Since Ethan is the novel's most developed character, the protagonist with whom we most identify and sympathize, the effects of staying in Starkfield can be seen most fully in his life. As a young man, Ethan was curious and sociable, a bright mind who longed for an education. He wanted to be an engineer and live in an exciting place--a city--where life was rich and interesting. In order to fulfill his dreams and ambitions, he left Starkfield to attend college, but he had to give up school to come home and take care of his ailing parents and the family farm. Once he returns to Starkfield, Ethan is trapped by a series of circumstances, as well as his own character, and never escapes.
When the narrator meets him, Ethan is a man who appears much older than his years, physically crippled, yet projecting a certain physical strength. In his perpetual silence, however, Ethan communicates such unstated misery that the narrator finds him both sad and mysterious. As Ethan's story unfolds, the effects on him of staying in Starkfield become very clear.
Life in Starkfield is one of loneliness. Once winter arrives, Ethan lives in almost complete isolation, cut off from human companionship by the forces of nature. It is his fear of such isolation and loneliness that compels him to marry Zeena, so that he will not spend the winter alone at the farm. By staying in Starkfield, Ethan is denied an education and cut off from society. None of his intellectual potential is developed, and his whole world becomes the drudgery and poverty of the farm and occasional trips to the backward village. Staying in Starkfield destroys Ethan's hopes and dreams and breaks his spirit.