In Ethan Frome, what are some of the internal conflicts that trouble Ethan?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When one of the residents exclaims,

"That man touch a hundred?
He looks as if he were dead and in hell now!"

the terribly conflicting life of Ethan Frome is evinced on his face. From his youth, Ethan has had the conflict of his desires deferred by duty to women. Thus, his greatest suffering comes from "moral isolation too remote for casual access" as the narrator of Wharton's narrative remarks.

Ethan's youth

1.Ethan Frome's intellectual and social development are both stultified by his obligations to his mother. He postpones his education to care for both his parents until their deaths.
2. During the time that his mother was ill, Ethan develops some affection for Zenobia, who is hired to care for Mrs. Frome.  When he marries Zeena because she is there during an especially bleak winter, and he 

...was seized with an unreasoning dread of being left alone on the farm; and before he knew what he was doing he had asked her to stay there with him.

However, Zeena does agree to sell the farm and sawmill and try their luck in a larger town. But, as time passes, she becomes more withdrawn and remote, and Ethan worries that the loss of identity would be too trying for her. So, he is left with his conflicting feelings about living on his remote land.

Ethan's adulthood

4. Frome's growing feelings for Mattie Silver, who comes to nurse Zeena, become increasingly conflicted as the stronger his love grows, the more he wishes to be solely with Mattie. He begins to live a deceitful life; for example, he tells Zeena that he has obtained money from the Hales.

5. Ethan experiences an internal conflict when he begins to write Zeena a letter, informing her that he is going West. But, as he scans the fares, Ethan thinks,

A moment ago he had wondered what he and Mattie were to live on when they reached the West; now he saw that he had not even the money to take her there....There was no way out--none. He was a prisoner for life....

6. As Mattie and he decide to commit suicide by sledding dangerously, Frome feels torn emotionally, 

They stood looking at each other as if the eyes of each were straining to absorb and hold fast the other's image. There were things he had to say to her before they parted, but he could not say them in that place of summer memories....

And, this is an internal conflict which will forever be with Ethan Frome as he is tormented daily by the victory of Zeena in keeping him form having Mattie as he would like.