Ethan Frome


Edith Wharton

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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 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:
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 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:
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
Related Literary Devices:
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:
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
Related Literary Devices:
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:
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
Related Literary Devices:
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:
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:
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 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:
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: