Mattie, still he derives a thrill from it that stems, in part, from his desire to exert authority over his own life even at the risk of causing Zeena unhappiness.

The inexorable facts closed in on him like a prison-warder handcuffing a convict. There was no way out—none. He was a prisoner for life, and now his one ray of light was to be extinguished.
Related Characters: Ethan Frome
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

The “inexorable facts” that halt Ethan in his tracks are not abstract feeling of doubt or guilt, but rather his knowledge that tangible, concrete things are holding him back: namely, a lack of money with which to travel West with Mattie and support them both. He is close to being moved to action in writing a letter to Zeena revealing his plan, but the absence of money plagues Ethan just as it plagues everyone in Starkfield, whether or not they are trying to uproot their lives, which is why Ethan is unable to borrow money from his neighbors.

The image of a prisoner works in two ways; on the one hand, Ethan has been imprisoned by his lack of money. On the other, someone who steals money would face the same fate of imprisonment. In such a way, it is clear to Ethan that he has to accept his lot in life because even attempting to change it would end in the same grim way. What had once been a “ray of light”—his escape with Mattie—proves just as unreasonable and capable of turning out poorly, underscoring the way that Ethan feels like a “prisoner for life,” trapped by his internal and external circumstances.

The early mist had vanished and the fields lay like a silver shield under the sun. It was one of the days when the glitter of winter shines through a pale haze of spring. Every yard of the road was alive with Mattie's presence, and there was hardly a branch against the sky or a tangle of brambles on the bank in which some bright shred of memory was not caught. Once, in the stillness, the call of a bird in a mountain ash was so like her laughter that his heart tightened and then grew large; and all these things made him see that something must be done at once.
Related Characters: Ethan Frome, Mattie Silver
Page Number: 76-77
Explanation and Analysis:

As Ethan prepares for Mattie’s departure, he finds the surrounding landscape to contain memories of and similarities to Mattie, instead of finding it bleak, harsh, and barren of fond memories. Like bits of string from her red scarf catching on tree branches, Mattie’s time at Starkfield remains inscribed on the surrounding environment for Ethan, such that the birds resonate with Mattie’s laughter when the two stood outside after the dance. Ironically, in accepting, rather than rejecting, the landscape around him, Ethan is able to make manifest his desire for change and act on his desire for something different and comforting. However, because Ethan projects his desire for change onto an existing, stable, and harsh landscape, any action he and Mattie undertake to escape their life must necessarily be tinged with disaster, as with all things during Starkfield’s winters.

Chapter 9 Quotes
"You won't need me, you mean? I suppose you'll marry!"

"Oh, Ethan!" she cried.

"I don't know how it is you make me feel, Matt. I'd a'most rather have you dead than that!"

"Oh, I wish I was, I wish I was!" she sobbed.
Related Characters: Ethan Frome (speaker), Mattie Silver (speaker), Ethan Frome, Mattie Silver
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

In this society, marriage for women is at once a livelihood and a death knell. They must marry to guarantee a home and an income (even though both would belong in name to their husbands) due to the lack of opportunities for women to work outside of the home. However, in marrying, women also lose the autonomy and freedom of unmarried women because they are beholden to their husbands’ desires and expectations, and their previous lives are effectively rendered null, or dead. In considering Mattie married to someone else, Ethan realizes the way that this would effectively render her “dead” in respect to him. Unlike Ethan, who might recover in society from an adulterous relationship, Mattie never could. As such, when he considers Mattie marrying, he considers the total conclusion of any relationship they might have had. For Ethan, it is not so extreme to consider Mattie “dead” to him when he considers her loving, or at least living with, anyone else. (Although of course it's also incredibly selfish of him to prefer her dead altogether, rather than just dead to him.)

Mattie similarly realizes that Ethan would be forever lost to her if she married. However, in saying, “Oh, I wish I was [dead],” she takes death onto herself. Rather than condemning her beloved Ethan to a metaphorical death, as he does to her, she metaphorically takes her own life to save Ethan’s. This kind of suicidal sacrifice speaks again to the insidiousness of gender relations that leaves the woman with a much harsher end of the social and marital bargain.

