Edith Wharton on What Women Want

Edith Wharton on What Women Want


For centuries, men have pondered the question, “What do women want?” Despite their ardent searching, hypotheses repeatedly miss the mark, and men are left with the assumption that women are esoteric masterpieces. In fact, Oscar Wilde wrote, “[W]omen are meant to be loved, not to be understood.” Nevertheless, Edith Wharton uses her leading female character in Ethan Frome to portray her conceptions of what women truly desire. Wharton’s antagonist, Zeena, is a sickly, poor woman fighting for survival in a harsh town.  She initially seems like a inhumanely cruel character, but further inspection reveals that her desires parallel with those of all womankind.

An early goal of all women is prosperity. Even as toddlers, girls pretend to be princesses by demanding beautiful dresses, glittering jewelry, and doting servants.  Zeena likely had such ambitions when she was young. As an adult, She rued her lack of riches that were displayed by her drafty house and the rough calico clothing that engulfed her skinny body. Rather than settle for what she could afford, she splurged on expensive desires, usually of the medical sort, and expected her husband, Ethan, to reimburse the bill. This meant that Ethan constantly paid exorbitant funds for medications that tended to be left unused or forgotten. Zeena ignored the price of her opulence, assuming that grandeur was the least that she deserved.

In conjunction, women want to be admired by all who see them. Wharton uses two methods to create a character which promote self-value above all else. First, she chose a name which aptly described this antagonist.  Zeena’s name, short for Zenobia, alludes to both the Zenobia in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The Blithdale Romance and the third-century defiant queen of Palmyra, also named Zenobia. “Zenobia” refers to “any powerful, ambitious woman”. Although Zeena is physically frail, her willpower is strong, and she simultaneously lives in poor health and complete control of the household.

Secondly,  Zeena’s actions portray her longing to be a respected member of her town.  Her self-centeredness was overpowering, and her constant complaining can be attributed to her egocentricity. She reasoned that talking would draw attention to herself. In fact, one of her greatest complaints was that Ethan did not listen. She is described as being “wholly absorbed in her health,” and it did not matter to her who was affected by this preoccupation. Zeena found her identity in her sick bed; the entire town referred to her as “sickly.” She cared more about the town’s perception of her than their personal integrity.

Nevertheless, the greatest desire of all women is control. Just as Delilah hoaxed Samson into telling his secrets,  Zeena connived her lover to perform what he had once considered unthinkable atrocities.  Zeena wheedles Ethan seemingly from initial contact. Mocking his failure to take care of his own mother, Zeena took charge of Mrs. Frome’s health, and Ethan dutifully obeyed every word from Zeena’s lips. Ethan basked in his newfound lack of responsibility; when the time was come for Zeena to leave, he asked her to marry him, terrified of the solitude. Zeena happily obliged. After all, Ethan owed her much more than marriage after all she had done for his mother. Following their wedding, Zeena fell ill. Using this supposed illness as a crutch to gain what she desired, Zeena continued to control Ethan. Their first plan was to move out of Starkfield, the small town that Zeena “chose to look down on.” However, Zeena also “could not have lived in a place which looked down on her,” and the newlyweds remained on the failing farm. Ethan, seven years younger than Zeena, never fought his controlling wife. His secret longing for independence is exposed, however, when he muses that he would not have married Zeena had his mother “died in spring instead of winter.” Every time the doctor prescribed a new medicine for Zeena, Ethan provided it, despite the lack of money. When Zeena determined that the housework was too difficult for her to manage alone, Mattie was brought in as an assistant. And, finally, when Zeena reasons that Mattie is no longer a suitable worker, Ethan despondently drove his confidante to the train station. Wharton describes Ethan as “powerful” and creates a strong, determined young man with high ambitions. Yet, he never acted on his inner desires to rebel against Zeena. Instead, he silently harbored the idea that Zeena’s single remaining pleasure was “to inflict pain on him.” Indeed, some have referred to Ethan as Zeena’s “victim;” he seems to be the ultimate fatality in each of her decisions. Perhaps comedian Groucho Marx considered this universal difficulty when he quipped, “Man does not control his own fate.  The women in his life do that for him.”

In Genesis three, a crafty serpent tempts Eve, the first woman to ever live. There, in the Garden of Eden, the snake lures her with the promise of being like a god. With this newfound transcendence, she would have wealth, respect, and control. Since then, women have wanted nothing more. The answer to the question “what do women want?” should have never been so difficult to discover; it has not changed since the beginning of time.

  • “Groucho Marx Quotes.” BrainyQuote. BookRags Media, n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.
  • Nevius, Blake. “”Ethan Frome” and the Themes of Edith Wharton’s Fiction.” New England Quarterly 24.2 (1951): 199-207. JSTOR. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.
  • Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1995. Print.
  • Wilde, Oscar. “The Sphinx without a Secret.” Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, and other stories, by Oscar Wilde. Adelaide, 4 March 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.

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