Ethan Frome By Wharton

When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his novel, The Scarlet Letter, he was praised as
being the father of the psychological novel. Since the completion of his
landmark story, many other authors have taken their work in similar directions,
and have tried to reveal human psychology through their writing. Authors have
been trying to convey truths about human behavior and explain the human psyche,
often unsuccessfully. Edith Wharton’s novel, Ethan From, is an excellent
example of a novel that succeeds in revealing truths. She fills her characters
with nuances that reflect the subconscious and her setting is alive with
reflected symbolism. She is able to interpret the characters actions in a way
that can relate to all humans. Each word and phrase seems to be chosen so that
it reflects a part of the subconscious in the characters. Edith Wharton’s

Ethan Frome is a psychological examination of the human mind, based on her use
of setting to reflect emotion, characterization to show human tendencies towards
chaos and other psychological aspects of the human mind. In Ethan Frome, Wharton
uses the setting to show the feelings and psychology of the characters. Because
the tone of the novel is somber and the characters suffer greatly, Wharton used
the gothic technique of matching the scenery to the characters emotions. The
principal setting of the novel is Starkfield, which is a small farming based
community. The houses are mostly several miles from the "center" of town.

Richard Worth, a literary critic, says of Starkville, "...even the name
suggests utter desolation" (64). The name of the town gives the initial
impression of the mindset of the characters: hopelessness. "The New England
winter... the physical landscape can reinforce psychic tensions oppressing the
people in the community" (McDowell 85). The narrator, Harmon Gow, describes
the setting and says, "...the winter set down on Starkfield, and the village
lay under a sheet of snow, perpetually renewed from the pale skies"(7). During
the entirety of the novel, the Starkfield weather is brutally cold and snowy.

Because winter and coldness are some of the predominant images n the book, it
was first published under the title L’Hiver, which means winter in French. The
snow and cold restate the cruelty of the characters’ situations. The setting,
using the bleakness of winter, "...provides a complicated time scheme through
which the author could dramatically contrast the bleak existence of her
characters in the present with their youthful expectations in the past."
(McDowell 74). The winter scenery provides testament to things gone wrong,
almost a romantic styled sympathy of nature. The color scheme used to describe
the setting mirrored the desolation of the character’s feelings. "The black
shade of the varnum spruces becomes gray under the stars" (Wharton 34). The
gray of the backdrop symbolized the disturbance between what was right and what
was best for Ethan. . "There is no sharp line between the normal and abnormal
psyche, nor between the real and supernatural. In the vast remote area, covered
by snow, the sharp line between psychic dislocation and spirit world
dissolves" (McDowell 85). The absence of a "sharp line" was shown with the
used of an intermediate gray tone, which was seen recurring thorough out the
novel. There was no right or wrong in his case, hence the blend of the two
colors, black and white, into gray. Wharton even used actual physical objects to
represent characters from the novel, such as "blighted apple trees" which
have bent from the weight of snow. Ethan is symbolically the apple tree because
of his physical deformities as well as the mental burdens he has faced during
his life. Ethan talks in the novel about removing the L shaped projection from
off of his house. "I had to take down the L a while back" (Wharton 22). The
action of Ethan removing part of his house parallels his feelings of loss for
his family and Mattie. It shows his misery. Because of her excellent use of
imagery and description of the setting, Edith Wharton is able to incorporate the
psychological elements of the characters onto the backdrop of the action of the
novel. One of the predominant motifs of Ethan Frome is the feeling of isolation.

Again this is a theme that is reflected by the setting, but it is also seen in
the characters actions as well. "The setting also captures the pervasive
isolation of the citizens of Starkfield" (Springer 80). Starkfield it’s self
is a means of external isolations, as it is a small town village that receives
little to no news of the outside world. With in Starkfield, the