Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Ethan Frome, a farmer frustrated in his ambition to become an engineer or a chemist and in his marriage to a nagging, sour, sickly wife. He falls in love with his wife’s good and lovely cousin, Mattie Silver, who comes to live with them. When his wife finally drives the girl away, Ethan insists on taking her to the station. Ethan and Mattie decide to take a sleigh ride they have promised themselves and, in mutual despair over the impending separation, they resolve to kill themselves by running the sled against a tree. They are not killed, only permanently injured, and Ethan’s wife is to look after them for the rest of their lives.
Zenobia Pierce Frome (Zeena)
Zenobia Pierce Frome (Zeena), Ethan’s wife, a distant cousin who nursed his mother during a long illness. The marriage is loveless, and Zeena is sickly and nagging.
Mattie Silver, Zeena’s cousin, who comes to live with the Fromes. She returns Ethan’s love, and once when Zeena spends a night away from home, she and Ethan spend a happy evening together, not making love but sitting quietly before the fire, as Ethan imagines happily married couples do. Mattie feels that she would rather die than leave Ethan, but in the crash she suffers not death, but a permanent spine injury and must submit thereafter to being nursed by Zeena.
Ruth Varnum and
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The characterizations in Ethan Frome are simple and intense. The three main characters have been stripped of all extraneous gestures and ornamentation. What remain are the essential passions and frustrations of human existence. In her introduction to the novella, Wharton compares the characters to the "granite outcroppings" of the New England landscape they inhabit: they are "but half-emerged from the soil, and scarcely more articulate." Life had always presented itself "starkly and summarily" to these characters.
When readers first see Ethan Frome, twenty-four years after a catastrophic accident, he appears much older than his fifty-two years. Stiff and lame, he bears a red gash across his forehead. His physical appearance quite literally suggests the inner man: maimed by life, he is a shell of the kind, generous man that existed before the accident.
Mattie Silver and Zenobia Frome have also been reduced to essential characteristics. Before the accident, Mattie was not only beautiful and good-natured but also fragile and sickly, unable to survive in the harsh New England climate without a protector. Now that she has been crippled, these latter character traits have become dominant. Her one distinguishing characteristic is the "querulous drone" in her voice. In contrast, Zenobia Frome has found a purpose for her life because of the accident. In the early years of her marriage, her sole concern was her own physical welfare. She...
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Ethan Frome is twenty-eight years old and physically impressive at the time the events in the novel take place. A series of family crises put a premature end to his engineering studies and force him into agriculture, for which he has no inclination, and now he must also care for Zeena, his cranky, hypochondriacal wife of seven years. Ethan's brief studies made him "aware of the huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things," and because he is "by nature grave and inarticulate," he is "warmed to the marrow by friendly human intercourse." He cannot expect this from Zeena, who basically stopped speaking a year into their marriage. So when Mattie Silver comes to live with the Fromes as a companion to Zeena, Ethan takes to her immediately. "Always ... more sensitive than the people about him to the appeal of natural beauty," Ethan delights in showing Mattie the stars in the sky and rock formations, and in accompanying her to and from her social outings. He is "never gay but in her presence." His generosity is evident in his taking time from his own chores to cover for her inadequate housekeeping by creeping down late on Saturday nights to scrub the kitchen floor.
Though he has longed despairingly for years for change and freedom, his sole desire now is to have things remain the way they are, with Mattie near him. In fact, as Kenneth Bernard wrote, "Throughout the book, Frome recognizes his futility and accepts it rather than trying to fight his way out...
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Zenobia (Zeena) is Ethan Frome's unhappy, malady-plagued wife. She is thirty-five at the time the events of the novel take place, and "already an old woman." Her hair is gray, her clothing is described as "slatternly," and she makes a "familiar gesture of adjusting her false teeth" before eating. Zeena first came to the Frome farmhouse to help Ethan nurse his ailing, deranged mother, and he was "shamed and dazzled" by her efficiency. The couple's plan on marrying was to sell the farm and sawmill and to move to a large town. But although Zeena had no desire to live on an isolated farm, neither could she tolerate the loss of identity that moving to the sort of city Ethan had in mind would. Within a year of the marriage she turned peevish and sickly, then silent, just like his mother. Her sole pleasure, as Ethan sees it, is to make him miserable.
