Wharton’s main thrust in this much-disputed and problematical work is the presentation of a universe of moral ambiguity hemmed in by a physical universe that seems clear-cut in its starkness and finality. Images of death, frozen submission, imprisonment, and sterility imbue Ethan Frome with a sense of grim determinism. Yet it is not a deterministic work. Events seem ordained by both the nature and harshness of the characters’ lives, but Ethan is able to make, at least momentarily, a distinct decision as to what is right (not just “proper”) when he chooses not to lie to the Hales or to desert Zeena. His moment of truth comes with his sudden and melancholic realization of who he is and what he must do:. . . the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he could have done so only by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him.
It is Wharton’s mastery of her subject matter that enables her readers to see both the grim inevitability of Ethan’s life and, at the same time, the grandeur of his moral choice in this grimmest of worlds. Her work is more properly termed tragic irony because, although Ethan decides not to abandon and humiliate Zeena by running away with Mattie, he weakens and decides (with her tacit consent) to commit mutual suicide. The irony exists in that he opts, finally, for an end to life through death and instead receives, in the vast indifference of Wharton’s universe, a death-in-life. He, Mattie, and Zeena continue to exist in the same entrapped, triangular relationship as before but without hope, without the vitality of Ethan and Mattie’s love. Furthermore, not only are the roles reversed, but the sick (Zeena) has become well, and the healthy or vital (Mattie and Ethan) have become maimed, crippled, and scarred (there is a red gash in Ethan’s forehead).
In many ways, the novel unites content and form through stylistic and metaphoric comparisons of the cold and frozen landscape as part and parcel of the character’s moral framework. Isolated, “frozen” in their poverty, barren (the Fromes are childless), and unhealthy in outlook (Zeena is obsessed with her diseases and “complications”), the characters reflect the countryside itself. It is this very sense of isolation that causes Ethan to marry Zeena—he fears being left alone, with silence—after his mother dies. Silence and absence are also powerful metaphors. It is by silence that Zeena manipulates best, spreading unknown fears among Mattie and Ethan. Further, Zeena becomes more powerful in her absence: when the pickle dish is broken, when Mattie sits in Zeena’s rocking chair, and when the cat inadvertently starts the chair rocking and the specter of Zeena fills the room. Even in the final moments of his suicide attempt, the image of Zeena invades Ethan’s mind and almost subverts his actions.
Wharton also uses the technique of contrast to emphasize her irony. She contrasts the prosperous, unrestricted life of the engineer-narrator with Ethan, who once studied such things at the university. In reverberating scenes, the author first presents Zeena at the back door of the farmhouse with a lantern silhouetting her drawn and tight features; later she is contrasted with a similar scene of Mattie with lantern light highlighting her youthful and soft features. Finally, the most powerful contrast, presented in the main versus the frame story, is of Ethan himself as young, vital, loving, and capable of so many unexpressed possibilities with the final grim, warped “ruin of a man” that Ethan becomes—a sort of Sisyphus in the mythology of Wharton’s universe.