In her novel Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton implies how patriarchy makes women’s lives harder by portraying Ethan Frome, the main male character, as feminine and submissive.
As seen from the start of the novel, Ethan Frome is no special man. He is forced to stay back in his small hometown to take care of his family and became nothing more than a mere farmer struggling to survive. Therefore, it can be assumed that Ethan Frome is just an average man with a few unfortunate events in his life. Despite Ethan being a man, he is still portrayed as inferior to the women in his life. For instance, Zeena, his wife, is able to control Ethan and make him do what she wants. This can be seen through the fact that Zeena makes Ethan pay for her expensive treatments, even though there is a lack of evidence to support the existence of Zeena’s sickness. On top of that, after the couple hit a few bumps in leaving their small town, Zeena manages to convince Ethan of abandoning his dream of being an engineer and his desire to move into the city with relative ease. Later in the novel, when Ethan wants to keep Mattie, Zeena’s cousin, as their maid, Zeena flat out refuses without any consideration. A real man, according to patriarchy, would have held his ground and had his way. To sum it up, Zeena makes the decisions in the relationship and often whines and complains until Ethan listens. These instances of when Ethan complies to Zeena’s demands go directly against the standards of a patriarchal society. Instead of being the most vocal and dominant in the couple, Ethan is more submissive and acts as a subordinate to Zeena. Therefore, Ethan acts more like a wife than a husband.
Meanwhile, Ethan is much more masculine with Mattie, but his actions would still be considered feminine and submissive in the 1900s. When they are together Ethan is definitely more in control, thus fulfilling the ideals of masculinity, but he still waits for Mattie’s consent. This meant that Ethan didn’t force a kiss on Mattie, rather he waited to see if she would accept it, and when she didn’t, he backed off. While this may be considered a good trait for a man to have in this day and age, in the 1900s it was not. A man who didn’t wait for consent and could get what he wanted was considered more masculine. As a result of this mindset, when Ethan waits for Mattie to take the first step in their relationship, he appears ladylike and not a take-charge kind of man. This lack of leadership can be seen once again when Ethan is dropping off Mattie to the train station. On the way there, they both lose control of their emotions because of their passionate love for each other and fear of being split apart. This hysteria led to Mattie suggesting that the two end their lives, and once again Ethan agrees without much hesitation. His temporary masculinity thus disappears and he shows his true colors: lack of leadership and a tendency to agree with others. If these qualities existed only when Ethan was in the presence of other men, Ethan might have still been masculine, but since Ethan lets women take charge, he is considered unmasculine.
By portraying the character of Ethan Frome as an atypical male, Edith Wharton shows just how absurd the demands of a patriarchal society are on women. Ethan was shown as someone who was unable to make decisions and listened to others with little to no retaliation. Furthermore, some of these decisions were forced upon him, like when he was obligated to stay in his hometown to take care of his sickly mother. Ultimately, these traits led to Ethan having a difficult life with a lack of fulfillment. Wharton wanted to show to the audience, specifically the male audience, that this lifestyle was common for women, and that they had to listen to decisions which were made for them and how women could show no retaliation. She also specifically showed this through a male character because otherwise the character would be seen as normal and cast aside. In the end, it can be seen that Wharton wants the audience to know that women have relatively difficult lives because of the demands of patriarchy, similar to how Ethan had a difficult life because of the demands of Zeena.
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