He laughed contemptuously: "I could go down this coast with my eyes tied!" and she laughed with him, as if she liked his audacity. Nevertheless he sat still a moment, straining his eyes down the long hill, for it was the most confusing hour of the evening, the hour when the last clearness from the upper sky is merged with the rising night in a blur that disguises landmarks and falsifies distances.
Related Characters: Ethan Frome, Mattie Silver
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Ethan boasts to Mattie about his superior vision and ability to protect her, when the crucial moment comes to sled down the hill, he is momentarily gripped by doubt as he looks down the darkened hill. The danger of the situation is emphasized with the “blur that disguises landmarks and falsifies distances,” which leads the reader to distrust Ethan, even though Mattie does not fear for her life because of his swaggering “audacity.” Ethan’s superior vision recurs as a motif particularly in his interactions with Mattie; yet while he can see small objects and obstacles, his emotional vision is much dimmer and less sure. In squinting at the landscape before him, Ethan tries to overcome this dimmed vision emotionally and physically. While it does not harm them on the first try, Mattie realizes the latent danger and potential harm they could do to one another, inspiring their disastrous second ride down.

Her sombre violence constrained him: she seemed the embodied instrument of fate. He pulled the sled out, blinking like a night-bird as he passed from the shade of the spruces into the transparent dusk of the open. The slope below them was deserted. All Starkfield was at supper, and not a figure crossed the open space before the church. The sky, swollen with the clouds that announce a thaw, hung as low as before a summer storm. He strained his eyes through the dimness, and they seemed less keen, less capable than usual.
Related Characters: Ethan Frome, Mattie Silver
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

As “the embodied instrument of fate,” Mattie is no longer merely a pawn in the game of her own circumstances; instead, she attempts to gain control of her life as it is spinning out of her grasp. However, to Ethan, she is just one more instrument acting out someone else’s desires over him, even though they overlap in this moment. Mattie ultimately makes the decision to go down the hill to try to kill themselves; Ethan merely follows her lead, thus making the metaphorical path they are about to take that much dimmer and unclear. His eyes fail him in this instance where he is not in control of his body or his future; instead, Mattie exerts unusual control over his actions. (Although, of course, it's not unusual for Ethan to assume that "fate" or outside influence of some kind is really determining his life, rather than his own free will—it's just unusual for Mattie to be the one so powerful and determined.)

With the shift to Starkfield’s population at supper, there is a characteristic jump of Wharton to the everyday and the mundane that permeates more symbolically-rich moments in the novel. As when Ethan is halted in his decision to travel West by the thought of money, here Ethan might be stopped by the thought of the society in which he lives, which passes day by day in the same routine. He and Mattie ultimately attempt to break with such a society in attempting suicide; however, their attempt does not rupture society’s rules or conventions. Instead, it merely ruptures their individual futures.

Epilogue Quotes
"And I say, if she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived; and the way they are now, I don't see's there's much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; 'cept that down there they're all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues."
Related Characters: Mrs. Andrew Hale (speaker), Ethan Frome, Mattie Silver
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

After the “smash up,” Ethan is resigned to live a life of misery with two similarly miserable women: Mattie and Zeena, who now cares for Mattie in a reversal of fortunes. In this way, his life is more like a living death, and was directly a result of his inability to make a decision at the crucial moment in regards to Mattie. By living out their days in such misery, each member of the family is akin to the dead Frome family members buried in the church. In continuing to talk, the living Frome members (primarily Mattie) perpetuate their misery by vocalizing it, while the dead members suffer in silence. The final rebellion of women in the novel is speech, so in some ways, Mattie’s ability to continue talking and complaining after the accident gives her a small sense of agency, while Ethan buries further and further into his dejected taciturnity—that which the narrator experiences when Ethan drives him around town at the beginning of the story.