Ethan Frome


Edith Wharton

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Determinism and Free Will 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.
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:
"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:
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:
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)
Related Literary Devices:
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:
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
Related Literary Devices:
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:
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
Related Literary Devices:
Page Number: 64-65
Explanation and Analysis:
"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:
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:
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
Related Literary Devices:
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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
Related Literary Devices:
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis: