Good Example OF The American Spirit OF Ethan Frome Essay
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Through the history of human civilisation, the primary role of storytelling was in connecting an author with a target audience. In other words, each story has its purpose and a message to send to the audience. In the contemporary world, authors aim to reflect upon a certain problem which is closer to them and which they want other to pay attention to. Each author also outlines his/ hers cultural context and specifics of a national spirit. Works by Edith Wharton are not an exception. The aim of this essay is to analyse Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome in terms of the American spirit of the main hero. In this regard, the degree to which the American spirit is present and fulfilled in the main character is analysed.
When one is asked about one’s perception of the American Spirit, the answer will be the strength of one’s will, sense of justice, freedom and ability to take responsibility for one’s actions. Also, possessing the American spirit would mean following one’s heart and achieving success through one’s hard work and ability to overcome all obstacles on the way to one’s success. In this regard, the character of Ethan Frome, who is caught in unhappy marriage with an ill, cold-hearted woman, and cannot commit to his true love with Mattie is far from the ideal of the American spirit. From the first glance, it may seem that he is a weak victim of circumstances and thus has nothing in common with the American spirit. On the other hand, this character is more complex than it seems, and he has more to tell about the American Spirit.
In the main character, Wharton demonstrates the potential an individual has and how that potential can be compromised by unfavourable circumstances and personal hesitations. In this regard, in the conversation with the narrator, the reader finds out that Ethan Frome is far from being concerned just with his daily routine. He used to be interested in how the world works and how it could be changed. He was interested in science, and he accepted the book offered by the narrator:
“Frome was so simple and straightforward that I was sure his curiosity about the
book was based on a genuine interest in its subject. Such tastes and acquirements in a
man of his condition made the contrast more poignant between his outer situation and
his inner needs”(Wharton 39).
This paragraph demonstrates the difference between inner needs of Ethan Frome and his socially-conditioned actions. He did not start as a weak and helpless individual; he did not want to stay in the same place for all of his life. On the contrary, the author writes that he planned to leave his hometown for a big city and work there (Wharton 82). Thus, Wharton demonstrates that her main character has started with strong American spirit. It drove Ethan until the social circumstances of the Puritan society and the vicious climate of the Northern states have not suppressed his spirit and made him keep it to himself. In this regard, Wharton demonstrates not the ideal of the American spirit, but its potential and how that potential can be distorted by unfavourable circumstances (Flower 504).
Wharton does not only demonstrate the degradation of the American spirit in Ethan Frome, she shows how that spirit needs fuel and favourable soil to grow strong. In this regard, the failure of Ethan Frome was that he had no support of his ideals when he was young, and his wife represents the absence of the American spirit (Flower 503). She demonstrates stagnation. Consequently, on his own Ethan had nothing else to do, but to keep his dreams to himself and follow socially-conditioned norms of behaviour. It can be argued that Zeena was killing his spirit. On the other hand, Mattie represented the youth of the American spirit and with her Ethan could revive his young dream of freedom and adventure in a big city. With her he could dream again, and his spirit could fly again. The author writes:
“Watching Mattie whirl down the floor from hand to hand he wondered how he could
ever have thought that his dull talk interested her. To him, who was never gay but in
her presence, her gaiety seemed plain proof of indifference” (Wharton 47).
This paragraph demonstrates that his spirit irrespective of his doubts was up when Ethan was with Mattie and not with his wife. In this regard, the author based her description of Ethan’s story on the contrast between two women. In this regard, Wharton uses literary devices in order to demonstrate how Mattie represents life and summer of one’s dreams; she stimulates Ethan’s American spirit and tries to revive it. On the other hand, Zeena is shown as a winter of one’s life, destruction of one’s hopes by material and social considerations and eventual death of the American spirit. In this regard, through the relationship with both women, the author demonstrates two trends within Ethan’s personality. With Mattie, he wants to live a full life, be adventurous and take charge of his life. He can be playful and joyful with her: ““Where you scared I’d run you into the elm?” he asked with a boyish laugh” (Wharton 106). On the other hand, with Zeena, he is ready to succumb to his fate and slowly die in the grave of his house, “mute and cold as a grave stone” (Wharton 54).
