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A STEP BEYOND
TESTS AND ANSWERS
_____ 1. The narrator fails to learn the whole story of Ethan Frome from the people in Starkfield because
B. they are embarrassed by Ethan's behavior
C. they don't know the whole story
B. is a sloppy housekeeper
C. keeps Ethan from caring for the farm and mill
B. went to college
C. deals shrewdly with Mr. Hale
II. his love for Mattie
III. his poverty
B. I and III only
C. I, II, and III
B. he can't afford it
C. his conscience tells him it would be wrong
B. he lives alone
C. his mother is too sickly to speak
II. the missing "L" of Ethan's farmhouse
III. Ethan's boots in the hallway
B. I and III only
C. I, II, and III
B. helps Ethan to make peace with Zeena
C. startles Ethan because he never expected it
B. drives Mattie to the train
C. refuses to pay Zeena's doctor bills
B. is grateful for her help
C. feels sorry for her
11. How does money- or its absence- influence the life of Ethan Frome?
12. What role does the winter season play in the novel?
13. To what extent is Ethan responsible for his own fate?
14. Which character in the novel suffers the most?
15. Discuss the notion of reality vs. illusion in the novel.
_____ 1. Ethan leads a sad life and comes to an unhappy end largely due to
B. his pessimism
C. his unwillingness to take risks
B. weak, timid, and sickly
C. planning to stay only a short time
B. can't think of anything better to say
C. is showing his jealousy of Denis Eady
B. he has never told her
C. he is married
B. collecting money from Mr. Hale
C. where he goes each night with Mattie
II. life for Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie is no better than death
III. they add to the mood of the story
B. II and III only
C. I, II, and III
B. being rid of Zeena for a short time
C. the dinner she prepared
II. to prove to him that she was very sick
III. to lay a trap for Mattie and him
B. I and III only
C. I, II, and III
B. makes Ethan envious of their happiness
C. embarrasses Ethan
B. he marries Zeena
C. he can't find a buyer for his farm
11. How does sickness influence the life of Ethan Frome?
12. How does the setting help to develop the novel's themes?
13. What if the story had been told by Zeena instead of Ethan? Comment on how it might be different.
14. Is Ethan "smart," as Harmon Gow says?
15. Discuss death as a motif in the novel.
11. Considering how often money is mentioned in the novel, it must be important in the life of the main character. But usually it's a lack of money that affects Ethan.
Before Ethan's father died, the old man, in his delirium, gave away much of the family wealth. Therefore, Ethan starts out with little money. And when he marries Zeena, he remains poor because Zeena spends the little he earns on doctors and patent medicines.
Mattie enters Ethan's life because her father bilked money from his wife's relatives. When he died, his debts could not be paid. Cast out of her family, Mattie came penniless to Starkfield.
It's the absence of money, too, that prevents Ethan from escaping to the West with Mattie. On his way to ask Andrew Hale to pay for a load of lumber, Ethan meets Mrs. Hale. Her kindly manner causes Ethan to change his mind.
The final blow-up between Ethan and Zeena occurs over money. Zeena has hired a new girl to replace Mattie. Because Ethan can't afford both to pay the new girl and to feed Mattie, Mattie must go.
Clearly there's plenty of evidence in the book to prove that lack of money helps to determine Ethan's lot in life. Although Ethan needs help, he's too proud to ask for it. Hale doesn't pay his debt because he doesn't know how poverty-stricken Ethan is, and Ethan won't tell.
12. Ethan claims that he would not have married Zeena had his mother died in the spring or summer. Why?
Do you remember that Ethan feared being left alone on the farm in the dead of winter? Zeena remained his only hope of avoiding utter loneliness. Other events in the novel hinge on the fact that it is winter; for example, Ethan and Mattie's fateful sled ride and the snowstorm that trapped the narrator in Ethan's house. Review the story for other examples.
