20th century AD
The publication of R. W. B. Lewis’s biography in 1975 and the access to Edith Wharton’s letters and papers have shifted scholarly attention during the last two decades away from the function of her work as social comedy or history to its revelation of her intimate life and emotions. The first level of this investigation revealed the parental restraints, the pressures of social position, and the power of conventions as they shaped her development as a person and an author. Critics have penetrated the reticence and euphemisms of her autobiographical writing to discover how the sheltered debutante and virginal bride broke out of her cage of social expectations to create a remarkable literary career in tandem with her pursuit of social prominence and respectability. Gradually we have learned to discern, behind her carefully manufactured image of the grande dame of American literature, a more complex and more humane figure balancing her social life, her literary career, and her emotional needs. Elizabeth Ammons indicates that Wharton’s novels are her evaluation of romantic love, marriage, divorce and motherhood in the context of her own experiences; Wendy Gimbel considers the writer’s novels as her means of search for identity and self-realization; Susan Goodman analyzes in Wharton’s novels the author’s relationships with her parents and other women and observes her satisfaction with her independence from her mother; Janet Goodwyn delineates Wharton’s literary evolution in reference to the places that she lived and traveled in America and in Europe; David Holbrook discerns the author’s being abused by her father as the reason for her fictional creation of unsatisfactory men; Candace Waid sketches Wharton’s attempt to imagine the place of woman writer throughout the writer’s career; Carol Wershoven argues that the “woman intruder” in Wharton’s novels is the author’s portrayal of her own identification with the woman outside of her society; and R. W. B. Lewis and Cynthia Griffin Wolff read Wharton’s oeuvre in the context of her life.
These are extremely useful insights into the history of Wharton’s development, especially of the relation between her inner drive for professional recognition and the inhibiting influences of her family traditions and social pressures. But seldom is much light shone on the inner needs and hungers that simultaneously impelled her toward self-expression and frustrated direct avowal–let alone revelation–of her impulses. One means of penetrating to this level of creativity is through the use of Freudian analysis focusing on the guilt that fueled her need for expression and drove her to explore the deepest levels of dreams and wish-fulfillment.
Edith Wharton’s art was an opportunity for her to actualize her desires, which were denied satisfaction in reality by guilt feelings. From her autobiographies, one concludes that the author adored and loved her father, but feared and disliked her mother. Because she was taught, while she was growing up, to communicate only what her family thought appropriate for her to feel and voice, she was unable to express openly her true feelings to her parents. Her moral training gradually induced guilt feelings in her for harboring these inexpressible feelings.(1) In Ethan Frome, as in much of her fiction, the writer unconsciously recreated camouflaged incidents and circumstances of her life in order to express, without guilt feelings, her genuine feelings for her parents. The creation of the fictional narrative that would provide realistic circumstances for the enactment of desired relationships with her parents was a conscious act. But her feeling of guilt provided the unconscious impetus for her writing. Naturally, Wharton had no conscious access to her unconscious mind. She could not consciously know and express her unconscious in her fiction. Therefore, while she was conscious of the repression and resentment engendered by her family life, she was unaware that it was the feeling of guilt that compelled her to write. In her autobiographical writings the author is not simply editing out or euphemizing the deepest needs and guilts of her childhood: she was unable to name her creative drive because she was conscious neither of having nor of disclosing it. This feeling reveals itself only through Wharton’s attempt to fulfill her repressed wishes in her fiction.(2)
The unconscious aspect of Edith Wharton’s creation of fiction and the element of wish-fulfillment–her ostensible drive for creativity–bring the process of her writing close to the mechanism of dreaming. Wharton’s art was created, like a dream, without her conscious control, for she had no conscious access to its meaning until she had expressed that meaning as fiction. Regarding dreams, Sigmund Freud says that “the unconscious has nothing else to offer during sleep but the motive force for the fulfilment of a wish” (“Interpretation” 565). Wharton’s feeling of guilt, like a dream-wish, was provided by her unconscious. Freud notes that the dream-wish, which is “the motive force for producing dreams [,] is supplied by the Ucs. [unconscious]” (541). In her fiction, Wharton mostly recycled the frustrating, distressing, and agitating incidents of her life, trying to search and discover the nature and reasons of her thwarted wishes. Freud designates these “[u]nsolved problems, tormenting worries, overwhelming impressions” (554), which are carried into sleep from the waking life as “dream-thoughts,” “day’s residues,” or “daytime thoughts.” He indicates that “the process of forming dreams is obliged to attach itself to dream-thoughts belonging to the preconscious system” (541). In Wharton’s fiction, the incidents of her life function as “dream-thoughts” do in dreams. They form the medium through which she unconsciously attempted to achieve her “dream-wish”–that is, the wish to express her true feelings toward her parents without the feeling of guilt. Ethan Frome originated in the writer’s urge to confess the guilt that she unconsciously felt for her incestuous desire for her father.(3)
Over the years, Ethan Frome has been assessed as the author’s attempt to reflect the real nature of the people of New England and the conditions of their lives. Although New England is the setting of the novel, in the context of Wharton’s autobiography the novel emerges as her endeavor to resolve her strong feelings for her father. The writer used a remote setting as a means for distancing herself from her own experience through metaphoric enactment of obscure feelings.
