Executive Order 9066, passed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942, forced all Japanese-Americans to pack up their lives and move to internment camps, a place where they would live in shabby barracks and get treated unfairly by guards. This order confined the American citizens in heinous camps for up to three years. Because of their heritage, which could be as little as one sixteenth Japanese, the citizens were obligated to move; they became trapped in these camps where unhappiness was present in every aspect of life. Similarly, in the novel Ethan Frome, the title character is trapped in his unhappy life due to marriage, family, property, and financial liabilities. The author, Edith Wharton uses the motif of entrapment to prove how obligations lead to unhappiness throughout the novel.
Ethan Frome and his wife, Zenobia (Zeena), never really know what true love feels like because they are both very lonely people. They meet when Zeena is caring for Ethan’s mother; due to their loneliness, they mistake the bizarre feeling of companionship for love. Ethan marries Zeena, not because he is in love, but because he does not want to be alone and he feels like he owes it to her for everything she is doing for him. She is aware of this and claims, “…you grudged me the money to get back my health, when I lost it nursing your own mother! And my folks all told me at the time you couldn’t do no less than marry me after—” (Wharton 83). In addition to Zeena saying that Ethan owes her for caring for his mother, “Memories haunt Ethan and cause him to feel obligated to Zeena. He remembers, for example, that Zeena took good care of his mother, and the image of Zeena looking after his sick mother reminds him that he is in her debt” (Witkosky 2). The sense of obligation that Ethan feels toward Zeena causes him to be stuck in a cold, unloving marriage. He feels that he cannot leave due to Zeena’s physical and financial reliance on him. Ethan’s duties to both repay and care for Zeena lead him to become trapped in an unhappy marriage. Ethan feels that he is obligated to care for Zeena because “She had always been what Starkfield called ‘sickly,’ and Frome had to admit that, if she were as ailing as she believed, she needed the help of a stronger arm than the one which lay so lightly in his during the night walks to the farm’’ (Wharton 27). When she first begins caring for Ethan’s mother, Zeena is outgoing and lively, yet soon after they are married, “Zenobia became plagued by both real and imagined sickness, and Ethan felt himself trapped in an essentially loveless, joyless marriage” (Evans 1). Ethan is unable to fall in love with Zeena, yet he honors his commitments and promises to her which leaves him confined in the unhappy marriage.
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Ethan Frome lives on a farm that has belonged to his family for many generations before him. Due to the death of his father, Ethan has to take on the entire farm as a young man, resulting in him being unable to rise in society. This inability to interact with other members of the town leaves him trapped with the same social status for his entire life. Every one of his past relatives takes prolific care of the farm, and “Ethan feels that it is his duty to maintain the property to his dying breath” (Witkosky 2). This sense of obligation further traps him in the unhappy life he is living “Left alone, after his father’s accident, to carry the burden of farm and mill, he had had no time for convivial loiterings in the village; and when his mother fell ill the loneliness of the house grew more oppressive than that of the fields” (Wharton 51). Having to take care of the family farm leads to Ethan’s entrapment and eventual unhappiness because it makes him an outsider in society. In addition to feeling responsible to care for the family property, Ethan feels as if his ancestors, the past caretakers of the Frome farm, are watching him from their graves, “For years that quiet company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom. ‘We never got away—how should you?’ seemed to be written on every headstone; and whenever he went in or out of his gate he thought with a shiver: ‘I shall just go on living here till I join them’” (Wharton 38). Ethan finds that no matter how hard he tries to break free from his family’s expectations, he is unable to. As Ethan’s story is being told,“Readers discover a man who feels overwhelmed by family responsibilities and who cannot free himself from what he believes to be family expectations. Even though most members of his family died long ago, Ethan senses their presence; in his eyes, the headstones on their graves, located near the farm are like sentinels who guard and enforce the family custom” (Witkosky 2). It is nearly impossible for one man to take on that much of a burden, and as a logical result, Ethan feels like he is letting down his ancestors, leading to his eternal unhappiness.