So I have this passage from Ethan Frome:
He took his seat on the sled and Mattie instantly placed herself in front of him. Her hat had fallen into the snow and his lips were ...
My essay is below. Let me know what you think, and please be honest!
Edith Wharton's classic American novel Ethan Frome is about what society considers right versus our own personal desires. Society, at the time, would have dictated that Ethan Frome should stay with his ill wife, Zeena instead of going away with his true love, his wife's cousin, Mattie. Sadly both society and his wife keep the two apart. This passage, where Ethan and Mattie attempt to kill themselves so they can be together, is the perfect symbol of giving into human desire. Society would view suicide, especially with another woman, to be entirely inappropriate. Ethan and Mattie do not feel wrong or guilty about it - they know in their heart of hearts what is right, for them.
The first striking piece from this passage is Mattie's vehemence that Ethan explain why he wants her to get up and sit in the back. Their relationship is almost never spoken of, and is more based on actions than words. In this instance Mattie just wants to hear Ethan say he wants her to hold him. By forcing him to say it, it gives their relationship a spoken substance that it lacked before (Wharton 97). Even when they spoke of running away together, the conversation was based entirely on how they would do it rather than on why they were doing it. Only after Ethan verbalizes it is Mattie satisfied. This minute recognition gives the relationship substance that allows them to attempt suicide together.
Giving up the reins is very symbolic in this piece as well. In his life, Ethan has given up much of his control, especially to women, whether it's to his mother or to Zeena. And because of this lack of control, his life isn't taking the "path" he wants it to take. He ends up in a loveless marriage, continuously taking care of a sick woman, and being denied the person he actually loves. Similarly in this case, he gives up control of the sled to Mattie, they swerve off of the path, and once again things do not go the way he envisioned them to go. This idea of relinquishing control to a woman is also highly significant for the time period in which Ethan Frome was written. Edith Wharton came from affluence, giving her more control over her own life than the majority of women in the late 1800s ("Edith Wharton"). Writing a book where women control much of the male protagonist's life was a new concept, showcasing that women could have all the power and failings of power than men have.
On their way down the mountain, as they approach the elm, Ethan gets the feeling of flying "with Starkfield immeasurably below them, falling away like a speck in space." Throughout the book Starkfield, is a symbol of being trapped for Ethan. Whether it's being trapped by Zeena, or by the gossiping townsfolk, or even the snow trapping them from the outside world, Starkfield has trapped Ethan. So this feeling of flying and leaving the town behind is also a projection of Ethan's own desires. He wants to leave behind the small town, and forget all about it and his life there and just be with Mattie. In this one moment before the sled swerves, he has the feeling that his deepest wish is being fulfilled. That's why after that moment he becomes even more determined to "fetch it," because he wants his life to end on that blissful note.
During the actual suicide attempt however, when the sled swerves off of the path, Zeena's face pops into Ethan's head. In many ways, this small instance is a mirror for the overall path of Ethan and Mattie's relationship. Zeena consistently interferes with the notion that Ethan and Mattie are "meant to be". Ethan's marriage to Zeena, and later Zeena's insistence that Zeena be sent away have all prevented Ethan and Mattie from being together. Only by making this one decision to die together can they get out from under Zeena's thumb and set their relationship on the path they should have been on all along.
The suicide attempt also has connotations similar to marriage, in a trial by fire sort of way. The quote "and her blood seemed to be in his veins" conjures images of two becoming one. In a way, the act of suicide itself joins the two as much as any marriage. Earlier in this passage it says, "She was right: this was better than parting." That quote shows that Ethan would rather be dead with Mattie than alive without her. Because Ethan and Mattie are making the choice to be together in any way possible, even if that means being together in death, it is like they are vowing to be together forever. It also shows why Ethan's feelings toward Mattie are much more meaningful than his feelings towards Zeena. He married Zeena because he wanted companionship and the only way to get Zeena to stay after his mother died was to ask for her hand in marriage. It's a marriage of ease rather than of love. But he truly loves Mattie; he takes the road that will let them be together, even if it's not easy.
Another vast difference between Zeena and Mattie is the way that Ethan instinctively acts towards them. When Zeena's face pops into Ethan's mind, "he made an instinctive movement to brush it aside." Yet when Mattie is hurt, the instant Ethan touches her he realizes what has happened and instinctively goes to comfort her, even though he himself is in pain. This juxtaposition between his wife and Mattie reinforces the idea that the suicide attempt is the true indicator of who Ethan loves.
The aftermath of the crash is also interesting because of Ethan's reaction to it. At first it seems like even he doesn't understand what happened. He truly believed that he and Mattie fetched it. This is shown in that when Ethan hears a cry of pain, he doesn't identify it as his own or even as Mattie's, but associates it with a small field mouse. That disconnect represents the disconnect in Ethan's own life. What is happening and what he wants to be happening are very different things. In this instance he wants and believes that they've fetched it, but in reality they've simply crashed.
Another notable part of the aftermath of the crash is how it indicates where Ethan's priorities lie in his life. When they are lying there and Ethan becomes aware of what has happened Ethan's first priority is Mattie. Even though he is in pain, he checks on her because he knows that she is in worse shape than he is. But his reaction immediately after that occurs when he hears the sorrel whiny. Ethan thinks, "I ought to be getting him his feed..." This shows that even though he just tried to kill himself, a fairly serious life decision, he is still not free from life's responsibilities. In today's society when someone tries to commit suicide and fails, we give them counseling and time before pushing them back into the real world because we don't want them to keep feeling that desperate. Sadly in this novel's time period, Ethan doesn't get that reprieve. Not only does this speak to the time period, but it also speaks to Ethan's future state of mind. His life not only continues as it was before, but it's actually worse. Essentially his reaction can predict that through the rest of his life, he will still feel that oppressiveness.
The decisions and actions throughout this passage illuminate where Ethan and Mattie's true emotions for each other, even if they are not able to articulate them to each other or the world. By deciding to go against societal stigmas, the pair send a message about choices. They wanted each other badly enough that they were willing to die together even though it was the difficult decision - it was their choice.