Before she finished writing Ethan Frome in 1911, Edith Wharton had experienced a passionate extramarital love affair that lasted only two years. This love affair owed its brief nature mostly to her lover Morton Fullerton’s lack of persistence and constancy in his feelings for her. During her affair with Fullerton, the author was still married to Edward Wharton, though they were estranged and Wharton was aware that her husband had embezzled her funds and used the money to buy property where he lived with his mistress. Though they did not divorce until 1913, their marriage had been a social formality for several years. These two frustrating alliances prompted the writer to review her past relationships, including those with her parents. Some critics have suggested that Ethan Frome is Edith Wharton’s artistic working out of her relationships with her husband and Morton Fullerton.(4) The writer began Ethan Frome in 1907 in France as a French writing exercise. Her affair with Fullerton began in 1908, and obviously, in 1907 she could not have predicted the course and the consequence of her relationships with her husband and lover. In 1907, although Wharton had an active social life, she was lonely. During the fall her husband was away from home, mostly on fishing or hunting trips. That winter the writer moved to Paris and began living alone. Apparently, at this time she yearned for her father’s affection more deeply and wished for his company more urgently. The triangle in the original story was a retro-inscription of Wharton’s emotional relations with her parents. In Ethan Frome, Wharton attempted to come to grips with her incestuous desire for her father, but the unconscious feeling of guilt prevented total admission of this desire.(5)
The novel Ethan Frome is narrated by an engineer temporarily working in New England and living in a boarding house in Starkville. The visitor hires Ethan Frome as his driver and picks up fragments of his story from village gossip. Ethan, now an apparently stoic, crippled captive of rural poverty, had briefly attended a technical school and might have escaped into the larger world had he not returned to his family’s rocky farm to care for his invalid mother. Zenobia Pierce, a penniless cousin, comes to nurse his mother, and after her death Ethan marries Zeena out of gratitude, loneliness, and duty. Zeena turns out to be a shrewish, sickly, slovenly and domineering wife who demands the services of a hired girl. Another penniless cousin, Mattie Silver, is hired, but when Zeena senses Ethan’s attraction to Mattie’s youth and sympathy, she demands that she be sent away. On the evening Ethan is to take Mattie to the train, they pause to sled on the town hill, and in desperate unhappiness Ethan steers the sled into a huge tree and both Ethan and Mattie are badly injured. One night when he is stranded in Ethan’s farmhouse by a snowstorm the narrator sees the result: Mattie, now a whining pitiful invalid, the vindictive Zeena, and the crippled and trapped Ethan.
The sketch that Wharton began in 1907 has the same setting, characters, and theme as the novel, but because the writer’s needs in creating the two stories are not alike, the stories unconsciously take dissimilar courses, and end differently. In the 1907 composition, during Anna’s (Zeena’s) visit to the doctor, Hart (Ethan) spends most of the evening in the village inn. When Anna returns, she demands that Mattie must go. The narrative ends with Mattie’s departure.(6) In the published novel, however, during Zeena’s absence, Ethan and Mattie spend most of the evening having dinner together. Zeena’s cat breaks Zeena’s pickle-dish, which Mattie uses knowing that Zeena would never have allowed her to touch it. At the end of the novel, the lovers attempt but fail to escape together in death. Instead, they both become crippled and live in Zeena’s care. Wharton had experienced almost no sexual life before her affair with Morton Fullerton; not surprisingly, her fantasy in 1907 did not involve overt erotic desires. The earlier version of the story allows neither an emotional nor a sexual union between the two characters. In Anna’s absence, Hart and Mattie have no romantic evening. Neither do they plan to be together in death. In this earlier version, the writer set up only the occasion for an emotional union between a “father” and a “daughter,” but unconscious guilt feelings prevented her from joining them in an emotional or a physical relationship. And since, in the 1907 sketch, there is no expressed wish for the union of the “father” and the “daughter,” there is no need for the punishment they receive in the 1911 novel. The dream does not turn into a nightmare. It only reinforces reality. In Wharton’s 1907 imagination, any union of the “father” and the “daughter” is impossible. Their alliance is prevented by the presence of the “mother” and the overwhelming taboo of conscious incest.
When Edith Wharton again took up Ethan’s story in 1911, she was alone. Her affair with Fullerton was over and she was no longer living with her husband. Frustrated by her relationships with her lover and her husband, she once again longed for the company of her father. In her imagination, the only man who deserved her trust must be her father. He would not have deceived or cheated her as both her husband and her lover had done. Having experienced sexual passion, Wharton now understood the fulfillment that she had hitherto been denied. Imagining her father as her husband or lover involved dreaming of both emotional and sexual ties with him. The writer’s wish to have this fulfillment found its expression in her re-working of the earlier tale of frustration, tyranny, and family entrapment. Thus, this version of her story comes out differently. Although the assigned roles of the characters are unchanged, their relationship and fate are affected by the impact of sexual experience upon Wharton’s psyche. The suppressed sexual longings of Ethan and Mattie are registered in their evening together and their desperate need for sexual oblivion depicted symbolically in their sledride. In the writer’s 1911 imagination, the forbidden (incestuous) sexual union with a “father” figure elicited deeper and harsher feelings. Mere repression of guilty longings and separation of the principles are not enough. The sledding accident that cripples Ethan and Mattie symbolizes the “punishment” that Wharton’s super-ego exerted on her ego for daring to “dream” a sexual union with her father.
