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Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and Summer A Study of Constriction Victoria Candland


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Victoria Candland Keith Lawrence English 363 5 December 2012 Edith Whartons’ Ethan Frome and Summer Edith Wharton explores an array of subjects in her novels Ethan Frome and Summer, many of which overlap and seem to convey the same message. Ethan Frome and Summer both trace the life of a lower class person in New England who can be seen as a victim of circumstance and life’s unfair happenings, and who has a sexual experience whether completely physically or mentally. Wharton toys with romantic ideals in both Summer and Ethan Frome and ultimately denies such ideals to the protagonist of each novel. Wharton’s underlying theme in the books is constriction, and the power one has to break away from this constriction and live the life one has imagined. In Ethan Frome, Ethan succumbs to the restrictive place he has in his household and does not become his own man experiencing his own emotions and desires. In Summer, Charity Royall, however, escapes the conventions of her time and lives her own life. Charity, unlike Ethan, is able to experience her own emotions and sexuality, which ultimately prepares he to accept the lawyer Royall. In this, Wharton is asking the universal question of what it means to be fully human: does it mean victory over circumstance or knowledge and experience of the full living of life? The setting is an obvious similarity between the two novels. North Domer and Starkfield are two New England towns that are empty of modernity and lacking in vibrancy. Edith Wharton uses the often dreary setting of New England in many of her other works, particularly short stories such as in Mother Earth and The Cruise of the Fleetwing. Her fictitious towns are even


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cross-referenced in her novels. Charity relays a time when the lawyer Royall ventured to Starkfield for business. Alan Henry Rose explores the importance of Wharton’s use of New England in his article “Such Depths of Sad Initiation: Edith Wharton and New England.” He quotes Henry James, a frequent visitor to Wharton’s Massachusetts home, when he says, “ugliness . . . [which] was the so complete abolition of forms” (423). The New England Wharton writes of has a pervading absence of “experiential complexity” (Rose 423) which one can see by the ignorance and lack of culture in Starkfield and North Domer. Because of the emptiness, Wharton is able to apply her own ideas to the New England soil and therefore on its inhabitants and is able to play with sexuality and constriction and other such subjects. Constriction comes, in part, from the land—or at least the feeling that one is constricted. Because of the absence of experiential possibilities and choices in the New England setting, the characters feels constricted in their selection, or are not able to arrive at a substantial sense of self. Charity, for example, is constricted in what she can choose. She can choose to stay up on the wicked mountain, or can choose to accept lawyer Royall’s marriage request. Ethan, is constricted by the setting and the lack of possibilities therein, and therefore never achieves a knowledge of who he is, or grasps his full potential. Wharton plays with the New England setting to further exacerbate her characters and leave them with little options. This toying with the characters and the cynical attitude in which she seems to do it qualifies her texts as modernist. Wharton’s play with romantic ideals also makes Ethan Frome and Summer modernist texts. Wharton ties in romantic imagery and traditions, tricking the reader into believing them, and then completely disillusions the reader by shattering all romanticism. Such a phenomenon happens in Ethan Frome. Many readers are tricked into hoping that Ethan and his beloved Mattie will either run away together, or die when they hit the large tree so they can be together in death


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if not in life. Wharton cleverly skews the reader’s sympathies and makes him justify adultery and abandoning one’s spouse, when he wouldn’t side with that type of conduct in other cases. The reader is seduced into wanting a romantic ending for Ethan and Mattie, despite the un-romantic stark scenery of the aptly named Starkfield, and the witch-like figure of Zeena. Wharton built Ethan Frome into a frame narrative going back in time through the eyes of bystanders, thus the reader already knows that things do not work out well for Ethan and Mattie, since Ethan is still alive and his body mangled. However, Wharton toys with the reader’s emotions by including warm and sexual imagery when Mattie and Ethan are together, which makes the reader perhaps subconsciously wish for a romantic ending to the tale. Mattie and Ethan begin their emotional romance during the summer, the warmest season of the year. Ethan describes his first sight of Mattie at the church picnic, “Mattie, encircled by facetious youths, and bright as a blackberry under her spreading hat, was brewing coffee over a gipsy fire” (112). Mattie is paired with youth, summery fruit, and warmth, whereas Zeena is associated with coldness, sickliness, and old age. Even the word “spreading” in this quotation has a sexual allusion. Wharton portrays the story not just as a romance, but also as a modern fairy tale. Elizabeth Ammons comments on the fairy tale like quality of Ethan Frome; she writes “the haunting fiction draws on archetypes of the fairy take—the witch, the silver maiden, the honest woodcutter—and brings them to life in the landscape and social structure of New England” (128). Ammons argues that Ethan Frome is a deliberate retelling of the classic tale of Snow White, with the distinct physicality of Mattie (black hair, red cheeks, white skin), the emphasis on sevens, and the persecution of Mattie by the witch Zeena (129). However, as the story shows, the fairy tale does not end like it should—Ethan and Mattie do not live happily ever after.


