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Edith Wharton Naturalism Essay

In: English and Literature

Submitted By realprincess97
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The naturalism and realism movements of the 1900s were fast and furious, enveloping and influencing drama, art, literature, and even people themselves. They were big stepping stones in the development of imagery, theme, and symbolism within literature, producing changes that still linger in novels today. One author whose writings are a perfect example of the influences of naturalism is Edith Wharton. Her short stories, novels, and personal biographies were riddled with naturalistic traits. Wharton used symbolism in Ethan Frome to enhance the naturalistic themes of the novel.
Naturalism was a strong movement in the 1900s which took the literary world by storm. Using the theory that nature is an unconquerable force, always acting against man, literature was filled with all variations of naturalistic motifs and symbols (Campbell Naturalism). Themes of predestination, astrological influence, and natural moralistic values were strong (Bellman 140). Scenery was often used to convey the mood of characters through their observational view of it (Moore). Naturalism says that humans are animals, so their connection with nature is deep and vital. Feelings and desires are distinctly linked to the animalistic traits of humans’ ancestors, proving that instinct is something set by nature within the body, and cannot be ignored. Common characteristics of a naturalistic novel are found in that the characters are always lower-class, the characters always live by passion and instinct, and that free will is always terribly far from their grasp (Campbell Naturalism). Dramatic scenes of desperation are a sine qua non, like the scene where Ethan and Mattie from Ethan Frome tragically drive themselves into a tree in an attempt to commit suicide (Wharton Frome 170). Pressured upon the reader are the facts that natural sin is always present within, nature is an ‘indifferent force’, and that heredity and surroundings constantly affect the characters (Campbell Naturalism).
Edith Wharton, the author of the novella Ethan Frome, was a naturalist herself. Having been the first woman to ever receive a Doctorate of Letters from Yale University, she was inexplicably involved in science and architecture, along with her interest in writing. She was a critic of Darwin, whose works she loved to read and learn from (Campbell Wharton), as can be seen in one of her short stories, “The Fulness of Life”: “I believed in Darwin, of course. I do still; but then Darwin himself said he wasn’t sure about the soul…” (Wharton Fulness). Many of her letters to Darwin and various critical texts are now kept in the Yale Library. (CampbellWharton) Her steady interest in naturalism was not only seen in her books, but was clearly stated in her life. The first estate she ever designed on her own, now called The Mount, was drawn forth with excruciating detail with Wharton paying close attention to exactly how everything was set up. Based on geometry, climatic needs of plants, and the lay of the surrounding land, she constructed gardens in the most articulate of forms. She loved to write in this place, and it was her favorite home of all. The building of this incredible estate clearly showed her interest and dedication to science and naturalism. (The Mount)
In the novella Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton uses her ability to manipulate the scenery to create naturalistic symbolism. The cold, lonely landscape of New England is her choice for a setting, creating an immediate distinctive feeling of isolation and barrenness for the reader (Moore). “About a mile farther, we came to an orchard of starved apple tress writhing over a hillside...” is a quotation that clearly shows that there is a significant amount of distance between the people who live in this area, and that the winter setting causes an overall sense of death and dreariness (Wharton Frome). Ethan, the main character, most often sees the landscape in this way because of his depressing predicament. There are moments within the book where Ethan begins to see his surroundings in a brand new way – and this is when he is with his love, Mattie (Moore). In naturalistic novels, authors use the character’s view of nature to represent their moods, as is clear in these particular scenes where Ethan is alone with Mattie (Campbell Naturalism). It is possible for Ethan to “grasp the inner beauty” of the setting in these instances, and the imagery becomes optimistic and endearing, representing Ethan’s feelings of infatuation and freedom that he finds within the presence of Mattie. When the reader pays close attention, they can realize that the landscape never actually changes, despite the new light cast upon it: only the mood of the characters has changed (Moore).
Although the main naturalistic points in the novella can be observed through the setting, there were other, smaller symbols that further enhanced the naturalistic themes. Small animals were an invaluable part of the novel, with symbols ranging from actual animals tracks to the animals themselves (Bellman 140). Butterflies are mentioned considerably throughout the book, often describing scenes where Ethan feels as though he has “suddenly come upon happiness”, almost as if Mattie and him have “surprised a butterfly out of the woods” (Wharton Frome). In this sense, butterflies represent freedom for Ethan. This freedom not only involves freedom in the moment, with being outside and alone with Mattie, but it also represents Ethan’s desire to be free from Zeena and all other responsibilities preventing him from being with Mattie for the rest of his life (Moore). The symbol is also an example of taboo, another major theme in many naturalistic novels. Ethan is faced with obstacles of morality and society set by human nature: his desires for freedom are completely frowned upon (Campbell Naturalism). Another example of a small animal being an important symbol would be the cat. This little cat, while representing Zeena when sleeping in Zeena’s rocking chair (Wharton Frome), also represents Ethan’s inability to be with Mattie (Moore). This is most clearly seen when the cat breaks Zeena’s prized pickle dish while Ethan is having dinner alone with Mattie (Wharton Frome). The cat shows that the nature of humans, natural morality developed by society, is preventing Ethan from conquering and obtaining his desires, as well as the natural order in the household, exactly proportionate as to how it would be in a group of animals in the wild: Zeena is the dominant leader of the pack, Ethan is the submissive follower, and Mattie is the young rebel, almost an outcast from the group (Moore).
Some symbols and themes, of course, are vaguer, less hinted upon, and less popular than others. For example, Zeena’s ‘illness’ is a direct association with heredity, a natural process. The illness provides an unconquerable boundary for Ethan, forcing him to constantly spend money on Zeena’s doctor visits and her medication. Although Ethan doubts Zeena’s troubles, he abides by the rules set by natural morality and by the levels in the household, meaning that Zeena is the boss and he has to take care of her the best that he can (Bellman 140). Here is presented the smaller themes of taboo, fighting against moral values, and people being trapped by societal influences (Campbell). Another much smaller symbol and theme is represented only a few times within the novella. There are a few times when the night sky is described, with the stars bright, and the constellations described in picturesque form, and this is always when Ethan is with Mattie, such as “Orion set in an iron sky, flashing his cold fires” (Wharton Frome). One can believe that there is a small theme of predestination, of a future written in the stars, so much that nature itself decides upon what happens in one’s life, making the fate of it all an unconquerable force (Bellman 140). Airing on the side of natural imagery is the symbol red, common in very many books, though most common in a natural way in naturalistic novels such as Ethan Frome. Beautiful red sunsets are present within the novella, accompanying other red elements, such as the red ribbon in Mattie’s hair (Bellman 140).
It is apparent throughout the novella that most of the symbols and motifs were of natural form and directly connected to naturalistic themes, such as taboo, societal and moral influences, predestination, natural and unavoidable influences from within, and humans’ deep connection to the natural world through desire and instinct (Campbell Naturalism). Edith Wharton conveyed all of these themes using symbolism she knew would lead directly to her naturalistic beliefs, which she presented in this novella, as well as many of her other writings (Wharton Fulness).…...

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