In both versions of her fiction, Wharton avoids a direct confrontation with her desire for her father by employing imaginative devices. In 1907, the academic impersonality of a foreign language served the writer as a control over any involuntary revelation of her personal emotion in creating the story. In the 1911 version, Wharton uses instead an anonymous first-person narrator who pieces together fragments of gossip and observation into a “vision” of what Ethan’s life may have been. In the 1922 introduction to the novel, the author states that her purpose for using this narrator was to relate the story with “the deep-rooted reticence and inarticulateness” of the people of New England (“Notes” 1125). In fact, through the impersonal but imaginative narrator, Wharton unintentionally reveals the true nature of her subject. The narrator does not limit himself only to what he saw or heard about Ethan. He declares that his tale is a “vision” that is “put together” by him (Ethan Frome 74). The resulting version is not so much a narrative but a dream that requires an interpretation. Certainly, Wharton herself did not want to appear as the dreamer or interpreter of this vision.
In none of her other books does Edith Wharton admit that the contents of her book is a vision or a dream. By rendering this tale as a “vision” put together by a first-person narrator, the author both proclaims that her tale is only a dream and denies that the dreamer is herself. In this novel, the feeling of guilt, which is the drive for creativity, does not remain in the unconscious of the writer but emerges and is controlled consciously within the complex, conscience-driven, and ego-ideal dominated personality of the author. Wharton’s conscience dominates and exercises its guilt-inflicting power over her instinctual desires. Apparently, in the beginning the author guessed that, throughout her writing process, as in a dream, her unconscious mind was seeking revelation. Furthermore, she knew that a “forbidden” wish was driving her to write the novel. Perhaps, she was even aware that she was writing a “punishment-dream.” According to Freud, “[p]unishment-dreams, too, are fulfilment of wishes … of those of the critical, censoring, and punishing agency in the mind,” and in the construction of “punishment-dreams” the ego has a great share (“New Introductory” 27). In these dreams the “day’s residues” (the “dream thoughts”) provide satisfaction, but the satisfaction is a “forbidden one.” In “punishment-dreams” the “dream constructing wish” is not unconscious but “preconscious” (cf. “Interpretation” 558). Freud also tells us that “the punishment is also the fulfillment of a wish–of the wish of the other, censoring person” (Freud, “Introductory” 219). Wharton was aware that in writing the novel she was exploring her incestuous desire, and simultaneously–albeit semi-consciously–she knew that she would be unable to fulfill her desire. Indeed, throughout the novel, the “censorship” of her guilt-inflicting super-ego thwarted her incestuous desire.(7) Apparently, Ethan Frome was Wharton’s fantasy in which she gratified her “need for punishment.” Ethan and Mattie were not permitted even temporary satisfaction of their sexual desires.(8)
In addition to biographical data and the author’s acknowledgement, the elements of “dream-work” also indicate that Ethan Frome is Edith Wharton’s “dream” in which her incestuous desire for her father is “crippled” by the guilt-inflicting power of her super-ego.(9) The author’s “sense of guilt” and “need for punishment” are so strong that, even before she creates the vision of her incestuous desire, she dreams a punishment for its guilt. Wharton equates bad intentions with bad actions. Even before composing the vision, she has guilt feelings for intending to have it. Thus, she begins the novel with the end of the story. At first, it is not the dream-version of herself, Mattie Silver, but her father, Ethan Frome, who appears “ruined” by guilt. Although he is “not more than fifty-two,” Ethan Frome is “the ruin of a man” (63). At this early stage “dream-work” is observable. Unconsciously, Wharton’s guilt feelings are “displaced” from herself to her father.(10) The two contrary notions about her father “condense” into a vision of him as both “fallen” and “unapproachable” (63).(11) Ethan’s “lameness” (63) is more than just a physical defect; it signifies his moral flaw. But, even in this morally fallen state, he is “unapproachable” (63). This vision of Ethan is a “condensation” of two contrary thoughts into one image: the consequence of having an incestuous relationship as a moral defect or “lameness,” and the impermissibility or “unapproachableness” of this relationship. The same contrary notion about Ethan is “condensed” in the word “look”: In the same double sense, “the look in his face which … neither poverty nor physical suffering [but moral weakness] could have put there” (67; italics added) contrasts with the “powerful look [indicating “unapproachableness”] he had” (63; italics added).
In A Backward Glance Wharton portrays her father as “a lonely one, haunted by something always unexpressed” (813). The writer attributes “loneliness” to a person who has incestuous desires. In Ethan Frome, in the narrator’s vision Ethan Frome’s uncommunicativeness has two causes: his “moral isolation” and his having lived through the “cold of many Starkfield winters” (69). Noticeably, Wharton uses “moral” rather then any other qualifier to describe Ethan’s “isolation.” By “condensation,” Ethan represents the desired common condition of both himself and Mattie. Wharton’s powerful expectation for a mutual incestuous desire from her father is represented in her “dream” as Ethan’s “loneliness” endured by both Ethan and Mattie.
In A Backward Glance Wharton diagnoses her father’s taciturnity as the result of his life with her mother, who had “stifled cravings [that] had once germinated in him” (813). Her mother’s “matter-of-factness” had killed the “love of verse” and “shrivelled up any such buds of fancy” in her father (813). In Ethan Frome, through Ethan’s renunciation of an education, return to the stifling winters of Starkfield, and unhappy marriage with Zeena, the author envisages the origin of her father’s incestuous desire for herself in her mother’s failure to respond to his imaginative interests. Ethan, like Wharton’s father, is “lonely” because he does not have intellectual or emotional companionship in his marriage. Although the season is winter and the town is covered with snow, the Frome house owes its frigidity not to the season but to Zeena’s coldness. When Ethan walks Mattie home after the dance, “the hollows and prominences of her [Zeena’s] high-boned face” (89) at the door, have a more chilling effect on Ethan than the weather outside. Zeena’s presence gives “the kitchen … the deadly chill of a vault” (90). When his wife is away, it is “surprising what a homelike look the mere fact of Zeena’s absence gave it” (96). Obviously, it is not the “Starkfield winters” but “seven years with Zeena” (101) that have shattered the “warm and sentient in [Ethan]” and made him “a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe” (69).
