Ethan Frome Critical Lens Essay

Transcript of Critical Lens: Ecocriticism

Cheryll Glotfelty
Why is it Useful?
How Does it Apply?
An ecocritic would ask:
*How is nature represented in this litereature?
*What role does physical setting play in a novel?
*How do metaphors of the land influence the way we treat it?
*What bearing might the science of ecology have on literary studies?
*How is science itself open to literary analysis?
*Are values expressed in this play consistent with ecological wisdom?
Ethan Frome
What is Ecocriticism in General?
* Human culture is connected to the physical world

* The nonhuman environment begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history

* Human interest in the world is not understood to be the only legitimate interest

- interdisciplinary field
- youngest of the revisionist movements
- 19th century with growing concern for the environment
- widespread concern that earth was in environmental crisis
- first coined in 70s by William Rueckert
- "ecology" and "criticism"
- in 1990s it became a recognized and rapidly growing field of literary study
- gained momentum in US and later spread to UK

the "application of ecology and ecological concepts to the study of literature"
-William Rueckert (1978)
"Ecocriticism becomes most interesting and useful...when it aims to recover the environmental character or orientation of works whose conscious of forgrounded interests lie elsewhere"
-Robert Kern, "Ecocriticism: What is it Good For" (1993)
Thinking ecocritically allows us look at potential symbolism. some argue it’s not needed to analyze writing; takes away from what we should be focusing on our story
*Ecological/Environmental literary criticism
*study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment.
*acute awareness of damage wrought on the environment by human activities
Ecocriticism now
Most ecocritica​l work shares a common motivation​: the troubling awareness that we have reached the age of environmen​tal limits, a time when the consequenc​es of human actions are damaging the planet's basic life support systems. This awareness sparks a sincere desire to contribute to environmen​tal restoratio​n.
"Ecocriticism and Nineteenth-Century Literature Essay - Ecocriticism and Nineteenth-Century Literature -" <i></i>., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. &lt;;.

"Respect for Nature: An Ecocritical Study of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick." China Papers. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013. <>.

"What is Ecocriticism?." What is Ecocriticism?. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. <>.

"What is Ecocriticism? | EASLCE." EASLCE RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. <>.
*video from

Questions to Consider
*Most ecocritica​l work shares a common motivation​: to spark a sincere desire to contribute to environmen​tal restoratio​n

* Still growing/modifying its views of science, nature, and the environment
*Natural and urban environments blend together
* a product of modernization and a movement against environment degradation
* works of writers concerned about environment can play some part in solving real ecological concerns

*An ecological​ly focused criticism is a worthy enterprise primarily because it directs our attention to matters about which we need to be thinking.

*Consciousn​ess raising is its most important task. Ecocritics encourage others to think seriously about the relationsh​ip of humans to nature, about the ethical and aesthetic dilemmas posed by the environmen​tal crisis, and about how language and literature transmit values with profound ecological implicatio​ns.
Theory cont.

*the landscape itself is a dominant character, when a significant interaction occurs between author and place or characters and place.

Moby Dick

* Explores the variety of relationships that are possible between man and Nature
* take revenge on Nature for the harm inflicted by a wild beast
* Human contempt and self-centeredness -->destruction by nature
* indicates the right road human beings should take: respect nature as we respect human beings ourselves

*A man name Ethan Frome struggles as a farmer in Starfield in MA with his wife
*"stark" means hard, bare and difficult
*described as cold, dark and gloomy
*sets a dark undertone for the story
*buries emotions and dreams of townspeople
*beautiful yet it's impossible to stay or leave (a sense of isolation)...hostile on human desires
William Rueckert
*significant because of the sled accident that left Ethan and Maddie crippled & miserable
Harold Fromm
Development and Trends
* Early ecocriticism has 3 initial phases
1. study of how nature is represented in literature.
2. rediscovering the genre of nature writing
3. scholars working to form frameworks like ecopoetics and addressed issues such as the construction of humanity in literature
Old Man and the Sea
*Old man tries to dominate nature as he tries to combat with fish
*invades fish's territory
*desire to conquer nature
*still unable to do so in the end
*similar to Moby Dick, self centeredness
Cheyrll Glotfelty
By Herman Melville
By Ernest Hemingway
By Edith Wharton

Full transcript

Wharton’s main thrust in this much-disputed and problematical work is the presentation of a universe of moral ambiguity hemmed in by a physical universe that seems clear-cut in its starkness and finality. Images of death, frozen submission, imprisonment, and sterility imbue Ethan Frome with a sense of grim determinism. Yet it is not a deterministic work. Events seem ordained by both the nature and harshness of the characters’ lives, but Ethan is able to make, at least momentarily, a distinct decision as to what is right (not just “proper”) when he chooses not to lie to the Hales or to desert Zeena. His moment of truth comes with his sudden and melancholic realization of who he is and what he must do:. . . the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he could have done so only by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him.

It is Wharton’s mastery of her subject matter that enables her readers to see both the grim inevitability of Ethan’s life and, at the same time, the grandeur of his moral choice in this grimmest of worlds. Her work is more properly termed tragic irony because, although Ethan decides not to abandon and humiliate Zeena by running away with Mattie, he weakens and decides (with her tacit consent) to commit mutual suicide. The irony exists in that he opts, finally, for an end to life through death and instead receives, in the vast indifference of Wharton’s universe, a death-in-life. He, Mattie, and Zeena continue to exist in the same entrapped, triangular relationship as before but without hope, without the vitality of Ethan and Mattie’s love. Furthermore, not only are the roles reversed, but the sick (Zeena) has become well, and the healthy or vital (Mattie and Ethan) have become maimed, crippled, and scarred (there is a red gash in Ethan’s forehead).

In many ways, the novel unites content and form through stylistic and metaphoric comparisons of the cold and frozen landscape as part and parcel of the character’s moral framework. Isolated, “frozen” in their poverty, barren (the Fromes are childless), and unhealthy in outlook (Zeena is obsessed with her diseases and “complications”), the characters reflect the countryside itself. It is this very sense of isolation that causes Ethan to marry Zeena—he fears being left alone, with silence—after his mother dies. Silence and absence are also powerful metaphors. It is by silence that Zeena manipulates best, spreading unknown fears among Mattie and Ethan. Further, Zeena becomes more powerful in her absence: when the pickle dish is broken, when Mattie sits in Zeena’s rocking chair, and when the cat inadvertently starts the chair rocking and the specter of Zeena fills the room. Even in the final moments of his suicide attempt, the image of Zeena invades Ethan’s mind and almost subverts his actions.

Wharton also uses the technique of contrast to emphasize her irony. She contrasts the prosperous, unrestricted life of the engineer-narrator with Ethan, who once studied such things at the university. In reverberating scenes, the author first presents Zeena at the back door of the farmhouse with a lantern silhouetting her drawn and tight features; later she is contrasted with a similar scene of Mattie with lantern light highlighting her youthful and soft features. Finally, the most powerful contrast, presented in the main versus the frame story, is of Ethan himself as young, vital, loving, and capable of so many unexpressed possibilities with the final grim, warped “ruin of a man” that Ethan becomes—a sort of Sisyphus in the mythology of Wharton’s universe.

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