Ethan Frome: Miserable at Best

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Ethan Frome: Miserable at Best

45.8%. It’s a little bit less than one half, and it doesn’t seem like that big of a number until you consider the fact that this is the percentage of new marriages that end in divorce in the United States as of October 2009 (  It is a number that is significantly larger than it was in the 1800s, when Ethan Frome is set.  During that time period, the institute of marriage was considered a lot more binding, and divorce was rare.  Ethan often thinks of ending his marriage to Zeena, and expresses desires to do so, but, as we read, we can tell all along that this will not happen.  In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, there is much foreshadowing used to suggest that while Ethan and Zeena’s marriage is miserable, it will continue for many years.

One piece of foreshadowing that is used to suggest this fact is the argument that Ethan and Zeena have over the hired girl.  The two are arguing, and when they stop, “Ethan was seized with horror of the scene and shame at his own share in it” (Wharton 83).  This shows that, while Ethan may stand up to Zeena in the heat of the moment, once he starts to think about it, he calms down and even feels shameful.  No matter the decisions he might make spontaneously, he will inevitable end up being called back and brought to his sense by his own sense of duty and marriage. 

Perhaps a better example of this foreshadowing is the broken pickle dish.  It was given to Ethan and Zeena as a wedding gift, and it is, in fact, a symbol for their marriage.  When a combination of Mattie, Ethan, and the cat manage to break the dish, Ethan “…laid the pieces together with such accuracy of touch that a close inspection convinced him of the impossibility of detecting form below that the dish was broken” (Wharton 64).  The dish (their marriage) is broken, but instead of throwing it out, Ethan puts it back together without really fixing it, and returns it to the shelf.  There’s not anything but appearance holding it together, and it is a sad thing, but together it is, suggesting that no matter the pain and brokenness involved in Ethan and Zeena’s marriage, it will (somewhat depressingly) remain intact.

A third – and perhaps the strongest – piece of foreshadowing that Ethan and Zeena’s sad marriage will continue is the tombstone in the Frome graveyard.  It reads, “Sacred to the memory of / Ethan Frome and Endurance his wife / Who dwelled together in peace / For fifty years” (Wharton 59).  The epitaph refers to a previous Ethan Frome, but the significance to Zeena’s husband Ethan is clear.  Though the marriage may appear peaceful from the outside (like the pickle dish), the use of the name/word ‘Endurance’ gives it a negative connotation, suggesting that while Ethan and Zeena’s marriage is something to be endured and struggled through, rather than enjoyed, it will continue until their deaths many years in the future, when he and Zeena will have a similar tombstone. 

Edith Wharton makes great use of foreshadowing in her novel, and through her descriptions of Ethan’s argument with Zeena, the broken pickle dish, and the tombstone, the reader can see that no matter what Ethan does, all attempts at ending his marriage to Zeena will fail.  The two of them are destined to remain married for many more miserable years. 


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