Before he came under his wife’s deadening influence Ethan, like Wharton’s father, had the potential to become quite a different man. But, like George Frederic Jones’s in A Backward Glance (cf. 813), Ethan’s potential “fancy” is unfulfilled. After he left the technological college, memories of his studies “fed his fancy and made him aware of huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things” (Ethan Frome 75-76). The narrator notices that although his tortured life with Zeena leaves Ethan’s feelings “unexpressed,” it does not completely nullify his friendly nature: “There was in him a slumbering spark of sociability which the long Starkfield winters had not yet extinguished” (96).
In her “vision” Wharton saw herself as capable of filling the void that her mother’s indifference formed in her father’s life. In A Backward Glance she writes that her father’s “rather rudimentary love of verse might have been developed had he had any one with whom to share it” (813). Significantly, the “Tennysonian rhythms … [that] moved … [her] father greatly” (813) were among her favorite verses when she was no “more than six or seven years old” (812). She admits: “I understood hardly anything of what I was reading …” (812), but she felt a keen emotional response to the mutual pleasure they both experienced in sharing something from which Lucretia Jones was excluded. Her mother’s coldness lent warmth to their sharing. Obviously, Wharton thought that the father and the daughter could help each other to get out of their “loneliness.” In her “dream” she fulfills this desire symbolically.(12) Ethan “learned that one other spirit [“living under his roof and eating his bread”] had trembled with the same touch of wonder” (Ethan Frome 79). Ethan “could show her things and tell her things … [because, unlike Zeena], [s]he had an eye to see and an ear to hear” (78).
Perhaps the most symbolic element in Wharton’s “dream” appears not as a thought but as a visual image.(13) In order to have her father all to herself, the writer wished for the absence of her mother. Although this wish is also apparent in the triangular relationship in the novel, it is never fulfilled because of the powerful censor of the writer’s guilt-producing super-ego. As Freud states, symbolism in dreams belongs to the unconscious mental life of the dreamer. In Ethan Frome Wharton’s wish to annihilate her mother escapes the censorship of her super-ego only in the form of a visual symbol. Her narrator dwells on the desolate look of Ethan Frome’s house. He feels that it is due to the loss of the “L,” the part that usually connects the main house with the wood-shed and cow-barn in New England houses. Ethan Frome had to take this part down after his father’s death. The absence of the “L,” “the chief sources of warmth and nourishment … the centre, the actual hearthstone” (72) of the Frome house represents the missing relationship between Ethan and Zeena. The narrator sees “in the diminished dwelling the image of his [Ethan’s] own shrunken body” (72).
In her “dream,” Wharton was unconsciously inhibited by guilt feelings from directly expressing her incestuous desire. Guilt feelings prevented her from completing her “vision” by subliminally reminding her that in imagining Ethan and Mattie, this compatible couple, with the same texture of mind and the same interests, she was representing her father and herself. Although Ethan and Mattie may be naturally attracted to each other, culture, civilization, and social norms forbid their relationship. Guilt feelings urged Wharton to express this nature/culture opposition by the symbol of outdoor/indoor. When they are walking home after the dance, Ethan puts his arms around Mattie,
But that had been out-of-doors, under the open irresponsible night. Now in
the warm lamplit room, with all its ancient implications of conformity and
order, she seemed infinitely farther away from him and more unapproachable.
In Ethan Frome, Zeena’s cat represents the social and moral rule that forbids the incestuous relationship between the “father” and the “daughter.” During Ethan and Mattie’s only evening alone together, the cat continually reminds them of Zeena’s existence and presence between them. The cat seems to understand not only the significance of their movements but also their feelings. In the evening, when Ethan comes home to have tea alone with Mattie, he is “suffocated with the sense of well-being” (103). Mattie is near the tea-table with the cat “rubbing itself persuasively against her ankles” (103). Mattie’s reaction to the cat suggests that it is doing more than just asking for her attention: “Why, Puss! I nearly tripped over you” (104). As soon as they sit at the table, the cat “jump[s] between them into Zeena’s empty chair” (104). The cat seems to warn them that Zeena is only physically absent from the table. Like the social rule, the cat forbids and punishes any intimacy between Ethan and Mattie. The cat “elongat[es] its body in the direction of the milk-jug” and as soon as “their hands [meet] on the handle of the jug…. [the cat] back[s] into the pickle-dish, which [falls] to the floor with a crash” (105).
The pickle-dish is a wedding present given to Ethan and Zeena by Zeena’s aunt. Mattie uses it knowing that Zeena would never even allow her to touch it. In Wharton’s “dream” several meanings are “condensed” into the broken pickle-dish. The pickle-dish represents the celebration of the hymeneal festival, the public endorsement of a sanctioned relationship, but also the warmth and color that such a relationship should generate in the lives of a wedded couple. That Zeena has put this dish away on a high shelf and has never used it is deeply expressive of her attitude toward her marriage to Ethan. The breaking of the pickle-dish, however, does not indicate the end of the Ethan-Zeena marriage. On the contrary, it emphasizes the threatening presence of Zeena between Ethan and Mattie, and symbolizes their “shattered” hopes of spending an evening together as if they were married: “It seemed to him [Ethan] as if the shattered fragments of their evening lay there” (105).