In order to demonstrate this contrast between two women and their symbolical meaning for Ethan’s spirit, the author creates imageries of life and death. In this regard, she often uses simile and comparisons in order to create this or the other mood of narration. She is particularly detailed in describing nature as a context for the bitterness and tragedy of one’s spiritual degradation. In this regard, she uses metaphors of the “sky of iron” and “Orion’s flashed his cold fires” to demonstrate the severity of Northern winters in which the main character had to live (Wharton 43). The cold and stillness of the surrounding environment is reflected in people that live there and are transferred to the houses they inhabit. The author uses symbolical representation of a kitchen as an attribute of the lady of the house. Just as Zeena is cold as the snow outside, so is her kitchen, “which had the deadly chill of vault after the dry cold of the night” (Wharton 56). This type of description creates not only the overall mood of the narration but also outlines the imagery of Ethan’s life with Zeena. There is nothing warm or passionate about it. Both of them follow social norms of a winter-cold society while they have no feelings for each other. In other words, they simply die together, each day in a silent stillness of their house and their relationship (Flower 505).
On the other hand, Mattie is full of light and power of life. She is compared to “the flit of a bird in the branches” and being next to her is the same as “floating on a summer stream” (Wharton 53-54). Using simile the author describes the girl’s face “like a window that has caught the sunset” or “like a wheat field under a summer breeze” (Wharton 47, 73). She reminds him of the youth and strengths of the summer. In this regard, the author creates the imagery of life in order to demonstrate that Mattie triggers the strength of the American spirit in Ethan. He wants to feel alive with her and not crawl in the darkness of the case of his house. Mattie is like a flash of summer warmth that awakens his spirit from the winter sleep. He becomes rebellious and is ready to do anything for her:
“For the life of her smile, the warmth of her voice, only cold paper and dead words!
Confused motions of rebellion stormed in him. He was too young, too strong, too full
of sap of living, to submit so easily to the destruction of his hopes. 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” (Wharton 91).
Thus, it can be argued that Ethan’s American spirit was still quite strong when he met Mattie, and she was the source of his strength. Having the same spiritual structure, she was stimulating him to think about his life and realise that his life was not over yet, and he was capable of changing it for himself and her. On the other hand, the author demonstrates that no matter how radiant Mattie’s and Ethan’s spirits were they could not overcome two obstacles: society and poverty. No matter how much Ethan loved Mattie, he could not make himself forget about his duty to his wife. Even facing death, just the duty told him, he thought about his wife and who will look after her (Flower 502). Poverty was another factor that degraded Ethan’s spirit. Not having means to support not just his wife, but the woman he loved suggested that his self-sufficiency and confidence as a man was undermined, which was another factor to stop him from making his own decisions.
Looking on the story as a whole and paying attention to its ending in particular, it can be argued that the author suggested that people can possess the American spirit from the very young age, and they can achieve a lot if they follow their dreams. On the other hand, when people have no support for their dreams and simply become victims of the surrounding social norms of puritan society, they cannot preserve their spirit untouched and they cannot fulfil their potential. In other words, the author suggests that in order for the American spirit to run free it needs to decide between socially appropriate behaviour and one’s happiness. Although the sense of duty can be part of the American spirit, it has nothing to do with making what other people want especially when they do not really care about the person but abstract social conventions. In this regard, the author writes:
“It was a long time since any one had spoken to him as kindly as Mrs. Hale. Most
people were indifferent to his trouble, or disposed to think it natural that a young
fellow of his age should have carried without repining the burden of three crippled
lives” (Wharton 97).
In this regard, the author demonstrates that in the end society has nothing to do with one’s life, if there is no one to help in trouble, then it is only up to the person to make the best decisions for him/her. Unfortunately, Ethan realised it too late and in very hard way. That day when he and Mattie failed to commit suicide and stay in death together, his life ended and his American spirit died. Thus, the main message of the author regarding the American spirit is that an individual needs to take responsibility for his/her life while he/she is still capable of that and until cold-hearted society imposes its cruel norms and prescriptions. The story of Ethan Frome teaches that the American spirit needs actions in order to live on.
Flower, D. “Another Wharton”. The Hudson Review, 60.3 (2007): 501-508. Print.
Wharton, E. Ethan Frome. London: Wordsworth Classics, 2000. Print.
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