Is there a moral to Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton? At first I thought the moral was "Don't take on what you can't handle" but I am not entirely sure.
An argument can certainly be made for this moral of warning against the assuming of responsibilities to which a person cannot resign himself. For, in a moment of weakness in his fear of living through the winter in isolation, Ethan Frome asks Zeena, the nurse hired to care for his mother, to marry him.
Indeed, there are major themes of Passion and Repression, Escape and Freedom, and Isolation and Loneliness in Wharton's novella, all of which are consequential to the choices that Ethan makes. In the Introduction, the narrator notes,
Ethan "seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface...[living] in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access."
So perhaps the moral of this narrative can be rephrased some: Before all else, one must live one's life authentically; only then can he extend himself in love to others. If Ethan's mother had truly loved him, she would have encouraged him to finish his studies. Then, he could have been fulfilled and found someone with whom he could have lived an authentic life, unstrapped to forced obligation. Furthermore, he could have extended his charity to others without repression, or isolation, or loneliness and not felt so bereft of opportunity and bitter as he has.
He was too young, too strong, too full of the sap of living, to submit so easily to the destruction of his hopes. Must he wear out all his years at the side of a bitter querulous woman?
Clearly, it is his repression that tears at Ethan continuously. Had he followed his own path to self-advancement, he would not have had to live with resentment and repression, and he still could have extended his charity to others.
There are so many underlying morals in Ethan Frome. Two that can think of right now are:
The importance of Family versus self ambition. Ethan has been through so much because of how much he gave up for his family. Ethan left school to take care of his mother. He gave up love in order to take care of his family. Ethan gave up any future he had for his family
Be careful what you wish for. Throughout the book Ethan is always longing for Zeena's cousin, wanting/wishing to keep her by his side. Well in the end he got his wish but now she's in no better shape than Zeenobia.