The broken pickle-dish is also Zeena’s punishment of Mattie, through her cat, for trying to take her place at her own house. Zeena’s lamentation to Mattie, later, denotes that for her the pickle-dish is more than just a favorite gift: “… [N]ow you’ve took from me the one [thing] I cared for most of all–” (128). Obviously, Zeena regards the pickle-dish as the seal of her claim on Ethan, the evidence of the marriage; and she knows that in using the dish, Mattie is usurping that claim. It is not the breaking of the dish but the use of the dish that most infuriates and frightens Zeena, who has “tried to keep my things where you couldn’t get at ’em” (128).
Despite the breaking of the pickle-dish, Ethan and Mattie’s evening continues. After dinner the “warmth and harmony” and the company of Mattie give Ethan a “sense of being in another world” (107). Again, the cat is there to remind them of the rules that they are defying. When Ethan pushes his chair so that he can have a view of Mattie’s profile, the cat “jump[s] up into Zeena’s chair, roll[s] itself into a ball, and [lies] watching them with narrowed eyes” (107). The cat acts as a deputy of its owner so effectively that, when Ethan wants to touch Mattie’s hand, he seems to conceal his movements from the cat: “Cautiously he slid[es] his hand palm-downward along the table till his finger-tips [touch] the end of the stuff” (110). In the same way, Mattie seems to hide her response to Ethan’s movements from the cat: “[Only a] faint vibration of her lashes seem[s] to show that she [is] aware of his gesture …” (110). But even these “cautious” movements do not escape the cat’s observation: “The cat … jump[s] from Zeena’s chair … and … the empty chair … set[s] up a spectral rocking” (110). The cat fulfills its aim. It brings Ethan to reality:
“I’ve been in a dream, and this is the only evening we’ll ever have
together.” The return to reality was as painful as the return to
consciousness after taking an anaesthetic. (111)
Social and moral rules, symbolized by the cat, prevent Ethan and Mattie from giving one another a real kiss. Instead, Ethan only “kisse[s] the bit of stuff in his hold” (111) and accepts that their evening together is a “vision” that cannot turn into reality. He hopes that Mattie can see his reason for submitting to authority: “He had a fancy that she knew what had restrained him …” (113).
Although Zeena’s authority first creates a rebellious response, later it instigates in Ethan a conscientious awareness of his present conditions. Zeena has silently observed the closeness between her husband and Mattie, and after returning from her visit to the doctor, she decides that Mattie must leave. The finality of his order causes Ethan again to replace reality with dream. After this point, all of his actions are controlled by his “unconsciousness.” He goes to the kitchen and kisses Mattie for the first time: “[He] … was drinking unconsciousness of everything but the joy they [Mattie’s lips] gave him” (124). Their relationship is no longer platonic and their desire for each other is acknowledged. All night long Ethan tries to imagine a way of leaving Zeena and going away with Mattie. At this point, neither the moral rule nor Zeena’s order seems real to him. The only reality is his poverty as the “inexorable facts [close] in on him like prison-warders hand-cuffing a convict” (131). The next morning, the reality of his situation forces itself upon his consciousness and he sees “his life before him as it was” (136). He realizes that his conscience prevents him from deceiving the Hales and borrowing money from them on false pretenses in order to go away with Mattie.
The destruction of Ethan and Mattie, however, is caused by their defiance of Zeena’s order rather than their violation of social rules. In Wharton’s “vision,” the “father” and the “daughter” deserve punishment less for violating the moral rules than for rebelling against the “mother.” As their time for separation approaches, Ethan and Mattie become more aware of the impossibility of their situation. They know that they can neither escape Zeena’s authority nor live with each other. After this point, all of their actions are driven by impulse rather than conscious decision. They recognize their sexual desires and move toward a climax of ecstasy. In the dreamer’s vision, their two sled rides represent sexual acts. In both cases, the speed of the downhill descent of the sled is compared to flying, a frequent symbol of sexual excitement in dreams.(14) During the first ride, the “sled started with a bound, and they flew through the dusk …” (146; italics added). And during the second, “[a]s they took wing for this it seemed to him that they were flying indeed …” (150; italics added). The first ride is a daring gesture of moral revolt: “she laughed with him, as if she liked his audacity” (146). But the second ride is a pledge of complicity, an escape from Zeena’s authority: “Ethan! Ethan! I want you to take me down again!…. So’t we’ll never come up any more” (148).
The consequences of the two similar acts are different because they result from different intentions. The first ride is a joyous affirmation of their love and a farewell before they part. But it does not defy Zeena’s authority to separate them. Ethan will go home and Mattie will take the train. The second act, however, violates both moral rules and Zeena’s order. The lovers will “never come up any more” (148). They survive the first ride unharmed. But in Wharton’s “dream” the lovers are punished for transgressing the rules of the “mother” rather than for violating morality. For Wharton, her mother’s rules were still “the most inscrutable.”(15) Ethan and Mattie come out of their defiance crippled, and Zeena retains her authority and dominance. In Ethan Frome, rather than her incestuous desire for her father being fulfilled, Wharton’s “need for punishment” is satisfied by the “crippling” of this desire. The novel ends in a way that gratifies her guilt feelings rather than satisfying her thwarted desires, thus revealing its raison d’etre. Wharton’s portrayal of her mother in the character of the invulnerable Zeena denotes that, in the writer’s imagination, the fear that she had of her mother was still more commanding than the love she felt for her father. Wharton made up the last image of Zeena out of her most vivid impression of her mother: a selfish and malignant figure whose will created a diminished husband and crippled a child.
