Br. Robert K. Peach, F.S.C.
ENG 320 Sections 2 and 4
15 March 2007
Critical Thinking and Vocabulary, re: Ethan Frome
Preface (pp. 1-10)
- What is nature’s role in the life of characters in the story based off of the narrator’s description of the town? What is the town’s name? Pick it apart. Why is this name appropriate considering the narrator’s description?
- Consider the narrator’s role in telling the story. Why do you think Wharton chose to have an out-of-towner tell the story of Ethan instead of a townsperson? How did the narrator craft the story? Based off of Wharton’s introduction, why is this technique of gathering information significant to the story’s unfolding? (cf. second full paragraph, xiii).
- What does the narrator call his account of Ethan’s story? What quality does this give to the events that unfold in the plot of the novel?
- Light and dark. Obscurity and clarity. How is it that these ironic contrasts are revealed in the chapter using character and setting?
- Notice the water imagery that Wharton uses to open the chapter. First of all, what words does she—through the narrator’s voice—use to enhance our sense of this imagery? What effect does this have on the reader’s sense of setting, plot, and character?
- Another ironic contrast or parallel: Mattie vs. Zeena. Elaborate.
- Summarize Mattie’s situation. Summarize Zeena’s situation. Where is Ethan caught in all of this? With whom does Ethan find favor? Who do you favor? Should we feel any sympathy for Zeena?
- Consider the kitchen. Consider the house in Zeena’s absence. Consider the presence of
Mattie. Describe the sense—based on the narrator’s imagery and descriptions—that we get in each context.
- Why did Ethan decide to marry Zeena? What is the thematic significance behind his reasoning?
- See the epitaph inscription on page 33; What literary technique do you think Wharton is using by placing it in the middle of the story? Explain (keeping in mind the novel’s outcome if you have read that far).
- What do you think the broken china is representative of (as it is one of the strongest metaphorical images in the novel).
- There are instances in the novel where Ethan’s life takes on the quality of an illusion. Find examples in this chapter where we see this happening.
- How about desire and human longing? There seems to be a tense interplay of suppressed emotion and incommunicable feelings that pass between characters. Cite an example of such tension from this chapter.
- Notice the emphasis on dark corners and obscurity in this chapter and others. What is the dramatic function of such imagery? In other words, what purpose does it serve in terms of theme, setting, and reader response?
- There is one paragraph in this chapter that stands out as a definite foreshadow of what is to come at the novel’s climax. See if you can find it and explain why it is a definite portent of things to come.
- “Ethan’s heart was jerking to and fro between two extremities of feeling, but for the moment compassion prevailed” (46-47). What are those feelings? Explain why Ethan feels the way he does.
- Do you think Zeena knows about or senses a love or romance between Ethan and Mattie? Explain, citing the text.
- What central image returns at the end of the chapter? What’s going on in this chapter (plotwise) that enhances the metaphorical significance of the image?
- How does the theme of imprisonment play into the imagery of this chapter?
- What had Ethan planned to do on this night with Mattie? Explain the irony here (see paragraph five on page 57).
- Mattie takes on an organic quality. That is, she seems to be—like Eve in the Book of Genesis—a child of the earth. Find an example or image in this chapter whereby we see Mattie as being “of the earth.”
- What does Ethan step away from doing? Why?
- Again we revisit the organic quality of Mattie Silver. Find a passage with imagery that indicates this aspect of the lovely Mattie.
- What effect does Ethan’s passion have on him?
- Find aspects in imagery that contribute to the theme of surreality (i.e. fantasy, or unreality). Be sure to indicate the passage and page number.
- What effect does setting—which is to say, nature—have on character action and the overall mood of the chapter? Name instances wherein we see nature almost controlling the course of direction taken by either Ethan or Mattie.
- Darkness. What role does darkness and shadow play in Ethan and Mattie’s relationship? Why is it appropriate that Shadow Pond would be the name of the place where Mattie first fantasized about running away with Ethan?
- Refer to the paragraph beginning, “He laughed contemptuously…” (69). Notice the description of twilight as the most visually obscure part of day. How does this imagery parallel with what’s going on between Ethan and Mattie? How does it serve as a foreshadow of what’s to come?
- Notice the use of the word, “transparent” on page 79, in the paragraph beginning with, “Her somber violence…” How does this idea of transparency contrast with the theme of obscurity that runs through the novel? Why is there a sudden interposition of this theme towards the story’s climax? (keep in mind what’s happening between Ethan and Mattie).
- Why do Mattie and Ethan decide to do what they do on the second ride down the hill?
- Lastly, consider the grotesque imagery used to describe the consequences of the suicidal sleigh-ride. What literary technique is Wharton exercising, re: the noises Mattie makes in her pain? What dramatic function does this imagery serve?
Epilogue (pp. 74-76)
- What are the tragic transformations that characters undergo at the story’s end? How are they ironic?
- Speaking of transformations; what of the kitchen? How is it before Mattie’s injury? How is it after Mattie’s transfiguration? What other room takes on a tragic/ironic transformation following the accident? Why is it significant?
- What does Mrs. Hale conclude about life regarding Ethan and Mattie?
- Lastly, what is your opinion regarding the moral integrity of the central characters, namely Ethan, Mattie, and Zeena? Can we sympathize with any of them? (Consider what the narrator says at the story’s end in answering your question: “My heart tightened at the hard compulsions [irrational decisions] of the poor...” (76).
Vocabulary (in order of appearance): Please define twenty of the following words, selecting them from the various—not just one—columns.