Do you agree or disagree that Ethan Frome offers the reader a story not of great moral dilemma but rather a tale of meaningless cruelty?
If you believe the book does present a great moral dilemma, can you explain why using example scenes from the book?
The novel is much more about the moral dilemmas of its main characters than it is about meaningless cruelty. The cruelty of the novel, if there is any, comes from very specific motivations and not that one of the characters "sets out to" be cruel to another. There is bitterness and resentment, but not cruelty.
The moral dilemmas are what the book really hinge on. Ethan is faces with two significant moral dilemmas. The first and most important is whether or not to leave Zeena at the farm and run away to the West with Mattie. In doing this, Ethan would be leaving a sickly wife with a broken down farm that she probably couldn't handle on her own. She would be absolutely destitute. Ethan only married Zeena because he was afraid of facing a cold winter alone immediately his mother just died. It is a rather loveless affair and Zeena is not an easy women to be with. Her hypochondria sends her to bed or to the doctors on a regular basis, but it would seem in the end that this behavior was on some level attention-seeking behavior on her part, even before Mattie arrived. Ethan thinks long and hard about leaving, but in the end doesn't want to have to lie to friends to get enough money to leave, and he can't live with what that would do to Zeena.
His second moral dilemma is the suicide attempt at the end of the novel. The sledding into the tree=suicide is NOT his idea, but he is caught up in the emotion of having to say good-bye to Mattie, so he impulsively goes along with the plan, but he can't shake his morals, and even as he sleds towards the elm, he thinks of Zeena, swerves slightly, re-steers towards the tree, and crashes them. Unfortunately, he only maims them both, so he is left with the struggle over his guilt in all of this for the rest of his life. He is forced to live with both women and live out the rest of his days in the cruel, miserable circumstances that brought him to this place.