Ethan Frome

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Themes and Colors
Determinism and Free Will Theme Icon
Duty and Morality vs. Desire Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Marriage Theme Icon
Work, Industry and Progress Theme Icon
Hostile or Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Ethan Frome, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Duty and Morality vs. Desire Theme Icon

Ethan struggles against the customs and rules of society, fighting an inner battle between what he feels he needs in order to be happy and what he feels he must do to appease his family and society. Most prominently, this theme plays out in Ethan's struggle between his desire for Mattie and his sense of duty toward Zeena, his wife. Wharton portrays Zeena as horribly shrewish, devoid of any redeeming attributes, while Mattie is kind, gentle, radiant, and a perfect match for Ethan. Ethan's desire to leave Zeena for Mattie is therefore completely understandable. Yet, because Ethan knows that society would severely judge a man who abandoned his wife, and because he knows that without him Zeena would suffer in poverty, he can't bring himself to leave her. Similarly, Ethan avoids entering into an affair with Mattie because he knows that an affair would ruin Mattie's reputation. He therefore continually thinks of their relationship in terms of marriage, takes great pleasure in their domesticity, and displays an intense physical shyness, avoiding even touching Mattie when they are alone together in the house.

Ethan's sense of duty and morality conflict with his desires in a variety of other ways. His desire to leave Starkfield to pursue a career in engineering conflicts with his obligation to provide for his wife and continue running the family farm. His strict code of ethics won't allow him to lie to the Hales to get the money to run away with Mattie. Even in his great act of defiance, when Ethan and Mattie decide to commit suicide to try to escape the constraints placed on them by the world, Ethan can't stop thinking about his duties. As the sled speeds downhill, he remembers that he must feed his horse and thinks of Zeena—these distractions make him lose control of the sled and botch the suicide attempt, crippling instead of killing himself and Mattie, and condemning them both to a kind of living death.

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Duty and Morality vs. Desire ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Ethan Frome related to the theme of Duty and Morality vs. Desire.
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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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 3 Quotes
She sat opposite the window, and the pale light reflected from the banks of snow made her face look more than usually drawn and bloodless, sharpened the three parallel creases between ear and cheek, and drew querulous lines from her thin nose to the corners of her mouth. Though she was but seven years her husband's senior, and he was only twenty-eight, she was already an old woman.
Related Characters: Zenobia (Zeena) Frome
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

When Ethan looks at Zeena, he can’t help but observe her physical imperfections and the evidence of her age, even though she is only thirty-five years old. By sitting at the window, Zeena appears in comparison with the landscape outside, and with the snow’s light’s reflection on her face, Zeena’s appearance blends with the barrenness outside. Like Ethan’s quietness and lack of will that stem from Starkfield’s relentless winters, Zeena’s appearance has been affected by the harsh environment to such an extent that it takes a physical toll on her, creating wrinkles and sapping her skin of healthy color. Comparing the relationship that Ethan and Zeena share to the environment suggests that while male characters like Ethan can develop complex interiorities as a result of their environment, women instead take on the effects of the landscape physically. Thus, the beauty of women is compared to the mental acuity and strength of men, emphasizing a disparity in social attitudes towards men and women under stress.

Chapter 4 Quotes
She stood just as Zeena had stood, a lifted lamp in her hand, against the black background of the kitchen. She held the light at the same level, and it drew out with the same distinctness her slim young throat and the brown wrist no bigger than a child's. Then, striking upward, it threw a lustrous fleck on her lips, edged her eyes with velvet shade, and laid a milky whiteness above the black curve of her brows.
Related Characters: Zenobia (Zeena) Frome, Mattie Silver
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

When Mattie opens the door of the farmhouse to Ethan, he is struck initially by the similarity of her pose to Zeena’s the previous evening. However, Ethan immediately recognizes the clear physical differences between Mattie and Zeena. While Zeena is wrinkled and tired—similar to the barren landscape around them—Ethan notices Mattie’s youth in her smooth skin and warm coloring. Yet with her mimicry of Zeena’s pose, Ethan is able to think of Mattie in the position of his wife, despite the women’s differences in appearance. Ethan’s blending of the two women speaks to his marital fantasies of having a youthful, warm wife who is the polar opposite to Zeena. However, the echoed pose also suggests that Ethan would find the same dissatisfaction and marital unhappiness with any woman (including Mattie) as with Zeena. The pose suggests a dependence upon the status of being married, rather than upon individual consciousness. As such, the women become interchangeable in Ethan’s mind when he begins to think of them as wives or potential wives.

Completely reassured, she shone on him through tear-hung lashes, and his soul swelled with pride as he saw how his tone had subdued her. She did not even ask what he had done. Except when he was steering a big log down the mountain to his mill he had never known such a thrilling sense of mastery.
Related Characters: Ethan Frome, Mattie Silver
Related Symbols: The Red Glass Pickle-dish
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

When Mattie breaks the red pickle dish, symbolizing their mutual and forbidden love for each other (as the pickle dish was Zeena's favorite wedding present), it represents the danger of acting on their passion. However, when Ethan cleans it up and puts it back together—as though it never happened—the two believe that they have solved their problem, even though it is merely a temporary solution. In this passage, both Ethan and Mattie are willing to put their faith in Ethan with his masculine authority that declares that the problem has been solved, even though he has merely swept it under the rug (almost literally). Mattie cedes to Ethan, and he views her as “subdued,” speaking to the subservient position of women in marital relations. Ethan’s sense of control over Mattie is further emphasized by his invigorating memory of steering a log down the mountain—and image that will recur with disastrous results later in the text.

Chapter 5 Quotes
It was almost as if the other face, the face of the superseded woman, had obliterated that of the intruder.
Related Characters: Zenobia (Zeena) Frome, Mattie Silver
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

When Ethan asks Mattie to sit in Zeena’s chair, he hopes to be able to fool himself into envisioning Mattie as his wife. However, his guilt and uneasiness with his potential adultery makes itself clear when he superimposes Zeena’s face over Mattie’s. The unsettling image of a gaunt face attached to a youthful figure shocks Ethan, and even Mattie feels discomfort with the violation she has enacted by trying to take Zeena’s place by the fire. Mattie thus becomes “the intruder” who has attempted to replace the woman who actually belongs there, and it becomes clear that Ethan and Mattie can never have the kind of relationship each desires under the circumstances of their current lives—they are too restricted by duty and conscience.

Now, in the warm lamp-lit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and order, she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable.
Related Characters: Ethan Frome, Mattie Silver
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

After picking up Mattie at the dance, Ethan feels free outside under the stars, in contrast to his feeling within the home. Even though he and Mattie seem to resemble an old married couple, Ethan is uncomfortably aware of the moment’s artifice. Mattie’s distance from him in the house is particularly pointed because of the relationship of the home to the traditional conception of marriage that adultery would violate. The potentially adulterous relationship between the two threatens the “ancient implications of conformity and order” that the home would otherwise suggest, which is underscored by the shattering of the red pickle dish (a symbol of their passion, but also of domesticity and Ethan's marriage to Zeena) and the superimposition of Zeena’s face over Mattie’s. Although Ethan and Mattie should feel more comfortable at home than out in the open, exposed to the harsh elements, instead the house becomes a source of discomfort and disillusionment because of how it manages to separate the two by convention, rather than bringing them together.

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 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.

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.