Wharton manipulates our feelings by presenting Ethan and the girl he loves, Mattie, in a wholly sympathetic light while depicting Ethan’s wife Zeena as a mean and miserable figure intent on destroying her husband’s happiness. Wharton gives the bulk of the narrative from Ethan’s viewpoint, entering deep into his feelings and making it quite clear that he feels happiness with Mattie, and most emphatically not with Zeena, although he has always tried to do his best by his wife. The reader is therefore inclined to side with Ethan and Mattie against Zeena. it should be borne in mind, though, that the story of these three people is presented not on its own terms but in the shape of a 'vision' conjured up by the un-named narrator (Prologue). This narrator apparently puts together a picture of their tragic lives from the bits and pieces of gossip he picks up about them, and from the one night that he spends in their home.
In one sense the relationships between Ethan, Zeena and Mattie can hardly be described as a love triangle, as Zeena appears as a totally loveless and unloving figure. In fact she is almost witch-like, with her dark brooding looks, dried-up figure and false teeth. Although we can say she has cause for grievance against Ethan and Mattie, as she probably suspects that they have feelings for each other, her sending Mattie away towards the end of the story is presented as a wholly callous, cruel act. Ethan is absolutely revolted:
Ethan looked at her with loathing …. There had never been anything in her that one could appeal to …. All the long misery of his baffled past … rose up in his soul in bitterness and seemed to take shape before him in the woman who had at every turn barred his way. (chapter 7)
Zeena here becomes virtually the personification of misery for Ethan. In this and other descriptions she appears so devoid of any human warmth that it is hard for the reader to identify with her in any way. We are never allowed any insight into her thoughts, and that makes it all the harder to sympathize with her.
By contrast, Mattie is always described as being pretty, winsome, and obliging; she utterly charms Ethan, and as we see the main part of the story through Ethan’s eyes, she appeals to the reader as well. We are invited to feel strong pity for her when she receives her marching orders from Zeena:
She looked so small and pinched, in her poor dress, with the red scarf wound about her, and the cold light turning her paleness sallow, that Ethan stood before her without speaking. (chapter 8)
This description plays up the image of Mattie as sweetly pathetic, lonely, helpless, and like Ethan the reader is drawn towards her. True, another picture of her emerges at the end of the story after her near-fatal accident, and when she is no longer being filtered through Ethan's perspective. At this point she appears as crone-like as Zeena (she is now a cripple for life). However, this great change in her seems easily explained away by the accident.