A Comparison of the Women of Wharton and Deledda
Two writers, both women, both from different backgrounds. Edith Wharton
was high society. Grazia Deledda was a commoner from another country. Though
both wrote almost exclusively to their won regions, their portrayal of women was
quite similar. In Wharton’s Ethan Frome she has two women, both distinct from
one another. In Deledda’s La Madre, two women also make up the bulk of the story.
But there are many more similarities in these works. Released only nine years
apart both novels deal with a struggle of the heart, of the faith, and a
struggle of their moral soundness. And in both stories the women are portrayed
on opposite sides of the conflict. In this paper I intend to show an apparent
bond between these stories’ characters, and the gamut ran between the female
Published in 1911, Ethan Frome is considered one of the best
contemporary short novels of its time. Ethan Frome illuminated Wharton’s
familiar writing style with a spark of imagination. In this story, as I
expressed in the opening paragraph, lie two women. The first is Zenobia Frome,
or Zeena for short. In her late twenties, she suffers from a compounded sickness
that was thought to be brought on by her taking care of Ethan’s mother and her
absorption of life’s burdens. In this story she is the conflicting character.
The other woman is a young Mattie Silver, the cousin of Zeena and the
housemaid of the Fromes. Mattie is about twenty-one years old and not too much
of a house keeper since she is small and weak and somewhat clumsy. But
nevertheless she caught the eye of Ethan Frome who would fetch her on nights of
town revelry, and with that grew a forbidden love. This is the conflict of the
In 1920, Grazia Deledda published La Madre. Maria Maddalena is the
mother of the priest who, throughout the book, falls to the wayside under
temptation. She is a very old-fashioned woman as is the whole town.
Overprotective of her son, she helps build up the climactic theme of faith. The
other woman is Agnes, a well-to-do townswoman who is the object of the priest’s
backslidden affair. Unlike Ethan Frome, in this story the characters of
conflict shift between the two women. Now let’s look at the comparable likeness
of the women in both stories.
To look at Maria Maddalena and Zeena Frome in the same frame would not
be a far stretch. Both are very controlling and try to rule the lives of the
men around them. Zeena portrays constant supervision over Ethan even when she
is not physically around. Maria also kept a constant supervision in her son’s
life. This was maybe the main reason why Paul did not fold under temptation,
whereas Zeena’s domineering actions did not bring any good to her situation.
Zeena played the part of a wife/mother. She was very controlling and
possessive, putting objects in higher regard than those around her, as shown in
the scene where she finds the broken pickle dish. “Must he wear out all his
years at the side of a bitter querulous woman? Other possibilities had been him,
possibilities sacrificed, one by one, to Zeena’s narrow-mindedness and
ignorance” (Wharton 53). This quote sums up the state of the relationship
between Ethan and Zeena, grim and despondent.
Now, in my eyes, Maria Maddalena was the lesser of two evils.
Constantly pressuring her son, she too was very domineering and overprotective.
Although her son Paul could see her reasons for worry, he realized that it was
much too dramatic, which probably just worsened the problem. I trust that if
one’s mother said she had spoken with a ghost about the current problems of
oneself, that alone would be a great psychological strain. I believe that you
could interchange these two characters and not make a great deal of change. The
same can be said for Agnes and Mattie.
Agnes was a paradox of sorts. So beautiful and pure enough for a priest
to fall in love with, yet if turned upon, by any means would vindicate herself.
She fascinated Paul with her beautiful flowing hair and sweet smelling perfumes.
He was also drawn in by pity and solitude, mixed with human sexuality. The same
qualities entranced Ethan. Mattie is a symbol of chaste innocence and the
essence of romantic love, which Ethan was severely lacking, almost to the point
of emotional dehydration. These two women personify what all men really want,
an escape from reality into a world of unconditional attractiveness with the
Even though there are some distinctions between the women, I believe
they are there because of the story they are placed in. Let’s say that Agnes
was the housemaid in Ethan Frome. She would not have had the same vengeful
nature as she did towards Paul because Ethan would have given in to her and
submitted all he had. This would have eliminated that aspect of her disposition.
I also believe that one reason the mother in La Madre came across as she
did was due in part to the time and location of the story. I assume that in the
early 1900’s the position of motherhood was filled with many devout, stern
people. It was normal. Also in a predominantly Catholic place such as Sardinia,
religion played heavily on their lives. And to be a mother of a priest just put
added responsibility to the job of being as pious as possible.
One man, one woman tempting that man, and one woman holding that man
back from temptation is the basis that both of these stories come down to. “And
after their eyes had met their hands had sought and found each other, and that
night they had kissed. And now his blood, which had flowed quietly for so many
years rushed through his veins like liquid fire and the weak flesh yielded…”
From just reading this paper one would not know which book this quote
came from (with an exception of the citation). And it doesn’t really matter,
for what matters is that it is in both books from the beginning to the end.
Remarkable similarities from remarkable character. From Agnes to Mattie and
from Zeena to Maria, the drama and tragedy encompasses all. And to compare
these people or contrast the, either task would be worth doing over again. . .
Deledda, Grazia. La Madre (The Woman and the Priest). Italy: Dedalus, 1920.
. Wharton, Edith. Edith Frome. New York: Norton, 1995.