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Wharton builds up the idea of a fairy tale and the romantic ideals of warmth and young love conquering all. She makes the reader hope more and more for Ethan and Mattie’s happiness together, until the climax when they do not die crashing into the tree. Then the irony of it all slaps the reader in the face and he comes out of his romantic daydream into the stark conditions of real life. Ethan does get what he wants, but in a much sadder and baser way than he previously intended or expected. Ethan wanted Mattie, his quasi-mistress, and Zeena, his loveless wife, to live with him under the same roof so they could be one dysfunctional family. He gets this, but instead of the joyful, beautiful Mattie he used to love, Mattie is now deformed and mean. She ends up in a worse state than Zeena, as the reader sees in the final scene where she is moaning loudly that the narrator calls a “querulous drone” (125). This is also ironic, since Zeena becomes the caretaker for Mattie, when it was originally the reverse. Additionally, the reader can see the similarities between Mattie and Zeena that were perhaps under the surface all along. In the end, Mattie looks similar to Zeena as the narrator comments, “Her hair was as grey as her companion's, her face as bloodless and shrivelled, but amber-tinted, with swarthy shadows sharpening the nose and hollowing the temples” (126). The narrator also refers to Mattie as “witch-like,” a characteristic that was previously connected to Zeena (126). Because of the twist in plot from dreamy romanticism to stark modernism, Ethan is left feeling constricted by his circumstances, and by the blatant realization that nothing is romantic. Similarly, Summer plays with the romantic ideals. Charity, an uneducated girl who is sassy and crude, breaks all the traditional paradigms of the romantic heroine. She has not been taught like the proper lady of how to think, act, and feel, like other Wharton characters like May Welland from The Age of Innocence, which makes her fresh and different. However, she is stuck


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in a very romantic time of year, and is surrounded by beautiful imagery of summer—a season when life is restless and sexuality flourishing. Wharton expresses, “she loved the roughness of the dry mountain grass under her palm, the smell of thyme into which she crushed her face, the fingering of the wind in her hair and through her cotton blouse” (73). Wharton uses this romantic season to spark a sexual relationship between Charity and her lover, Harney Lucius. Yet, the relationship also abandons romanticism. A reader generally expects there to be a relationship bound by romantic ideals in the summer months, but Wharton twists the affair into something new. In her introduction to the 1981 copy of Summer, Marilyn French argues that Charity “is not overwhelmed and seduced; she does not succumb in irresistible passion to a sinful joy. . . . She enters the affair slowly, thoughtfully, and completely” (45). When Charity learns that she is pregnant, she does not beg or demand Harney to come back to her. She does not tell him it’s his duty, like romantic ideals would necessitate, but rather tells him to “act right” (Summer 206) to his fiancé Annabel Balch. Harney, in return, implies that he will most likely not break off his engagement. Perhaps for lack of better possibilities, as was discussed with the bleak New England setting, Charity marries lawyer Royall, who breaks the romantic and traditional idea of the jealous, tyrannical father figure. He too is a rounded, new character, who marries Charity more or less to protect her from the vices of the mountain— namely abortion and prostitution. Charity and Royall end with a sort of truce, Charity will be with Royall so he avoids the pangs of loneliness, and Royall will be with Charity to protect her from social disgrace. Through the play with these romantic ideals and the purposeful breaking of these ideals, Wharton welcomes a new heroine, one who is realistic in the consequences of her risks. Sexuality goes well with the romantic ideals—Wharton uses the idea of sexuality in