(1) Edith Wharton’s references to her mother in her autobiographies are almost always associated with maternal disapproval. Her mother’s response to Wharton’s questions about sexual matters indicated to her that her questions were about the “not nice” (“Life and I” 1087) or “naughty” (1072) feelings that she was not allowed to have. Lucretia Jones’s censure of her daughter’s curiosity about adultery (A Backward Glance 803), having babies (“Life and I” 1087), and marriage (1088) caused Wharton’s natural feelings to be repressed and thus induced guilt feelings in her for having feelings or thinking about these matters.
Wharton’s autobiographical reminiscence of her feelings about her father is quite exceptional. Walking on Fifth Avenue, when she was “a little less then four years old” (1071), one of her hands “lay in the large sari hollow of her father’s bare hand; her tall handsome father, who was so warm-blooded that in the coldest weather he always went out without gloves …” (A Backward Glance 777; italics added). Her father appealed to both her physical and emotional senses. As well as seeming attractive to Wharton, George Frederic Jones answered his daughter’s need for security, love, and care.
Wharton may have wished to express her true feelings toward her parents, especially toward her father, but as these feelings were among the things her family would consider “naughty” or “not nice,” they were repressed and thus induced guilt feelings in her for loving her father and disliking her mother.
(2) In her autobiographies and letters, Wharton does not, even in retrospect, admit to guilt feelings that affected her actions: she was not aware that she had them. Freud explains that the persons suffering from the unconscious feeling of guilt are not only incapable of identifying this feeling as guilt–because they are unaware of it–but are also incapable of identifying the process that is causing it:
We then tell him that he is dominated by a resistance [repression]; but he
is quite unaware of the fact, and, even if he guesses from his
unpleasurable feelings that a resistance is now at work in him, he does not
know what it is or how to describe it. (“Ego” 17)
Freud describes “resistance” as “the force which instituted the repression and maintains it” (14). It is the “repression” that the super-ego exerts over the instincts that causes the feeling of guilt to become unconscious. The ego, in fear of the superego, represses not only the action but also the conscious admission of desire to fulfill the instinctual impulse. The “anxiety”–that is, the guilt–produced in place of the repressed instinct is therefore also unconscious. Freud defines repression as “turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious” (“Repression” 147). He also mentions that, before they reach the stage of being repressed, instinctual impulses may turn into other directions, such as “turning round upon the subject’s own self” (147). This is the super-ego’s punishment of the ego, felt as unconscious guilt.
(3) A person suffering from the unconscious feeling of guilt, even when diagnosed, is unable to consciously recognize and acknowledge having this feeling because it is repressed. Then, how do we diagnose a person’s unconscious feeling of guilt? We know from Freud that the repressed material is observable through its “substitute representation” or “symptom”:
… The repressed instinctual impulse] creates for itself, along paths over
which the ego has no power, a substitute representation (which forces
itself upon the ego by way of a compromise)–the symptom. (“Neurosis” 150)
Ives Hendrick suggests that “[s]ome neurotic symptoms are defenses, not against the unconscious wish, but against the unconscious guilt itself” (75).
The earliest evidence of Wharton’s unconscious guilt feelings over her strong desire for her father appeared through “symptoms,” first when she was four, then nine years old. The author remembers that she found her great-aunt’s house, Rhinebeck-on-the-Hudson at Rhinecliff, as ugly as her aunt herself. The feeling that ugliness produced in her was fear. The fear she associated with this incident she called her “wolf”: “I was ready to affirm, there was a Wolf under my bed” (A Backward Glance 805). Apparently, in her mind all the unpleasant women in her environment merged into a guilt-producing agent. Her mother, her great-aunt, Mlle. Michelet’s mother (cf. “Life and I” 1072) all symbolized the same repressive authority. When she was nine, the little girl developed another fear. She associated this fear with doorsteps. She remembers, “it was most formidable & pressing when I was returning from my daily walk (which I always took with a maid or governess, or with my father.)” (1080). Wharton does not mention her mother as one of her companions during her walks. She feared that if she stayed outside of her mother’s authority, she would feel tempted to acknowledge the emotions that were “naughty” to feel toward her father. She remembers that as soon as she entered the house, she felt safe, for in this institutional setting the danger of violating her conscience was removed. The “wolf under the bed” signifies the external guilt-producing agents, which cause the repression of the strong instinct, whereas the “wolf at the threshold” represents the writer’s internal guilt-inducing power, her conscience. Noticeably, although Wharton associated the first “symptom” of her “repressed love” for her father with her old aunt, she was unable to pinpoint the cause of her second “symptom.” It was harder to locate the source of the “anxiety” that her conscience caused, for it was deeper than the “remorse” that the external authority induced. Undoubtedly, Wharton was unable to express her feelings toward her father because she had already been taught that it was “not nice” to have or to express these feelings toward him. Consequently, she was accused by her conscience and had guilt feelings for experiencing these emotions. Subsequently, these feelings were repressed. In Freud’s words, the result was “fear of a wolf, instead of demand for love from the father” (“Repression” 155). Freud explains:
The instinctual impulse subjected to repression here is a libidinal
attitude towards the father, coupled with fear of him. After repression,
this impulse vanishes out of consciousness: the father does not appear in
it as an object of libido. As a substitute for him we find in a
corresponding place some animal which is more or less fitted to be an
object of anxiety. (155)
Later in her life, Wharton continued to have strong feelings for her father and guilt feelings for having them. In “Life and I” she says, “I did not fall in love till I was twenty-one” (1093). In 1882, when Wharton’s father died, she was 20 years old. Only after the death of her father was she able to love another man. Despite the freedom to love someone else, she remained attached to her father until she was about 30 years old. Freud says that, “the number of women who remain till a late age tenderly dependent on a paternal object, or indeed on their real father, is very great” (“Femininity” 119).
