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.
Gender Roles and Marriage Theme Icon

As in many of Wharton's novels, Ethan Frome makes the case that traditional gender roles limit the potential of men and women, and destroy male-female relationships. Through Mattie, the novel critiques gender expectations that resulted in young women being raised to become nothing more than domestic servants and companions for men. Mattie is an example of a middle-class girl who was educated only to trim a hat, make molasses candy, recite poetry, and play the piano, accomplishments that would have helped her to attract a husband but were of little practical use when it came to earning a living. The novel also shows how the traditional division of labor in marriage resulted in women staying at home much of the time, occupied with dull household chores, while men were out working. In the novel, the isolation women suffer is literally maddening: Ethan's mother goes insane from loneliness. Through the passive aggressive "sickliness" that Zeena uses to control Ethan, and Ethan's own feelings of inferiority and revulsion for Zeena that result from his lack of control, the novel shows how traditional marriage sets up a destructive power struggle between man and wife. In fact, Ethan's attraction to Mattie depends in part on her submissiveness to him. Though the novel never explicitly mentions divorce, the obviously flawed match of Ethan and Zeena, and the toll the marriage takes on both of them, makes it clear that Wharton felt that the social taboo against divorce and, in particular divorced women, were harsh and destructive.

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Gender Roles and Marriage ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Ethan Frome related to the theme of Gender Roles and Marriage.
Chapter 3 Quotes
But when Zenobia's doctor recommended her looking about for some one to help her with the house-work the clan instantly saw the chance of exacting a compensation from Mattie.
Related Characters: Zenobia (Zeena) Frome, Mattie Silver
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

After Mattie’s father’s business goes up in smoke, her family members who had invested in the venture lose their money as well. The family therefore harbors resentment towards Mattie as a representative of her father’s failures, and they seek mild revenge by sending her to perform housework for Zeena. As an educated young girl, Mattie would not have experience doing housework, and her previous attempts to work retail jobs led to a collapse of her health. In such a way, the family’s attempt to “exact a compensation” from Mattie is somewhat insidious, and speaks of larger resentments that individual members of the “clan” have for others. Instead of revealing a communal, kind-hearted nature, Zeena’s employment of Mattie speaks to the deeply individualistic and cutthroat nature of this family. Competitive and resentful, the family does not care for her in material terms, and deliberately drafts her into a job that will surely destroy her faltering health.


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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
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.

He recalled his mother's growing taciturnity, and wondered if Zeena were also turning "queer." Women did, he knew. Zeena, who had at her fingers' ends the pathological chart of the whole region, had cited many cases of the kind while she was nursing his mother; and he himself knew of certain lonely farm-houses in the neighborhood where stricken creatures pined, and of others where sudden tragedy had come of their presence. At times, looking at Zeena's shut face, he felt the chill of such forebodings. At other times her silence seemed deliberately assumed to conceal far-reaching intentions, mysterious conclusions drawn from suspicions and resentments impossible to guess.
Related Characters: Ethan Frome, Zenobia (Zeena) Frome
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

In Starkfield, women did not have much power for individual mobility, and so Zeena was largely restricted to her home with Ethan after her marriage. As such, her access to the outside world came in the form of gossip, and Zeena collected stories of other people’s illnesses as a way of vicariously escaping her own gendered lot. However, the prevailing gossip of illness inevitably contributed towards Zeena’s own sense of ill-being and pain. Like Ethan’s mother, women internalized the harsh environment and their own confinement, turning inwardly and becoming taciturn about their mental sufferings. To compensate, Zeena complained frequently about her external and physical sufferings, only vocalizing when she could complain about her failing body. Ethan suspects that Zeena has a complex interiority beneath her taciturnity, and yet he fears her resentments, which he understands only insofar as he has his own resentments towards her. Both serve as the other’s prison, and enact distinct forms of loneliness and despair that the other cannot relieve, and in fact only exacerbates.

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
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 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 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.