It is Zeena who suggests that her cousin Mattie Silver come to live with them as her aid. But once the attraction between Ethan and Mattie becomes apparent, Zeena begins to find fault with the girl. Zeena is hard to figure, in fact; she appears hardly human. As Mrs. Ned Hale remarks, no one knows her thoughts. To Ethan, her silence seems "deliberately assumed to conceal far-reaching intentions, mysterious conclusions drawn from suspicions and resentments impossible to guess." Indeed, Zeena arranges both Mattie's departure and her replacement without consulting Ethan. The only emotional outburst Zeena gives into...
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The entire story of Ethan Frome is told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator. Sent to the area in connection with an engineering project at Corbury Junction, he is obliged to stay most of the winter in Starkfield on account of unexpected delays. When he encounters Ethan Frome at the post office, he is so intrigued by this "ruin of man" that he begins to ask around and eventually "[has] the story, bit by bit, from various people." The narrator feels sympathy for Ethan, and tends to think of him in heroic terms, as when he is driving in the buggy with him and sees Ethan's "brown seamed profile, under the helmet-like peak of the cap, relieved against the banks of snow like the bronze image of a hero." An indication of the extent of the narrator's fantasizing is that when Harmon Gow remarks that "Most of the smart ones get away," the narrator wonders how "any combination of obstacles [could] have hindered the flight of a man like Ethan Frome." But a single winter in the mountains is sufficient for the narrator to begin to imagine what "life there—or rather its negation—must have been in Ethan Frome's young manhood." And when a blizzard forces the narrator to take shelter at Ethan's farmhouse for the night, he finds "the clue to Ethan Frome, and [begins] to put together this vision of the story." The narrator's use of the word "vision" here is significant. According to critic Cynthia Griffin Wolff, "the 'story' of Ethan Frome is nothing more than a...
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Mattie Silver is a beautiful young relative of Zeena Frome's who is sent to provide help for Zeena after her father dies, leaving her penniless. She is ill-prepared to seek economic independence, and in the past, attempts at stenography and bookkeeping threatened her health. As the story opens, Mattie has been with the Fromes for a year. When Ethan first goes to meet her, he thinks, "She don't look much on housework, but she ain't a fretter, anyhow." Mattie is "quick to learn, but forgetful and dreamy," and her friendship with Ethan evolves from their shared laughter at her initial efforts. Mattie's sweetness is contrasted with Zeena's sourness, and her strength with Ethan's helplessness. For example, the first time Ethan proposes that they go sledding and asks her whether she would be afraid, Mattie responds, "I told you I ain't the kind to be afraid." When Zeena confronts Ethan and Mattie with the broken pickle dish, and Ethan tries to cover for her, Mattie says, "It wasn't Ethan's fault, Zeena! The cat did break the dish; but I got it down from the china-closet, and I'm the one to blame for its getting broken." Mattie is self-possessed as Ethan takes her to the train to leave Starkfield, although she has no idea where she is going. "You mustn't think but what I'll do all right," she comforts him. The suicide attempt is Mattie's idea, and when Ethan changes places with her on the sled at the last minute "because I want to feel you holding me," she agrees....
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The son of Michael Eady, an ambitious Irish grocer. Dennis has a reputation for applying the same techniques his father used so successfully in business in pursuit of the young women of Starkfield.
See Zenobia Frome
The narrator of the story calls Harmon Gow the "village oracle." He drove the stage from Bettsbridge to Starkfield in pre-trolley days, and knows the history of all the families along his route. It is from Gow that the narrator first begins to piece together the enigma of Ethan Frome.
Andrew is a builder, Ned Hale's father, and an old friend of Ethan's family. To avoid having to drive Zeena to the Flats, Ethan pleads that he has to collect cash for lumber from Hale. The lie forces him to go to see Hale and ask for an advance, which "the builder refused genially, as he did everything else." In a desperate attempt to procure money so he can run away with Mattie, Ethan considers approaching Hale a second time. But he cannot bring himself to deceive Hale and his wife, "two kindly people who had pitied him."
Mrs. Ned Hale
Ruth is Andrew Hale's daughter-in-law. She is a middle-aged widow with whom the narrator stays while he is in Starkfield. Twenty-four years earlier, she had been a friend of Mattie Silver's, and Mattie was to have been her bridesmaid. Like Harmon Gow, Mrs. Ned Hale helps the...
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