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Date QW Written: December 9, 2015
At the beginning of Ethan Frome, no reader is expected to like the old Ethan Frome with a “grave mien” and “taciturnity.” This dislike of Ethan Frome, one born, will not disappear until the end of the novel, when the reader truly understands the events of his life that have created the Ethan in both the prologue and epilogue.
As much as we would like to believe we are not all Ethan Frome, Ethan actually represents all that we should be, but at extremes. We should be morally righteous; Ethan is too much so. We should be dutiful to our loved ones; Ethan is too much so. We should be passionate about the affairs of he heart; Ethan is too much so. When these aspects are taken moderately, life can be exquisite. Yet, when large amounts of these aspects are piled into Ethan’s character, we only find them to fault — almost even. When he constantly fails to stand up to Zeena and leave her his note the day Mattie leaves, Ethan is only being dutiful and we chide him for choosing duty over love when we may not do any better in his situation.
Ethan’s appeal to the reader is similar to his struggles against the circumstances of his life — he is fighting a losing battle. However, Wharton wants us to see him that way. By making an initially unlikeable character, Wharton makes the reader struggle when we empathize or sympathize his situation. We want to be sorry for Ethan but our desire to blame his character is much too strong. In a sense, Ethan’s character cannot be flawed because he embodies many of the characteristics we should have. However, because all that we want to be is contradictory and overwhelming, we see the results in cold and quiet Ethan Frome.
Ethan Frome is simply the average man done in by his circumstances and we as readers fear that — so we reject Ethan for who he is to put space between him and us. This is impossible when we realize that Ethan’s character is only the result of circumstances just as we are of our own.