Setting the book in the wintertime also allows the author to create a certain mood. Winter is the lifeless season. In winter, people- especially country people- are often isolated inside their houses. The land is silent under a blanket of snow. Wharton could not have emphasized such themes as isolation and silence in her novel without the aid of the winter season.
Look at a winter landscape. What colors predominate? Look through the book for white, gray, and black imagery. You should find an abundance of these colors.
13. This question invites three different responses: Ethan is totally responsible; he is not at all responsible; and he is partly responsible.
To use the first approach, think of all of Ethan's decisions. As a mature person he should be held responsible for marrying Zeena, for allowing her to dominate him, for allowing himself to fall in love with Mattie, and so forth. Since Ethan had the choice to do or not to do each of these, he must take the responsibility for his actions.
On the other hand you can think of Ethan as a victim of circumstances. After all, it wasn't his fault that Zeena turned out to be sickly. Also, can a man really prevent himself from falling in love? Moreover, Ethan didn't want to be poor; it just turned out that way. As for his personal qualities, can a man be blamed for being inarticulate or insecure, or being any other way?
To take the middle road, simply hold Ethan accountable for creating some of his problems, and let him off the hook for others.
14. This is a difficult question because you can make a case for any of the three main characters as the chief sufferer.
If you choose Ethan, emphasize how he suffers from loneliness and isolation. Show how he feels trapped- by Zeena, his poverty, his farm, and his personality. Being unable to speak the words on his mind gives him intense pain. His hopes for a better life are repeatedly destroyed. He suffers the anguish of loving a woman who, as far as he knows, does not return his love. And in the end, he lives out his years tormented by two women who constantly fight with each other.
Zeena suffers, too, although you're not likely to sympathize with her. Whether her illnesses are authentic or imagined, they are real enough to make her an invalid. To spend so much of one's life consulting doctors and taking medicine- all to no avail- takes its toll in suffering. In addition, no one can enjoy being trapped inside a repulsive body like Zeena's. Finally, she has a husband who would be unfaithful if he had the opportunity, and she spends two dozen years taking care of the woman who should be her enemy.
Mattie, too, has had a grim life, although she covers her suffering with smiles and a cheerful disposition- until the smash-up, at any rate. After that she is paralyzed from the neck down, totally dependent on others. Her suffering ages her long before her time. Of the three characters she certainly endures the most physical pain.
Read through the Themes section of this study guide for a discussion of reality and illusion. It provides examples of how Ethan is beset by dreams that never come true.
Beyond that you might consider the "reality" of the story. Could such a story really take place? Are the characters real or are they stereotypes? Or perhaps composites made up of different types?
Ask yourself these questions: Why does Ethan remain with Zeena? Why does Zeena come to the rescue in the end? Would two real people in Ethan and Mattie's circumstances agree to kill themselves? Would a man change his life plans after receiving an offhand compliment from the wife of a business acquaintance? Is life really as somber as Wharton presents it in her novel?
Remember, finally, that the story is told years after it happened. Did it happen the way the narrator tells it? Or is it safe to assume that the passage of years has distorted the story beyond recognition?
11. The more broadly you interpret the word "sickness," the richer your answer will be. Obviously you can find many examples of physical sickness that touch Ethan's life. Zeena's illness traps Ethan on the farm, depletes his resources, and enables him to spend an evening alone with Mattie. Ethan would never have known Mattie at all if illnesses had not taken her parents' lives. At the same time he and Zeena became acquainted as a result of old Mrs. Frome's fatal ailments.
If you consider injury as a kind of sickness, you might also mention that Ethan abandoned his plan to become a scientist when his father lost his health from a kick in the head by a horse. Finally, the injury which Mattie suffered in the smash-up changes Ethan's life forever. Just a list of sicknesses and injuries won't answer this question fully, however. What's the point of citing these examples? They prove that Ethan has been a victim of other people's maladies all his life. (See "The Tyranny of Sickness" in the Themes section of this study guide for a fuller discussion.) But they also create a mood in the novel. The characters are not only physically sick, they are also sick at heart. Their lives lack meaning; they suffer from dead souls. Although Ethan remains intact physically, he might as well be dead.
