Ethan Frome

What is Zeena’s agenda in her conversation with Ethan? What do we learn about her character?

chapter 7

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Zeena, reclusive and withdrawn and therefore difficult for the reader to know, emerges from this chapter as a much fuller character. We see how she uses her illness as a weapon: Wharton writes with humor that although many people around town have health problems, "only the chosen had Œcomplications'" (61). In a small town where people's intestinal disorders rank as a favorite topic of conversation, being ill makes a person something of a celebrity; being truly ill makes one into a star. Zeena uses her sickliness as a weapon against Ethan. It's the safest (and most cowardly) way to control him. We also see that Zeena harbors resentment against him: she blames her current illness on her time tending to Ethan's mother. Whether the claim is true or not, and it probably is not, Zeena has decided to see her sickness as the result of some sacrifice she made on Ethan's behalf. Clinging to this belief allows Zeena to feel that Ethan is indebted to her; it also makes her resent him.

The argument between Ethan and Zeena is worth a close study, because every statement gives vital clues to the character's psychology and the workings of small town society. Zeena constantly refers to the opinions of friends and relatives as if they were taken from Scripture. Her arguments are usually supported by something someone in her family has said. The difficulty of rural life is an important theme, but here we move beyond the physical difficulties and see the psychological pitfalls of Starkfield living. The community is so small that it is stifling. The opinions of a few biased relatives stand as the voice of the whole world, and Ethan crumbles under Zeena's arguments.