When she was about 30, Wharton’s repressed instinctual feelings manifested themselves by somatic “symptoms” that were diagnosed, according to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell’s theory, as those of “hysteria.” In her autobiographies, the author does not write about the “rest treatment” that she received from October 1898 to January 1899 in Philadelphia. She was an outpatient of Dr. McClellan, who was trained by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell. The physical “symptoms” of Wharton’s “depression” were “fatigue … loss of weight; inability to read or write; frequent headaches and constant nausea; profound melancholy. This condition was customarily diagnosed at the time as hysteria” (Lewis 83). The symptoms of “hysteria,” with which those of Wharton coincided, were somatic. Freud states that “unconscious ideas … produce somatic effects” (“Unconscious Ideas” 227). While I do not intend to develop a case for the neuroticism of Edith Wharton, it is illuminating to notice that the symptoms of unconscious guilt for incest in her life closely parallel Freud’s description of the symptoms of “conversion hysteria”:
The ideational content of the instinctual representative is completely
withdrawn from consciousness; as a substitutive–and at the same time as a
symptom–we have an over-strong innervation (in typical cases, a somatic
one), sometimes of a sensory, sometimes of a motor character, either as an
excitation or an inhibition. (“Repression” 156)
Later in her career, the author was able to express her incestuous desires and discharge most of her unconscious guilt feelings through her writing. At the beginning of her career, however, her feelings were to a considerable degree still repressed and, of course, unconscious, and they surfaced as her “symptoms.” By the time she wrote A Backward Glance, she no longer identified with her father, but obviously she still idealized him. In her autobiography, Wharton expresses sympathy for her father for having lived with such a prosaic woman as her mother (cf. A Backward Glance 813).
(4) See Ammons 59, Lawson 73, Lewis 310, and Murad 98.
(5) Wharton’s father’s death when she was young and her separation and estrangement from her mother after her marriage remove her parents from the autobiographical record of her later life. The writer does not reflect much upon the influence in her later life of her childhood feelings toward her parents. Apparently, however, she was contemplating about her father during the first decade of the century more often than other times in her adult life. R. W. B. Lewis reports: “In the wake of the great success of The House of Mirth in 1905, she told an older friend that `I often think of Papa … and wish he could have been here to encourage me with my work'” (538). Also, in writing about the question of Wharton’s paternity, Lewis states that the rumor–that she “was not in fact the daughter of George Frederic Jones, but the daughter of … the `extremely cultivated English tutor’ of her two brothers [The tutor is mentioned in A Backward Glance 820 and he appears in The Age of Innocence as M. Riviere]” (534)–attracted Wharton’s attention during the first decade of the century. In her autobiographies and letters, Wharton never mentions whether she really wished that her father was not George Frederic Jones. Evidently, however, she explored the possibility in her various fictions. In 1909 she wrote “His Father’s Son,” a story about a young man who imagined that his father was a great Polish musician. In fact, his father was a manufacturer of suspender buckles. Wharton “touched on the theme [of illegitimacy] five more times” (cf. 536, 538). In her autobiographies and letters, Edith Wharton never admits that she wrote Ethan Frome to release her guilt over her incestuous desire for her father. Neither does she acknowledge that Ethan Frome discloses her strong feelings for her father, nor even that it is an incest story. But in this fiction she does confront her incestuous feelings for her father. In her letter to Morton Fullerton, her remark regarding the critics writing about Ethan Frome is rather enigmatic: “Thank you for the clipping about Ethan…. They don’t know why it’s good, but they are right: it is” (16 Oct. 1911; Letters 261). Apparently, when Wharton reflected upon her relationships with her parents in her fiction, incest was an inescapable theme. She was involved with the theme of incest subconsciously in her two novels (Summer  and The Mother’s Recompense ), and more consciously in the “Outline of Beatrice Palmato” (1920) and the “Fragment of Beatrice Palmato” (1935), which were not published in her lifetime.
See Holbrook (95-116), Wolff (159-84), and Goodman (67-84) for Ethan Frome as Wharton’s story about herself and her parents.
(6) For the 1907 version of Ethan Frome, see Lewis (296) and Wolff (161-62).
(7) For “censorship” in dreams, see Freud, “New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis” 28.
(8) Ives Hendrick indicates that “punishment phantasies are revealed by the fact that they represent not only fear of punishment, but need of punishment” (76-77). Wharton’s “need of punishment,” the development of her conscience, began when she was about six or seven years old. In “Life and I,” the author gives the first example of the “moral torture” that she suffered throughout her childhood for falling short of her own moral standards. Having referred to the mother of her dancing teacher as “une vieille chevre” (an old goat), she reports that,
Instead of this [being delighted by the other children’s approval of her
witticism], however, I was seized with immediate horror at my guilt; for I
had said something about Mile Michelet’s mother which I would not have said
to her, & which it was consequently “naughty” to say, or even to think.