12. Before you answer, read the Themes section of this study guide. You'll find several references to Starkfield, especially Starkfield in the dead of winter.
Who would live in an isolated village but isolated people? The setting, therefore, contributes to each character's loneliness. For example, Ethan is out of touch not only with Zeena, but with his whole community as well.
Most of the novel takes place in the wintertime, the season of death. You see reminders of lifelessness in the barren land, the dormant trees, the town buried under snow. Ethan walks past his family graveyard going to and from work every day, keeping him ever mindful of his fate.
The snowbound countryside helps to develop the theme of silence. If you've ever been in a snow-covered, windless place far from civilization, you know the eerie sound of silence. In the novel the absence of sound extends into the lives of the characters. Ethan and Zeena rarely speak, and Ethan is tongue-tied much of the time. Moreover, for a long time he took care of his sick mother, who spent her last years almost mute.
Ethan and Zeena's story would be unlikely today. Many modern couples, as unhappy as Ethan and Zeena were, would probably split up. When Ethan and Zeena married, however, most couples remained united until they died. The theme of loyalty to one's marriage vows may now seem out-of-date, but not in a novel set in the years around 1900.
13. You can have some fun with this question. Would Zeena come down on Ethan as hard as he came down on her? Or would she be gentler? What would Zeena say about Mattie? Did she know about the relationship between Ethan and Mattie? Was Zeena as sick as she claimed? Would she present herself as a sympathetic figure? An abused wife? A good-hearted soul trying to save her marriage from the home-wrecker, Mattie?
You might also comment on specific scenes in the novel. For example, what did Zeena think when Mattie and Ethan came knocking on the kitchen door? What were her thoughts when she discovered the broken pickle-dish? Most fascinating of all, how did she come to terms with Mattie and Ethan's suicidal sled-ride? Why hadn't they gone directly to the train station?
On the night of the smash-up Zeena summons enough strength to abandon her sickbed forever. How she does so is never explained. How do you think she might explain it?
Changing the point of view in the novel opens up innumerable variations and possibilities. Let your imagination soar.
14. Because "smart" to Harmon may differ from "smart" to you, define the term. Since Harmon is an unlettered fellow, he looks up to Ethan for having gone to college and for being "aware of the huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things." That is, to Harmon, Ethan is practically an intellectual, a label that you may accept or reject.
If you take the term "smart" to mean knowledgeable, Ethan is smart in science, in farming, and in sawmill operations. He also knows how to care for horses. You can probably assume that he's well informed about other matters, too, but you won't find evidence in the book.
Factual information aside, is there anything that Ethan should know, but doesn't? Most likely, yes, because he would not have such a difficult time in life if he knew, for example, how to manage Zeena. Nor can he deal with other people very handily. You can probably think of many other instances when Ethan gets into trouble, bungles a job, or makes an error that a "smarter" person might have avoided.
By no means is Ethan dull; however, living where and as he does, he has few opportunities to show his intelligence. On the other hand you might think that living where and as he does testifies to a weakness of character.
15. This topic is rich with possibilities. You might think first of how death shapes events in the story. The parents of both Ethan and Mattie die. Review the plot to see how these deaths eventually bring Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie together.
The story is crowded with reminders of death, including the Frome family gravestones with their morbid messages. The winter drains the life out of plants, buries the houses in snow, and so on. (See the Themes section of this guide for more examples.)
As important as the deaths of people and plants are the symbolic deaths suffered by the characters. Zeena, at least, cannot be said to live a life fit for humans. Every day Ethan seems to die a thousand times as he battles with insecurity, embarrassment, and a tongue that fails him.
Finally, Mattie and Ethan try to kill themselves. Because they fail, they are doomed to a living death.
TERM PAPER IDEAS AND OTHER TOPICS FOR WRITING
GLOSSARY OF PEOPLE AND PLACES
© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.