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Ethan Frome and Summer to illustrate constriction and the need for a person to gratify this important need. French argues that the underlying theme of many Wharton texts, especially Ethan Frome and Summer is sexual constriction when she writes, “Wharton’s main theme, her deepest concern, was the emotional/moral life, especially in the area of sexuality” (23). Ethan is a sexual man, as we can see by the tension between him and Mattie at the dinner scene. They are alone in the house for the first time while Zeena is away on a visit to the doctor. The images of the dish filled with pickles and doughnuts are hard to escape. Additionally, Mattie wears a red ribbon, signifying romance and lovemaking. The dish breaking also signifies the marital fidelity between Ethan and Zeena breaking, and allows for Mattie and Ethan to take the next step in their physical connection, which they ultimately never carry through (67). The reader can see that Ethan does not have a sexual relationship with his wife, Zeena. Therefore, Ethan is stifled and constricted sexually—even though sex is a human necessity that should not be ignored. Instead of trying to change his sexless marriage into a relationship of sexual pleasure, Ethan considers himself a victim of his circumstances and does not make an attempt to make his life better with Zeena. Ethan never considers the consequences to Zeena of marriage to a man that finds her physically repulsive and the consequences of denying himself sexually. Charity, on the other hand, is not afraid to confront her sexuality. She is constricted by her class and by her town, but she is able to take the risk of experimenting sexually. Through her sexual experiences, and through the consequences that come of them, Charity matures and grows into a woman. Kathy Grafton argues that Summer is a Bildungsroman that focuses on Charity’s sexual awakening, but that forbidden love and degradation of womanhood are associated with it (350). It is true that Wharton is not arguing for the “me” ideal of the 1960s and 1990s critics, but


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rather shows that one must make choices and suffer the consequences of those choices. Charity does mature through her sexual experiences, but matures into knowing that her forbidden love with Harney, a man of a higher social class, and his simultaneous degradation to her lower class, was the cause of this sexual union. Charity also reaches her maturity by marrying Royall. In her honors thesis, Sheryl Cragun states that “though Charity’s story opposes standard accounts of successful maturation, she reaches a valid level of maturity by adopting traditional values based in relationships” (2). Charity learns these values through the traditional union between herself and the lawyer Royall. Ethan, on the other hand, reaches no such maturity. Even though he is ten years older than Charity, he never ascends to the mature level of mind Charity belongs to. Instead of face the choices he has made, he tries the easiest route of escape by attempting suicide with Mattie by crashing into the large tree. He sees himself more as a victim, and never takes the risk of actually running away with Mattie, or the even harder risk of trying to love his wife. Ultimately, Ethan ends up in a much worse condition that we presume Charity to be in, with his mangled body and dark attitude. Wharton shows that he, and Mattie and Zeena are deader than the dead when she writes “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” (131). In these two texts, Wharton plays with setting, romantic ideals, and the consequences of satisfying and denying human sexuality. With these devices, she explores the idea of constriction, and that perhaps individuals bring it upon themselves rather than their circumstances. Charity, although she is uneducated and ultimately pregnant, takes hold of her


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life, matures, accepts Royall as her husband and appreciates him for his better qualities. Ethan, on the other hand, make choices of convenience like his marriage to Zeena and his crashing into the tree with Mattie. He does not take hold of his life, and he does not mature. Ethan is the constricted character between these two books. In a letter to her friend, Wharton exclaims, “Alas, I should like to get up on the house-tops and cry to all who come after us: ‘Take your own life, every one of you!” (French 33). By this she means take hold of, grasp, decide to choose. What does it mean to be fully human? It is the experience of the full living of life, not the triumph over circumstance.


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Works Cited Ammons, Elizabeth. "Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome and the Question of Meaning," Studies in American Fiction 7.2 (1979): 127-40. Print. Cragun, Sheryl Dianne. Changing Perspectives: Edith Wharton’s Summer as a Successful Initiation Story. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 19087. Print. French, Marilyn. Introduction. Summer By Edith Wharton. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. Print. Grafton, Kathy. “Degradation and Forbidden Love in Edith Wharton’s Summer.” Twentieth Century Literature 41.4 (Winter 1995): 350-366. Print. Rose, Henry Alan. "'Such Depths of Sad Initiation': Edith Wharton and New England." New England Quarterly 50.3 (1977): 423-3. Print. Wharton, Edith. Summer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. Print. Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911. Print.


Constriction in Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome and Summer