Wharton had guilt feelings not only for using a “naughty” word, but also for thinking about associating her teacher’s mother with an animal. Freud explains that “after the erection of an internal authority … bad intentions are equated with bad actions, and hence comes a sense of guilt and a need for punishment” (“Creative Writers” 128).
(9) In “Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis” Freud describes “dream-work” as the “work which transforms the latent dream into the manifest one” (170). He also explains the contrary function of the interpretation of dreams: “The work which proceeds in the contrary direction, which endeavours to arrive at the latent dream from the manifest one, is our work of interpretation” (170).
(10) One of the processes of “dream-work’ is “displacement.” Freud describes this process in “Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis”:
It manifests itself in two ways: in the first, a latent element is replaced
not by a component part of itself but by something more remote–that is, by
an allusion; and in the second, physical accent is shifted from an
important element on to another which is unimportant, so that the dream
appears differently centered and strange. (174)
Freud goes on to explain “displacement” in “New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis”: “[I]n conscious thinking we come across [displacement] only as faulty reasoning or as means for a joke” (20). He continues: “In the dream-work these ideas are separated from the affects attaching to them. The affects are dealt with independently; they may be displaced on to something else …” (20). He concludes: “Displacement is the principal means used in the dream-distortion to which the dream thoughts must submit under the influence of the censorship” (21).
(11) In “Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis” Freud describes “condensation” as another process of”dream-work”:
The dream-work … tries to condense two different thoughts by seeking out
(like a joke) an ambiguous word in which the two thoughts may come
together…. A manifest element may correspond simultaneously to several
latent ones, and contrariwise, a latent element may play a part in several
manifest ones…. (172-73)
He explains that “there is a special preference for expressing them [contraries] by the same manifest element” (178). In “New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis” Freud says:
As a result of condensation, one element in the manifest dream may
correspond to numerous elements in the latent dream-thoughts; but,
conversely too, one element in the dream-thoughts may be represented by
several images in the dream. (20)
Although Wharton’s thoughts may not be combined in one word, they are expressed with a single image.
(12) In “Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis” Freud declares that “symbolism” is “the most remarkable chapter of the theory of dreams” (151). In “symbolism” he says: “A constant relation … between a dream-element and translation is described by us as a `symbolic’ one, and the dream-element itself as a `symbol’ of the unconscious dream-thought” (150). He claims that symbols “allow us in certain circumstances to interpret a dream without questioning the dreamer” (151). He mentions that “[a]ccording to Schemer … the human body is often represented in dreams by the symbol of a house” (159). He adds that “the knowledge of symbolism is unconscious to the dreamer, that it belongs to his unconscious mental life” (165).
(13) In “Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis,” according to Freud, “psychologically the most interesting [process of dream-work is] transforming thoughts into visual images,” which “comprise the essence of the formation of dreams” (175).
(14) For flying as a sexual image, see Freud, “Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis” 155.
(15) In Edith Wharton’s autobiographies, her mother appears as one of the most powerful guilt-inducing forces: “I had two absolutely inscrutable beings to please–God & my mother…. And my mother was the most inscrutable of the two” (“Life and I” 1074).
Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1980.
Freud, Sigmund. “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming (1908 ).” Strachey 9: 141-53.
–. “The Ego and the Id (1923).” Strachey 19: 1-66.
–. “Femininity (1932-36).” Strachey 22: 112-35.
–. “The Interpretation of Dreams (Second Part): Chapter VII. The Psychology. of Dream Processes (1900).” Strachey 5: 509-621.
–. “Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1916-17 [1915-1917]): Part II. Dreams (1916 [1915-1916]).” Strachey 15: 81-239.
–. “Neurosis and Psychosis (1924 ).” Strachey 19: 147-53.
–. “New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis: Lecture XXIX. Revision of the Theory of Dreams.” Strachey 22: 7-30.
–. “Repression (1915).” Strachey 14: 141-58.
–. “Unconscious Ideas and Ideas Inadmissible to Consciousness–Splitting of the Mind.” Strachey 2: 222-39.
Gimbel, Wendy. Edith Wharton: Orphancy and Survival. New York: Praeger, 1984.
Goodman, Susan. Edith Wharton’s Women: Friends & Rivals. Hanover, New Hampshire: UP of New England, 1990.
Goodwyn, Janet. Edith Wharton: Traveller in the Land of Letters. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990.
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Holbrook, David. Edith Wharton and the Unsatisfactory Man. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991.
Lawson, Richard H. Edith Wharton. New York: Ungar, 1977.
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Fromm International, 1985.
Murad, Orlene. “Edith Wharton and Ethan Frome.” Modern Language Studies 13 (1983): 90-103.
Strachey, James, gen. ed. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 24 vols. London: Hogarth, 1953-64.
Waid, Candace. Edith Wharton’s Letters from the Underworld: Fictions of Women and Writing. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.
Wershoven, Carol. The Female Intruder in the Novels of Edith Wharton. Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1982.
Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. Novellas 767-1068.
–. Edith Wharton: Novellas and Other Writings. Sel. Cynthia Griffin Wolff. New York: Library of America, 1990.
–. Ethan Frome. Novellas 61-156.
–. The Letters of Edith Wharton. Ed. R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis. New York: Scribner’s, 1988.
–. “Life and I.” Novellas 1069-96.
–. “Notes: Ethan Frome.” Novellas 1125.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
ERDA ASYA has a PhD in American literature from Indiana University, Bloomington. She has lived in The Hague, Kuala Lumpur, Lagos, and Paris, and taught French language and English and American literature. She teaches American fiction at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
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