Ethan's tragedy lies in what his life could have become had he been able to free himself from Starkfield, first as a very young man and then later at the age of 28. When he was very young, Ethan was intellectually curious and full of dreams; he was very sociable. He wanted to move away from tiny, isolated Starkfield to live in a busy city where life was exciting and full of possibilities. This was not to be, for Ethan's adult life would be largely determined by chance and circumstance.
He was born into poverty, the only child of farm people who worked hard but never got ahead financially. The Frome farm provided only a bare existence, but it was the family farm handed down through generations. Ethan was tied to the farm by tradition and by responsibility. When his father died and his mother became ill, he had to give up school and return. It never occurred to him he had a choice.
The farm was located miles from Starkfield, a small New England village. When winter came, those who lived on outlying farms were sentenced to months of cold, silent isolation by the heavy snowfalls that descended every year. Transportation was crude; roads were impassable. Loneliness arrived along with the blizzards. It was his fear of the overwhelming loneliness that prompted Ethan to marry Zeena after his mother died. He could not bear to spend a winter alone on the farm. If his mother had died in the spring, Ethan later realized, he would not have married Zeena. The timing of his mother's death effectively determined the remainder of Ethan's life.
Through chance and circumstance, Ethan meets Mattie Silver. She just happened to be available to come to care for the sickly Zeena because of her own difficult family circumstances. Once Mattie comes into Ethan's life, the tragedy of what his life had become intensifies. Had he never met Mattie, Ethan most likely would have lived out his life, numb to his own misery, and died to be buried next to his wife in the Frome family cemetery. After loving Mattie, though, Ethan cannot endure the thought of living as he had lived before her arrival. Again, chance and circumstance determine his fate. He is too poor to provide for Zeena and take Mattie away, and his suicide attempt fails when he does not succeed in driving the sled directly into the big elm tree. Consequently, he is crippled, Mattie is paralyzed, and Zeena becomes her caretaker. The three of them remain trapped together on the farm.
Ethan's tragedy is that his life was wasted; the future he could have had was unfilled. All he could have become was lost. He found love, but he found it too late, and the memory of the girl Mattie had once been surely tortured him. His spirit became as cold and barren as the Starkfield winters. Heroically, some would say, Ethan struggled against forces he could not defeat, and once he was defeated, he endured.
Ethan Frome has continuously put his desires aside. When Ethan went off to college to study architecture, something he has always loved, he is forced to leave and take care of his mother and the farm. Then when his mother dies instead of going back to college he marries Zeena because he believed it was the right thing to do after she helped him take care of his mother. Ethan only felt responsibility in regards to Zeena and nothing more. Ethan then becomes trapped in a unhappy marriage while someone he loves is only inches from him and he can not do anything because his strong sense of responsibility will not allow him do anything except to care for Zeena and the farm. However the one time he lets go of his reigns and decides to live a little he is thrust into a life where is disfigured and now have to take care of is ex-lovers paralyzed body.