Edith Wharton employs the word exanimate in describing the setting of her novella. This is the mot juste, the perfect word, to describe Ethan Frome. All the passions in his blood were dashed against the tree that fateful day with Mattie because he has always depended upon others for feelings. That is why he asked Zeena to marry him when his mother died.
Just to be able to put up with Zeena even knowing all that she was doing to him financially, psychologically, and socially, tells anyone that Ethan's level of tolerance is his strongest characteristic. He seems to be able to accept the many disappointments he has had in life. However, that very well may be simply pessimism on his part, and the expectation of the worst.
Other than that it is very hard for me to say that he is a strong man in any other scenario because he never learned to put his foot down and take his role as the head of the household. He did stand up to Zeena maybe once in the entire story, but we know that his last escape with Mattie was nothing but a very cowardly way to leave Zeena without confrontation and opting for death as a better option. That does not say much about a man's strength of character.
Ethan clearly has a strength of character in some regards: he leaves his home in the northeast to attend school in Florida; he's willing to leave school when he's clearly needed at home; he stays and works hard to eke a living from their meagre farm; he faces the consequences of his bad decision after the "smash-up.
In other areas, Ethan exhibits a weakness of character: he marries Zeena out of pressure, not love; he can't stand up to Zeena even about the most important things; he lacks the ambition and drive to go after his dream of a life with Mattie; he takes the easy way out by letting Mattie determine their suicide attempt; he fails to finish what he started, resulting in the "smash-up."
Well put, mshurn. I agree that he is strong, but not courageous. He lacks that American spirit to strike out on his own, however unlikely that opportunity seemed. With the his father getting kicked in the head, the series of events that entrap him control his perceived sense of duty. This deserves to be described as honorable character. He does lack a compassionate side for Mattie, shown by his joy in her desperation. He orders her around with a growl during their evening together and is thoughtless to help her as she clears the table.
Ethan is strong in that he endures such misery and deprivation for so long without losing his mind or violating his own moral principles. Ethan is strong in that he denies his own emotional and intellectual needs and puts aside his own dreams to take care of others at his personal expense. And he is strong in that he works hard every day to meet his responsibilities and eke out a meager living on the the family farm he inherited, just as it was inherited by his father before him. In other words, Ethan finds the strength to sacrifice his own spirit in order to live a "decent" life, as defined by his society and his heritage. Ethan is a prisoner of his own conscience, but he is strong enough to endure his incarceration, until Mattie comes into his life.
Not in my opinion!
He basically does whatever the women in his life tell him to do...including to attempt suicide!
People generally consider him to be spineless and weak--he basically wants to cheat on his very ill wife!
Not the nicest guy!
Enotes has great resources on this novel and I've included the links for you below! :)
The reason why Ethan was such a strong character, in my opinion, is because he surprised his desire to not only live but love. Ethan dreamed all the time of living in a big city, designing architecture and attending college but that was all thrown out when his father died and he had to take care of his mother. He though the best thing to do was look after the farm and his mother than going out and pursuing his dream. Also no matter how bad of a marriage that Ethan is in with Zenobia and has fallen in love with Mattie, he fails to cave into his passion. Ethan is truly a strong man.