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In order to understand Ethan Frome as a character, you have to be aware of the two major forces that Wharton presents as impacting upon his character. Ethan finds himself battling the conflict of social convention on the one hand, and passion and love on the other. Secondly, he is the product of a harsh winter environment and the impact that such weather can have on a character. These two twin elements seem to work together in order to produce an individual who is very passive and sombre individual who is burdened by his responsibility towards his sick wife and the circumstances of his poor farming. When a local tells the narrator "Guess he's been in Starkfield too many winters," we can therefore see that he is a character who has been ground down by circumstance and the harsh environment in which he lives.
It is highly appropriate therefore that Ethan's namesake was married to a wife called Endurance, as Ethan is a character who is forced to merely endure and is unable to act to change his situation. Against the forces that bear down upon him--tradition, duty, responsibility--he stands defenceless and is unable to exert himself to leave Starkfield or to pursue his passion and gain Mattie.
Note the following example of Ethan's inability to give in or to respond to his feelings and instincts with Zeena:
All the long misery of his baffled past, of his youth of failure, hardship and vain effort, rose up in his soul in bitterness and seemed to take shape before him in the woman who at every turn had barred his way. She had taken everything else from him; and now she meant to take the one thing that made up for all the others. For a moment such a flame of hate rose in him that it ran down his arm and clenched his fist against her. He took a wild step forward and then stopped.
“You’re—you’re not coming down?” he said in a bewildered voice.
Even though he feels incredible anger and rage, and begins to act upon it, taking a "wild step forward," the power of duty, responsibility and social convention prevents him from going any further, and he is left to stammer out a question in a "bewildered" voice. Ethan is shown therefore to be a sensitive man who has his dreams relentlessly crushed by circumstance.
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