When she wrote Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton used her pen rather than her fist to reflect her feminist values. In the novel, Ethan Frome written by Edith Wharton, feminist ideals, principles, and problems are demonstrated in the societal dictations that shape the lives of the characters, the pitting of a woman against a woman, and Wharton’s strangely antifeminist characters.
Several societal concepts such as these combined to bring Mattie into the Frome household; the idea that a woman should not be allowed to work alone to support herself, the gap left in a home when there is no female figure to fill the domestic role or the female figure is incapable of fulfilling her role, as Zeena was unable to do. There were two jobs that needed to be done in Ethan’s world: the first job, the job of the man, was being the monetary receiver, while the second job, the job of woman, was the idea that she should focus her attention on the domestic needs of the household. Because Zeena cannot fulfill her roles, Mattie was brought in, creating an unbalanced, and eventually disastrous, home life.
Ultimately, Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie all suffer from the entrance of Mattie into the marital life of Ethan and Zeena. This suffering is a direct result of society’s pressure on Mattie to rely on her family rather than herself.
In Wharton’s Ethan Frome, women took the lower position they were assigned and then fought against each other, accomplishing the men’s idea of inferiority and subservience. By working against one another, Mattie and Zeena are working for men’s expectations: that they will simply care for the man of the house, rely on him completely, while they have nothing of their own and nothing that they do simply for themselves. In the novel, Ethan spends all day working on the farm and bringing in the money to run the household. While he is gone, Mattie cooks his meals and does other household chores but is essentially just sitting around waiting for him to return.
As a character, Zeena is strangely antifeminist due to her insistence on work being done for her because she believes that she is too weak of body and mind to do it herself. Zeena spends her days in bed, contributing nothing to improve her and Ethan’s life together. This means that she is not only completely dependent on Ethan, but she is effectively hurting their livelihood by only taking, not giving anything to help them both. Feminists believe that women can do whatever work men can do equally well, so by relying on Ethan to do the work she has deemed herself incapable of doing, Zeena is flouting feminist principle. By needing, not just wanting, a man to take care of her, in the main body of the novel, Zeena is an antifeminist character.
The other lady of Ethan Frome, Mattie, is also not who one would consider to be a strong, feminist character. Mattie relies on the charity of others to survive, and when that charity dries up; she believes she has no resources off of which to live. Crippled, querulous, damned, she is transformed into the proper inhabitant of Starkfield. As a person, Mattie is incomplete in herself: she has earned nothing in her life except for the love of a man who can never be hers. Edith Wharton created antifeminist characters and by having those characters fail, she is able to express her message of independence leading to happiness, something that none of her characters achieved.
In the feminist view, women should all be working together, helping each other out, as they are working towards the same goals. Instead of striving towards similar goals or attempting to further the position of the other, Zeena and Mattie continually beat each other down, in that quiet, manipulative way that women often do. Mattie acquires the love of Zeena’s husband, which causes Zeena to expel Mattie from her house and send her away. From a feminist perspective, Mattie and Zeena are fighting over that which they should be fighting against, not only society but also a man.