Perhaps two of the most recurring themes in Edith Wharton's novelEthan Frome are isolation and loneliness. We see that these two elements seem to permeate the novel and give it its frigid and sad atmosphere.Ethan is a product of such circumstances.
In the prologue, we see how the narrator describes Ethan in the following manner:
I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guessed that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.
One of the first effects of isolation and loneliness in Ethan's life comes with the illness of his mother. After Ethan's father's death, his mother begins to change into a silent and insane woman.
When his mother fell ill the loneliness of the house grew more oppressive than that of the fields. His mother had been a talker in her day, but after her “trouble” the sound of her voice was seldom heard, though she had not lost the power of speech. Sometimes, in the long winter evenings, when in desperation her son asked her why she didn't “say something,” she would lift a finger and answer: “Because I'm listening”;
It is Zeena who ultimately shows up in Starkfield to take care of Ethan's mother. After the mother's death, Ethan marries Zeena, in a haste, for fear of her leaving him all alone. However, the most ironic thing happens: the boundaries between Ethan and Zeena become so delineated that they cease to even communicate properly. Zeena decides to become as silent as Ethan's mother, not even a year after they marry (they have been married for 7 years), and this adds to the desperate situation in which Ethan lives. Here is a woman who is sickly, whose "gaunt countenance" makes her very hard to "read", and whose almost-eternal silence leaves room for questioning what could she possibly be thinking about. The physical and emotional isolation that Ethan feels must be disastrous.
Moreover, the entrance of Mattie in the household as Zeena's caretaker makes Ethan's situation even harder because he cannot express his emotions to Mattie openly. He is forced to be isolated from Mattie due to Zeena's ever-looming presence in the house.
When Ethan and Mattie make the suicide pact, they think that they will die and wake up alone in eternity forever. Instead, they survive the attempt, and both become deformed. Isolation hits again: Mattie is to live forever disabled and home-bound in Ethan's household, and Ethan is socially isolated as the town's "strange specimen", so to speak.
Hence, whether it is emotional, physical, or social, there will always seem to be isolation and loneliness in every aspect of the life of Ethan Frome.