Ethan Frome

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Hostile or Indifferent Nature Theme Analysis

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.
Hostile or Indifferent Nature Theme Icon

In the rural Berkshires where Ethan Frome is set, the characters are at the mercy of nature. The short New England growing season and thin mountain soils discouraged large-scale agriculture, ensuring that most farms, like the Frome farm, allowed for only "subsistence" farming that prevented farm owners from overcoming poverty. In addition, as Harmon Gow's comment that Ethan has "been in Starkfield too many winters" suggests, the prolonged and brutal winters of the region had a profound effect on the personalities of the inhabitants of rural villages, resulting in reserved social behavior, a tendency toward pathological illness (especially in women), and a sense of disconnectedness from the larger world.

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Hostile or Indifferent Nature ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Ethan Frome related to the theme of Hostile or Indifferent Nature.
Prologue Quotes
When I had been there a little longer, and had seen this phase of crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the devoted village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months' siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter.
Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator here observes for himself the conditions of Starkfield winters that last for six months before the town's inhabitants are finally given the relief of spring. He compares the winter’s relentless force to a siege in wartime that slowly starves the defending soldiers (the town's inhabitants). In a way, this kind of condition is worse than a single, ruthless attack -- rather than quick death (or the possibility of glorious victory), a siege is bigger than any one individual's attempt to face it down, and it drains the energy from all those facing it.

Ethan’s life in Starkfield thus becomes associated with a never-ending war against the elements. In addition, with the metaphor of a garrison “capitulating,” the theme of defeat and despondency returns. While the war of winter may end every year, it is not triumphant or victorious, because the inhabitants know it will return in a matter of months, wearing them down over long periods of time, and starving them of life-force and energy, year after year.


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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 8 Quotes
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
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.