It is in a late 1911 issue of the New York Times that critics call Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome a "compelling and haunting story." The novel relates the tragic tale of a tall, gaunt farmer, who in a desperate attempt to free himself from his farm's acres of barren land and from his pinioning and slattern wife, rides his sled with the unobtainable love of his life into an imposing tree to provoke a liberating death - in vain. The causes and motives of this tragic incident follow an unobtrusive pattern in which the novel's protagonist shows as much control over his situation as a mere marionette in a puppet show. In Ethan Frome, the apparent fate and destiny, and manipulation and oppression, act as Ethan's puppeteers, animating him with simple strings in the hands of Wharton.
The seventh edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary describes the word puppeteer as "an entertainer manipulating inanimate objects to create the illusion of life." In her novel, Wharton creates the illusion that Ethan has the ability to change his life and live it to the fullest by eloping with Mattie, his lover and wife's relative, as he has always wished. However, these strings of hope and possibility enlivening the story's puppet and protagonist allow the curtains of fate and destiny to gradually close in on the stage, leaving Ethan alone in the dark. "'We never got away - how should you?' seemed to be written on every headstone" (Wharton 44). It appears to Ethan that the gravestone bearing his name holds for him the same fate as his ancestors'; a fate that would unequivocally keep the protagonist bound to his current and insipid life. In her novel, however, Wharton predetermines Ethan's fate and guides him throughout a path in which she has left pebbles for him to follow, just as Tom Thumb leads his siblings back to their house thanks to the stones and rocks he has left on the way in Charles Perrault's narrative. In Ethan Frome, on the other hand, the "pebbles" scattered throughout the book symbolize the various events that the author makes happen, which Ethan follows thinking he is acting by choice. In truth, Wharton does not leave him any alternative. She has him follow a reverse Ariadne's String to lead him into an inescapable labyrinth. Even though fate and destiny harshly contribute to Ethan's "decadence" throughout the novel, love too, plays a major role in controlling Ethan and his actions.
In addition to Wharton's trump cards of fate and destiny, the mesmerizing and enthralling voice of love impels Ethan to shallowly react at the sound of it, manipulating him in the cruelest ways. In Ethan Frome, the immensely immature love Ethan bears for his wife's relative has such a paralyzing effect on Ethan's simple soul that it is left controlling his everyday practices, as for when Ethan "[shaves] every morning" (Wharton 34) for "obvious" reasons. In the end, the reader understands with surprise that this manipulating love will drive him "right into the big elm" (Wharton 143). When Mattie whispers the words "so't we'd never have to leave each other anymore" (Wharton 143) to her lover, their reciprocal passion and emotional inability to conceive of a life without each other allows Wharton to play with the two characters, letting the two of them fall blindfolded into love's unavoidable hole of doom. Common Italian aphorisms say that love is like electricity; one does not need to know how it works to get a shock on the fingers. Sometimes, such as in Ethan's case, the "shock on the fingers" can be just a little more painful and life-wrecking. On the other hand, another contributing factor to the demise of Ethan's emotional life is the fact that since the beginning, the protagonist has been tormented and oppressed by his morals and his wife's manipulative character.
In addition to be controlled and enthralled by fate and love, Ethan's morals and his oppressive wife often brutally cut his wings, impeding him from flying away from his miserable life. At multiple times throughout the novel, Ethan has tried to overcome his values and morals to unjustly elope with Mattie, leaving his wife Zeena alone on her deathbed. Each time, however, his morals and the picture of abandoning Zeena win over him, giving Ethan and Mattie one single, direful exit. Similarly, the mythological figure of Icarus, in an attempt to fly away with the mechanical wings built by his father from the island of Crete where he has been imprisoned, flies just too high to find his wings smeared by the sun's flames, inches away from freedom. In the end, Icarus falls in the ocean and dies, his freedom being something he cannot obtain no matter how much he covets it. In a way, Ethan's sled ride relates to Icarus' flight, for they both represent doors to freedom, but that would ultimately lead to their demise. Even when Ethan is about to take his life to free himself from his cheerless world, "his wife's face, with twisted monstrous lineaments, [thrusts] itself between him and his goal" (Wharton 147). This sudden sight evinces Ethan's powerlessness to overcome his humane values. The simple fact that this vision occurs to the protagonist moments before the most fateful event of his life makes the reader realize Ethan cannot escape. He is bound to Starkfield, his wife and farm; he is bound to his unalterable fate and destiny. He is a prisoner to his own life.
In her novel, Wharton is the puppeteer to the story's protagonist, enlivening him with hope and the fallacy of possibilities, while actually creating the illusion of life. By playing with fate and its adamancy to change, love and its manipulation, along with the oppressiveness of his morals, Wharton weaves together the illusion of life's freedoms. Wharton has drawn a trail of fate and destiny throughout the book which Ethan follows. He never questions his choices and acts almost without thinking; he does not act out of his own freewill but he merely collects the pebbles the author has left for him. This makes him a dead-in-life and inanimate marionette, as if Ethan was just an adult-sized Pinocchio.
- Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Signet Classic, 2000.