English and Modern Languages


Master of Arts (MA)


Matthew D Towles

Primary Subject Area

Literature, American; Literature, General


Communication, Deconstruction, Ethan Frome, Language, Power, Wharton


Literature in English, North America


Edith Wharton's novel, Ethan Frome, has been sharply criticized for its tragic ending, yet Wharton's compelling storytelling which depicts universal conditions of mankind accomplishes something powerful through its narrative: it defends language. The complicated relationship between the three main characters, Zeena, Ethan, and Mattie is rooted in their utilization of language. Using a combination of close reading for textual analysis and identifying a communicative style for each character, this thesis asserts that how the characters in this novel utilize language contests the meaninglessness and relativity supported by deconstructionists. Wharton clearly illustrates Zeena's linguistic power over both Ethan and Mattie, and Zeena's powerful, versatile character reflects her language. Wharton gives her female antagonist the power, and Zeena's power transcends conventional uses of language and substantiates the significance of language. As a work of literature, Ethan Frome defends that which it is built upon: the written word.