Social Isolation In Wharton's Ethan Frome

Improved Essays
“The English Malady”, now known as hypochondria, was considered to be a “bizarre and contradictory [way to instill] irrationality” (Mullan 142). About 300 years later, hypochondria has changed from a disease to merely a side effect of social isolation. Throughout the novella, Ethan Frome, both Ethan and his wife, Zeena suffer from social isolation; however, the length and extent of this isolation affects them in different ways. Zeena suffers in a more obvious way, nagging for attention and having hypochondria, while Ethan suffers in a more subtle way, clinging onto any women that enter his life and having morbid thoughts when things don’t go as planned.
Ethan and his wife live in the town of Starkfield, which is characterized by a lack of warmth,
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According to Susan Baur, hypochondria is an obsession with one’s health or constant feeling as if one is always sick, either physically or mentally. The intensity of these concerns disrupts normal living habits and is disproportionate to any medical problems that might actually exist. She hypothesizes that hypochondria is “the perfect solution to this common predicament, for being ill- either as a child, wife, husband, employee, or in law- the vulnerable person simultaneously obtains the protection and attention he craves, excuses his excessive dependence, binds his protector to him” (Baur 5). This is the case in Zeena’s situation, as she binds herself to one of the only thing she cares for and wants -- Ethan. When she binds herself to Ethan through her incessant nagging for his attention, she is adding herself and her health to his long list of his obligations and keeping him from running away with Mattie. She also claims to be incredibly sick, knowing that “only the chosen had ‘complications’” (Wharton 46). This also adds to the attention Zeena desire “And within a year of their marriage she developed the ‘sickliness’ which had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances. (Wharton 30)” By being a hypochondriac, she is “substitut[ing] illness, a blameless form of failure, for [her] sense of general worthlessness” (Baur 5). Zeena consistently goes to different doctors, buying expensive things she never uses and is convinced that she has a serious disease. However, when Ethan and Mattie crash into the tree, which ensures that they will not run away together or even try to spend the majority of their time together, Zeena suddenly feels well enough to care for them, but throughout the novella she had been too “sickly” to even get out of

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