Ethan Frome depicts a nightmarish world, completely empty of the warmth and joy to be found in loving human interaction. Set in the cold and harsh landscapes of Starkfield, Massachusetts, the story is told by a narrator who attempts to discover what tragedy caused the enigmatic Ethan Frome’s literal and spiritual crippling. Piecing together information, the narrator learns that years earlier Ethan married Zenobia Pierce, a distant cousin who nursed his mother during her final illness. Shortly after the wedding, Ethan realized that his was a marriage without love and that he had simply exchanged the suffocating responsibility of a sick mother for the suffocating tie of a sick wife. Ethan, once filled with aspirations, finds instead that he is lashed to a wife whom he loathes and to a near-sterile farm that he cannot sell.
With lightness and life, Mattie Silver (Zenobia’s younger cousin) comes to the Frome house to help with chores. Mattie and Ethan fall in love, yet the strictures of conventional morality and Frome’s own strong sense of duty and loyalty prevent him from doing any more than voicing a tender, painfully pathetic love avowal. When Mattie is forced to leave, she decides that she would rather die than be separated from Ethan. Her plan, to crash their sled into an elm at the bottom of a steep slope, is tacitly agreed to by Ethan. However, the two survive the death ride, and the lovers’ suicide pact takes on a cruel twist. Mattie and Ethan, crippled and dispirited, share a living death in which their caretaker is the suddenly hardy Zenobia.
Ethan personifies the grievous waste of failed greatness. His body, a metaphor for his spirit, is described as “lame” and “warped,” and his once gallant and noble head rests on once “strong shoulders” which are now “bent out of shape.” In Ethan, the narrator confronts a prodigious soul grown weary, warped, and lame, and the narrator sees in Ethan’s ghastly alteration the suffering of a misspent life. Ethan, believing his renunciation of Mattie was motivated by a sense of honor, fails to see that the moral significance of the situation was not as clear and definable as he believed. Centering his choice on duty, not love, Ethan failed to consider the effect of his decision on Zenobia, in a marriage with a man who found her abhorrent, or on Mattie, who apparently did love him. Frome also never understood his own fear of change and of intimate sexual expression.
Despite its apparent bleakness, Ethan Frome articulates Edith Wharton’s most humanistic theme: The contact that people make with others can be the most meaningful thing that emerges from the stark field of human existence. The greatest tragedy is the failure to establish meaningful involvement with another.
Ethan Frome is twenty-one years old when he marries Zenobia Pierce, a distant cousin who nursed his sick mother during her last illness. It is a wedding without love. Zenobia, called Zeena, has no home of her own, and Ethan is lonely, and so they are married. Zeena’s talkativeness, which was pleasing to Ethan during his mother’s illness, quickly subsides, and within a year of their marriage, Zeena develops the sickliness that is to plague her husband all her life. Ethan becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his life. He is an intelligent and ambitious young man who hoped to become an engineer or a chemist. He soon, however, finds himself stuck with a wife he detests and a farm he cannot sell.
The arrival of Mattie Silver brightens the gloomy house considerably. Mattie, Zeena’s cousin, comes to Starkfield partly because she has no other place to go and partly because Zeena feels in need of a companion around the house. Ethan sees in Mattie’s goodness and beauty every fine quality that Zeena lacks.
When Zeena suggests that Ethan help Mattie find a husband, he begins to realize how much he is attracted to the girl. When he goes to a church social to bring Mattie home and sees her dancing with the son of a rich Irish grocer, he realizes that he is jealous of this rival and in love with Mattie. On his way home with her, Ethan feels his love for Mattie more than ever, for on that occasion, as on others, she flatters him by asking him questions on astronomy. His dreams of happiness are short-lived, however, for when he reaches home, Zeena is her nagging, sour self. The contrast between Zeena and Mattie impresses him more and more.
One day, Ethan returns from his morning’s work to find Zeena dressed in her traveling clothes. She is going to visit a new doctor in nearby Bettsbridge. Ordinarily, Ethan would have objected to the journey because of the expensive remedies that Zeena is in the habit of buying on her trips to town. On this occasion, however, he is overjoyed at the news of Zeena’s proposed departure, for he realizes that he and Mattie will have the house to themselves overnight.
With Zeena out of the way, Ethan again becomes a changed man. Later in the evening, before supper, Ethan and Mattie sit quietly before the fire, just as Ethan imagines happily married couples would do. During supper, the cat breaks Zeena’s favorite pickle dish, which Mattie used to brighten up the table. In spite of the accident, they spend the rest of the evening happily. They talk about going sledding together, and Ethan tells Mattie shyly—and perhaps wistfully—that he saw Ruth Varnum and Ned Hale, a young engaged couple, stealing a kiss earlier in the evening.
In the morning Ethan is happy, but not because of anything out of the ordinary the night before. In fact, when he went to bed, he remembered sadly that he did not so much as touch Mattie’s fingertips or look into her eyes. He is happy because he can imagine what a wonderful life he could have if he were married to Mattie. He gets glue to mend the pickle dish, but Zeena’s unexpected return prevents him from repairing it. His spirits are further dampened when Zeena tells him that the Bettsbridge doctor considers her quite sick. He advised her to get a girl to relieve her of all household duties, a stronger girl than Mattie. She already engaged the new girl. Ethan is dumbfounded by this development. In her insistence that Mattie be sent away, Zeena gives the first real hint that she may be aware of gossip about her husband and Mattie.
When Ethan tells Mattie of Zeena’s decision, the girl is as crestfallen as Ethan. Zeena interrupts their lamentations, however, by coming downstairs for something to eat. After supper, she requires stomach powders to relieve a case of heartburn. In getting the powders, which she hides in a spot supposedly unknown to Mattie, Zeena discovers the broken pickle dish, which was carefully reassembled. Detecting the deception and learning that Mattie is responsible for the broken dish, Zeena calls Mattie insulting names and shows plainly that the girl will be sent away at the earliest possible moment.
Faced with the certainty of Mattie’s departure, Ethan thinks of running away with her. His poverty and his sense of responsibility to Zeena permit no solution to his problem, only greater despair. On the morning Mattie is to leave Starkfield, Ethan, against the wishes of his wife, insists on driving Mattie to the station. The thought of parting is unbearable to both. They decide to take the sleigh ride that Ethan promised Mattie the night before. Down the hill they go, narrowly missing a large elm tree at the bottom. Mattie, who told Ethan that she would rather die than leave him, begs until Ethan agrees to take her down the hill a second time and to run the sled into the elm at the bottom of the slope; but they fail to hit the tree with force sufficient to kill them. The death they seek becomes a living death, for in the accident Mattie suffers a permanent spine injury and Ethan an incurable lameness. The person who receives Mattie into her home, who waits on her, and who cooks for Ethan is Zeena.