PURPOSE: To examine the character of Zenobia Pierce in the novel "Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton. AUDIENCE: Readers who have not read the book "Ethan Frome and Other Short Fiction" and are interested in the character of Zenobia Pierce, Ethan Frome's wife. THESIS: Zenobia Pierce represents a character that is bitter and cold, making everyone around her miserable. Pam Thomason Professor Juanita Davis Humanities English 120 February 18, 1999 The Character of Zenobia Pierce in Wharton's "Ethan Frome " Zenobia Pierce, known as Zeena throughout the novel "Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton, is a very unhappy, bitter woman. Wharton seems to depict her ex-husband, Edward Wharton, through the remarkable details she uses to characterize Zeena.
Zeena, Ethan Frome's cousin, comes to help Ethan during his mother's illness. She is a great relief to Ethan during this time. As Wharton remarks, "Zeena seemed to understand his case at a glance. She laughed at him for not knowing the simplest sick bed duties and told him to "go right along out" and leave her to see to things" (35). Zeena at this time is attractive, healthy, and fun for Ethan to be with.
Then Ethan's mother dies during the winter and Ethan can not bear the cold, harsh Massachusetts winter alone, so he asks Zeena to marry him. After Zeena's marriage to Ethan, the relationship changes, as Zeena becomes silent. She goes to bed immediately after supper leaving Ethan without any companionship. Wharton describes the change "When she came to take care of his mother, she had seemed to Ethan like the very genius of health, but he soon saw that her skill as a nurse had been acquired by the absorbed observations for her own systems" (36). Throughout the entire story, Zeena is described as sickly.
She is a hypochondriac who takes medicine and visits doctors all the time causing Ethan to become attracted to Mattie Silver, Zeena's cousin and caretaker during her illnesses. What attraction Ethan has to Zeena is lost. Zeena is so dreadful that Ethan tries to forget what she looks like. Wharton renders this delineation " A slatternly calico wrapper hung from her shoulders and the wisps of her thin grey hair were drawn away from a high forehead and fastened at the back by a broken comb. She had pale opaque eyes which revealed nothing and reflected nothing, and her narrow lips were the same sallow colour of her face" (85).
Wharton indicates she is a hideous, cold-blooded, passionless creature. Wharton portrays Zeena as a wretched creature when she states: Against the dark background of the kitchen, she stood up tall and angular, one hand drawing a quilted counterpane to her flat breast, while the other held a lamp. The light, on a level with her chin, drew out of the darkness her puckered throat and the projecting wrist of the hand that clutched the quilt, and deepened fantastically the hollows and prominences of her high-boned face under its ring of crimping-pins. (27) She is a detestable sight to Ethan and Mattie. In Wharton's description of Ethan's feelings toward Zeena she states "She was a hundred times bitterer and more discontented than when he had married her; the one pleasure left her was to inflict pain on him" (65).
Zeena knows Ethan is attracted to Mattie and that everyone in town knows about their relationship. She is happy that it makes them so miserable when she decides to send Mattie away. She knows she has broken Ethan's spirit and is taking away what he is living for. Zeena blends well with the frigid, dreary weather and depressing descriptions of the home throughout the novel. She is a woeful person and thrives on making the people close to her miserable. The only time Zeena is content in life and is able to forget her own ailments is through caring for someone else, even if it is Mattie Silver, whom her husband loves.
Work Cited Wharton, Edith. "Ethan Frome." Ethan Frome and Other Short Fiction. Bantam Classic ed. New York: Bantam Books, Inc.
, 1987: 3-89.